By Jessica Connor
FORT MILL—It's Thursday night in Fort Mill, and a crowd is gathering in the bright open sanctuary at Grace Community United Methodist Church.
Loud, fun praise music booms from the speakers, while newcomers and long-timers alike are chatting excitedly, catching up or just hugging and grinning.
Acceptance and courtesy are everywhere “ someone holds open the door for a woman with crutches or a man in a wheelchair. Autistic? No problem. Like to sing at will? Yes, please! The noise a little much? Here s a quiet space right outside the door.
Just walking in, you get the sense you ve been there forever, and these are your very best friends who will do anything to make you feel at home.
I love coming to church, says 18-year-old Katelyn Massey, carefully weighing her words, adding with a grin that church has become her hobby. I like the music, and I like being able to spend time with people like me.
Massey and dozens of other special needs teens and adults come to Grace Community on the third Thursday of every month for Forever Friends, a special needs program that includes worship, contemporary Christian praise music, devotions, personal reflections, testimonies, games, skits, refreshments and more. The atmosphere is fresh and lively, and entirely catered to short attention spans and other challenges people with special needs often have.
The church also hosts a Friendship Connection Sunday school class each week, as well as a welcoming and accommodating Sunday morning worship experience.
It s a very accepting church, ministry organizer Beth Austin said. They praise God in their own way and are very welcome in the church.
˜We can do this
Austin, who has a child with special needs herself, said it can be a battle for families to fight for special needs programming in schools, recreation and the community. Church is supposed to be a welcoming environment, but many special needs families feel unwelcome in worship because their child must endure activities that are extremely difficult for them: sitting for prolonged periods, no fidgeting, no talking or singing out of turn. Many families are unchurched because the traditional church experience is not a good fit.
They stay home “ they don t want to be turned down, Austin said. It can be overwhelming for people.
When Grace Community first started, about six years ago, Austin went to the pastors with statistics on special needs families in the area “ and information about how many of them are typically unchurched “ and suggested the church host some sort of program or ministry for them. They visited Circle of Friends in Charlotte, brainstormed about ideas that would be good for Grace Community, and prayed.
We all said, ˜We can do this, Austin recalled.
When we first started, even when we were small and meeting in a gym, we always said we wanted to be a gift-oriented church, said the Rev. Randy Madsen, noting they looked around and saw what God had provided. We counted an inordinate number of adults with special needs to be a gift.
The first time they held a Forever Friends event, Madsen said they put out 30 chairs, thinking if they filled them all, they would be blessed. Instead, almost 200 people came.
We were all in tears, and Forever Friends has been going ever since, Madsen said.
The program is now in its fourth year and draws adults and teens with physical and mental disabilities from group and individual homes, as well as their friends and occasionally family members. Madsen said special needs families today represent about one-fifth of the Grace Community s congregation; he said special needs ministry is one of the things at the center of the congregation s call and identity.
Cathy Trotter, worship pastor, said being with the Forever Friends each month lifts her heart and shows her the true way people need to worship the Lord. She calls the third Thursday nights at Grace Community the place where we can get genuine heartfelt worship.
It s the true example of unconditional love, Trotter said. They re not embarrassed. They walk in the door and they love it. They re so free, so open. It s beautiful to see these people worship. They re not trying to impress people. They re doing what feels right to them.
It s zero-baggage worship, Madsen agreed.
Chunked-up Gospel works for attendees
Those who come month after month for Forever Friends say the ministry has been life-changing.
Melodie McLachlan s twin sons, age 21, are autistic and have attention deficit disorder, which can make traditional worship rather trying.
They have the attention span of a gnat, and trying to sit through a normal church service is very difficult, McLachlan said.
Not only is it hard to control their bodies and minds for that length of time, but it s also really tough for them to understand the sermon. But at the Forever Friends program, the Gospel is woven throughout the service, chunked up into short, easy pieces that drive home the message in a fun, engaging, movement-oriented way. The McLachlans have been coming since the start, and they love it.
Dean Hartness said the exciting, boisterous style of Forever Friends helps him enjoy church.
It s hard to be myself in traditional church, Hartness said, dancing to the music as he talks. Here, I m meeting a lot of friends, and it s fun hearing the singing and the praising and all that.
Jeanette Lewis, who also has special needs, said she loves how at Forever Friends, e
veryone likes and accepts her.
I like going to church, Lewis said, It s a lot of fun, with the music and the praying. I wish a lot of churches would do this.
J.R. Stevens attends both Forever Friends and a biker church, and he loves the feeling of being accepted in a relaxed, spirited atmosphere.
I enjoy the music, and I get to meet a bunch of new people, Stevens said, a smile spreading fully across his face as he talks about the fellowship and the fun he experiences week after week.
Confronting the unknown
Clara Horton, who brings a friend with special needs to the program almost every month, said that fellowship and fun are critical.
They need this; they can understand it, Horton said. We don t realize sometimes the church doesn t always welcome (people with special needs), and the fact that they can feel free to worship in their way is really important.
Austin thinks more churches across the conference would greatly benefit from including a special needs service in their offerings. She has seen the ministry transform not only special needs families, but everyone.
People are afraid of the unknown, Austin said, noting that if we can teach people more about difference and accommodating that unknown, we reap greater rewards than we can imagine.
It s contagious, Austin added. I really think God has His hand on where He thinks these things should happen.
Want to start a Forever Friends program at your church? Grace Community wants to help you. Call 803-548-4078 or email [email protected] .