We Are the Church Together: Planning a Worship Service Involving Persons with Mental Impairments

The elderly gentleman approached me determinedly from the center aisle, obviously intent on talking to me about what we had just experienced together in our evening service. With both hands he clasped mine and said huskily, tears welling up in his eyes, "Tonight, for the first time in my life, I'm proud to be the father of a mentally handicapped son."

This man and his son with Down syndrome had joined with other members of the congregation and community in our first-ever Friendship worship service. ("Friendship" takes it's name from the Friendship Series, a religious education program developed by CRC Publications for persons with mental impairments. At this printing, there are over a thousand "Friendship" groups meeting weekly across the United States and Canada.) Together we experienced an infectious spirit of exuberance and joy in the Lord. Together we came to truly understand that before the face of Jesus there is neither male nor female, mentally impaired nor "normal," blind nor sighted, mute nor vocal… we were, and are, all one (to take paraphrasing liberties with Gal. 3:28).

That first service encouraged the Ancaster Friendship group and congregation to plan other services. Now three or four times per year, the students of our local Friendship program invite neighboring Friendship groups to join our congregation for a worship service followed by a fellowship hour. Four hundred to five hundred worshipers fill our church at each one of these services—many of them people with no church background.

Planning a Friendship Service

The style of a Friendship worship service is uncommon for Reformed Christians, for whom public worship sometimes has an air of sacred theater. Our traditional inclination has been for quiet decorum (decency and good order) with stately Genevan tunes and lofty preaching. But such liturgical emphases are foreign and unintelligible to the students in our Friendship programs.

In a Friendship worship service there is a simple spirit of holy, enthusiastic joy in singing, clapping, applause, and spontaneous outbursts. Be prepared for the unorthodox!

Some of the following suggestions may help you plan a Friendship service for your congregation:

1. The Service. The Friendship group supplies the pastor with a theme for the service, in line with Friendship Series lesson materials. Around this theme, pastor and song leader select Scripture and songs. (A sample liturgy is printed below.)

The Friendship group is responsible for inviting other clubs and advertising this service in other church bulletins. Various parts of the service—such as Scripture readings, musical offerings, solos, testimonies, and other worship activities—may be assigned to students. Our students serve as ushers and collect the offerings as well.

The pastor is responsible for the official acts of ministry: the greeting, the "sermon," and the blessing. The song leader, usually the Friendship group song leader, leads the rest of the service. We encourage the use of various musical instruments. Friendship students bring (or are given) tambourines, wood blocks, and shakers. College and high school students join in the accompaniment on piano and guitar.

2. No Segregation. Our concept of Friendship worship is rooted in Galatians 3:28, and we encourage the integration of Friendship students in worship as much as possible. Hence we discourage segregated seating in a Friendship service. However, teachers and students do sit together throughout the sanctuary. And invariably, the Friendship students prefer to be near the front of the sanctuary, since in our service they are called to the front as a group, teachers and students, to lead in singing.

3. Sermon. Understandably, simplicity is important in a Friendship worship service. The liturgy is clear and simply defined. The songs and readings are simple and brief. The sermon becomes an extended object lesson, parable, or role-play on the theme of the service. Usually, I have kept my "sermon" within seven to ten minutes, using pictures, physical objects, and even persons. Thankfully, there are many published resources available to help pastors in creating an informative, interesting lesson for persons with mental disabilities. I have avoided the use of participatory prayers because of awkward requests (e.g., praying for a long-dead grandmother). What prayers there are should be brief and understandable.

The whole service should be concluded within sixty to seventy minutes. For a variety of reasons, the Friendship students are dismissed first (some are in wheelchairs, others have cerebral palsy, and others have to be the hosts at coffee stations).

4. Sensitivity. There must be at all times a spirit of genuine appreciation in such a service. In worship, there are no spectators; all are participants. Hence, every effort is made to avoid a condescending spirit or tone. Since we and our Friendship students are equals before the face of God, we discourage the use of terms such as "kids" or "the mentally retarded" or "children." The lingua franca is "persons with mental impairments" or "students" or "friends."

Our desire in these services is to recognize childlikeness of faith and joy in the Lord. We realize that in turning and becoming like one of these (the ones society sees as "the least"), we appreciate more profoundly the grace of our Father, and we abandon the adult pretentiousness of which persons with mental impairments are so wonderfully free.

The services have become a ministry of love to the parents and families of persons with impairments. Many families have discovered the love of Christ through the Friendship program and services.

Who's Handicapped?

After that same first-ever Friendship worship service, two amazed third-year college students came to talk to me. They commented about the exuberant joy demonstrated by the Friendship students. "They're not handicapped in worship," they told me. "We are."

Think about it.


[Unless otherwise noted, songs are printed on a songsheet.]

Call to Worship

Congregation's Statement of Intent: "I've Come to Tell"


The Greeting of God:

The Lord is our God.

He made us, and we belong to him.

We are God's children and God's people.

God's love and care for us will go on forever.

Grace to you and peace from our triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


God's People Greet Each Other

Songs of Praise:

"I've Got the Joy"
"This is the Day"
"Lord, I Want to Be a Christian"
"Open Your Heart to Jesus"

Reading from Scripture: John 14:1-11

Offering of Music

Text of Scripture: John 20:30-31

Meditation: "Jesus Who Does Miracles"

Prayer (concluded with "Open Our Eyes, Lord")

Songs of Praise:

"Amazing Grace"
"Tell All the World that Jesus Loves You"
"If You're Happy"
"God Is So Good"
"Father, We Love You"


Songs of Praise:

"Rejoice in the Lord Always"
"I Will Sing Unto the Lord"
"He's Got the Whole World"

Benediction and Choral Amen.

Bernard H. De Jonge is a pastor at Community Christian Reformed Church, Kitchener, Ontario.


Reformed Worship 19 © March 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.