May 6, 2019

Pulling Out All the Stops

Sound and light in worship services excite our God-created sensory systems. While some worshipers welcome them, they could make others feel uncomfortable. Barb Newman shares some ideas on “sensory friendly” worship environments.

The service was packed. The worship team had been preparing worship options throughout Holy Week that were beautifully planned and meaningful. Today, however, was the crowning glory of this time of remembering. As the worship team started the service with outstanding energy and high volume, the child sitting next to me quickly clamped his hands over his ears. What was a delight to my senses was uncomfortable for him.

As I listened to many others tell about how their congregation “pulls out the stops” on an organ or with additional instruments or great festivities on Easter Sunday, I could not help but wonder how many congregants covered their ears in those settings. After all, movie theaters offer “sensory friendly showings”; what might that mean in our congregational settings?

While it’s always hard to find a balance between the varied, God-created sensory systems in the people who participate in any worship setting, some communities have given significant thought to this issue.

One congregation has invested in some noise-cancelling headphones. In the weekly bulletin you will find the statement: “If any of your family members would benefit from noise-cancelling headphones, they are available to borrow at the welcome station.”

Another congregation has a worship area with three connected parts. The main area receives most of the sound while an alcove to the side receives somewhat less sound while watching through livestream. The original “Cry Room” has been turned into an even more protected area where people can still see the service but experience much less sound and have some freedom of movement in that space.

In yet another church, people are invited to worship in three distinct areas: the main worship area, the community room where there are round tables and chairs set up with a livestream feed into that area, and the “sensory room” where lighting is calm, sound is down, and the area is stocked with some key equipment to allow worshipers to keep sensory systems satisfied while still engaging in worship.

While there will still be those who are thrilled with the trumpet blast and others who will head for the door due to the pain it inflicted, it’s exciting to see how congregations are considering built-in options so each one can best enter in to worship. What a joy to see Philippians 2:3-4 in action. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Barbara J. Newman was a church and school consultant for CLC Network, program affiliate of CICW, author of several books (Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship; Nuts and Bolts of Christian Education; Autism and Your Church; and others) and a frequent national speaker at educational conferences and churches. In addition to writing and speaking, Barb enjoyed working in her classroom at Zeeland Christian School in Michigan. Barb passed away in 2020.