Special Needs Boy Removed From Worship
Can the values of entertainment and hospitality coexist?

Many churches focus on providing a compelling worship experience. The desire is to attract people to an excellent production where they can sing, learn, and leave feeling renewed. For decades we've called this approach "seeker-sensitive." But does that sensitivity have limits?

News reports broke last week about a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy being removed from Elevation Church for being a "distraction" during the Easter service. The boy's mother said, "Easter Sunday he got all dressed up, got ready to go, no small feat with a kiddo like him." But, according to the report, after the opening prayer inside the sanctuary the boy voiced his own kind of "Amen."

"We were very abruptly escorted out," the mother said.

Following the incident, the boy's mother contacted church leaders with an offer to start a ministry for special needs children. She told reporters that the idea was "rejected."

After the story was broadcast on the local news (you can watch the video here), Elevation Church issued a statement in which they clarified that "...this young man and his family were not removed from our church. They were escorted to a nearby section of our church where they watched the service in its entirety."

The church also said, "It is our goal at Elevation to offer a distraction free environment for all our guests. We look forward to resolving any misunderstanding that has occurred."

We certainly don't want to jump on the pile and criticize Elevation Church for what may be a simple misunderstanding. But this incident does raise larger questions about what may be conflicting values in our churches. Specifically, the values of entertainment and hospitality.

Elevation, which probably represents the views of many churches, says they want to "offer a distraction free environment." I'm assuming this means avoiding distractions from among the congregation, because in my experience there is plenty that happens on the stage at churches that keeps me distracted from God. Smoke machines and lasers, really? But I digress.

In our desire to be distraction free, must we remove individuals from our corporate worship whom God has called to himself? What are we communicating about the church, God's Kingdom, and the character of God himself, if people with special needs are not fully welcomed? And we don't have to focus on these extreme examples like the boy with cerebral palsy. In many of our congregations we don't even want non-special needs children in our worship gatherings.

I'm not advocating a disorderly and chaotic form of worship, but I'm not sure Paul was arguing in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 for an entirely distraction free gathering either. When I pay $10 at the cinema, I expect a distraction free experience. (I saw Super 8 this weekend...worth every penny.) When I shell out $100 to see a Broadway production, I expect a distraction free experience. But when I come freely to worship the Living God and gather with his people whom he describes as the foolish, weak, and despised in the world (1 Cor 1:26-28)–I do not expect a distraction free environment.

June 13, 2011

Displaying 1–10 of 46 comments


December 02, 2012  4:38pm

We as parents of a 24 year old profoundly disabled man have just been told to remove him during the sermon as he is making too much noise because of toothache. He has been baptised as a member we thought folks love for him overode the noise but the minister visited our house the other night to discuss this and used his authority in no uncertain terms to say remove him during the sermon

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July 05, 2011  5:57am

I would say three things: Firstly, the use of the word 'guest' tells me this is not a church as I would understand it - there are no guests, we are all part of the body of Christ. Secondly, responding to God is at the core of worship and it sounds like that is what this young person was doing. Chat about the human context might be distraction, but responding to God is what worship is. Thirdly, most Christians regard abortion as, at most an unfortunate necessity, but often as thoroughly undesirable, therefore churches above all places should be recognising and valuing the contribution made by individuals with significant disabilities and their families. Our, very small church is greatly enhanced by the presence of a significantly disabled young person who often points us to the presence of God in our midst. She is fully a member of the body of Christ, and a blessing to us all

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Rebecca in SC

June 28, 2011  1:07am

Psalm 100 says Make a joyful noise unto the Lord! Wow - I think that this church missed the boat somewhere. We have a special needs son with autism who has taught our family more about God and Christianity than anyone or anything else!!! He calls Communion "community." And that's exactly what we are called to is community. Jesus came for the sick, the wounded, the lost, the lame, the blind, the sinner! and we are all sinners in need of a Savior. Unfortunately, those who have not lived with a special needs child can be so insensitive, rude and clueless. Blessed are the merciful.

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June 24, 2011  3:02pm

I appreciate your piece here. You give good thoughts. People are to be removed from the fellowship of the Body for unrepentant sinful behaviors, and what this boy did was not a sin. However, referring to this kid as "Special Needs Boy"- I mean, you didn't mean anything by it, but he's not a 'special needs boy'. He's a boy with special needs. A boy with a disability. He's a boy. But, I appreciate this article very much.

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June 22, 2011  12:22pm

It would have been a real treat for me to see this young man worshiping God in his own way. Who are they to try to mold him into what is "non-distracting" for them. I am perfectly sure that his honest heartfelt "amen" was received by the Lord with gladness. I have a family member with CP, and know how life is a challenge for him - what a joy to see him succeed at whatever he tries with the help of God. And he knows where his help comes from! He may be a minor distraction at times, but anyone who was so distracted by his honest praise is too sensitive to be in a crowded church. Shame on you "Elevation Church" for making this young man feel "less." Shame on you!

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June 21, 2011  9:50am

Our church is anything but distraction free: we meet in an art gallery, there are noises come from above and below of weddings being cleared out or art being transferred, children sit in the front or on the floor or run down the dusty corridors until they go to sunday school, and it's usually super hot or super cold depending on the season. And we love it. Because God meets us there - and in our overly distracted everyday lives - and celebrates LIFE with us. Life with all it's noises and shapes and sounds. I think if we truly wanted distraction free worship, we'd never get out of bed in the morning, let alone leave our house and join imperfect people and imperfect institutions together in imperfect worship. Why exactly do we think God won't be at work within imperfection or distraction?

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June 21, 2011  12:20am

This type of behavior is what drove me away from the church. I didn't want to go but I had to find something to hold onto. The church has become the world. I was trying to find some sort of thing to take shelter from a predatory society. The church drove me away. I finally found a way to deal with reality. But I didn't want to leave the very thing I grew up with.

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June 20, 2011  3:53pm

"We will sacrifice the many to make sure the one is not offended, that's wrong." No, that's not wrong, that's putting Matthew 18:12 into practice.

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June 17, 2011  11:25am

What about all the people in the congregation that are constantly shouting out "amen", "hallelujah", "praise God", "come on now"....these are all continual statements shouted out during the sermon at my church and yet those are not considered distractions...hmmm, strange.

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June 17, 2011  12:06am

"Elevation" - huh. Just another distracting church service name.

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