Sensory Sundays: Church Designs Worship Service Especially for Those on the Spectrum
By Sarah Hunnicutt
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” —Matt 25:40 NIV
These words of Jesus have been the motivation behind the creative new Sensory Sunday worship experiences taking place quarterly at Staunton First Church of God in Staunton, Virginia. When Pastor Kyle and wife Kylie Yates first proposed the idea of offering services specifically tailored to accommodate those with sensory differences, they knew it was a bold move. It would change nearly everything about how most twenty-first-century worship services operate.
There is much to consider when creating a worship experience that takes into account the various sensitivities of people across the spectrum of sensory differences: light brightness; music volume; if the sermon is presented primarily from the pulpit or down in the aisle; the length of sermon; and even whether or not the sermon should contain rhetorical questions. The congregation of Staunton FCHOG, under the guidance of church leadership and Kyle and Kylie, were ready to face these questions head-on, knowing that reaching “the least of these” today includes creating a safe space in the church for a group of people and their families that are often forgotten.
“It took a lot of research. We couldn’t find a lot. There were some Sunday school classes for adults and kids with autism,” said Kylie, who has a degree in childhood development with a minor in special education. But she couldn’t find anything specifically addressing how to integrate that same community into corporate worship. “So I pulled out my old textbooks and started researching.”
Kyle, Kylie, and the leadership team ensured the congregation knew going into the first Sensory Sunday service that things would look different. “But,” said Kylie, “it’s still worship.” This new form of worship included fidget spinners, a shorter sermon, and a simplified service.
For the first time in a long time, families were able to worship together knowing their family members with sensory differences were entering a safe space where their differences were not only acknowledged, but honored. “To have the family together almost brings them to tears,” said Kyle, reflecting on the experience of one family after their first Sensory Sunday.
Since May, Staunton FCHOG has facilitated two other Sensory Sunday services, and each one has presented its own challenges and growth opportunities. “It’s not one size fits all,” said Kylie. “We’re still making adjustments.”
“You can plan all you want,” echoed Kyle, “but you’ll need to think on your feet. You need a good team.” Staunton FCHOG has a team committed to making Sensory Sundays a success. Several members of the church work with the differently abled population and people across the spectrum of sensory differences, and these members have been an invaluable resource in this new endeavor.
“It’s like the parable of the ninety-nine sheep,” said Kyle as he reflected on the “why” of Sensory Sundays. “Just because we change one Sunday, it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped worshiping. We’re going after the lost sheep like Jesus would. We need to reach out and leave our comfort zones. We have to let go of the bells and whistles to reach people that God cares about.”
The next Sensory Sunday will take place in February 2023. Go to www.stauntonfirstchurchofgod.org to learn more about the church or contact Kyle directly at email@example.com for more information about Sensory Sundays.
Sarah Hunnicutt recently served the Church of God as a missionary for Global Strategy to Roatan, Honduras. She also serves as a freelance writer for Church of God Ministries.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.
Feature (top) photo: Staunton First Church of God exterior (photography by Kyle Yates).