Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Christ-Centered Inclusive Education:
North Heights Lutheran Church


John E. Rynders is a Professor Emeritus in Special Education Programs at the University of Minnesota, and a member of North Heights Lutheran Church

Noreen O. Rickenbach is Director of Children’s Ministries at both campuses of North Heights Lutheran Church, Arden Hills and Roseville, Minnesota

Aaron, a six-year-old boy with Down syndrome, and David, a nine-year-old boy who has multiple disabilities, attend regular Sunday school classes (though on different campuses) at North Heights Lutheran Church in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. In spite of having substantial communicative and intellectual limitations, which sometimes present socialization challenges in the inclusive (main-streamed) setting, the boys and their classmates benefit from inclusion, growing in the ability to maintain friendships with others and in their Christian faith.

North Heights Lutheran Church, a two-campus church of approximately 8,000 members, believes every person is created by God and has a unique purpose for his or her life. The church, ministering to about 2000 children and youth each week, has a calling to introduce Jesus to children at a young age so that they eventually make a life-long commitment to Him. Every opportunity is taken to minister the love of Christ to every child who walks through the church doors. There are ministries and activities for children of all levels of ability and diverse backgrounds nearly every day of the week.

The value placed on inclusion of persons with disabilities by North Heights can be traced to a conversation that occurred about 20 years ago between a mother in the congregation and the senior pastor. The mother, whose young adult son with severe mental retardation was residing in a county residential facility located near the church, asked the pastor why the church hadn’t reached out to provide religious education for her son. The pastor immediately put together a task force, charging it to do all that it could to provide this outreach. Task force members rapidly reached a consensus that North Heights should indeed reach out, not by taking a program to the man at this residential facility, but by creating a Sunday school program at the church tailored to his needs. Today, around 150 young adults and adults with disabilities, primarily with mental retardation, are transported to North Heights by area group homes. In addition, children and adults with disabilities who live with their families, such as Aaron and David, make up a growing part of the congregation.

For Aaron and David, the typical one-hour inclusive Sunday school class period generally looks like this: The first half features small group and individual activities such as listening to Bible stories, prayer, and arts and crafts activities. The second half is a large group comprised of several regular classes meeting together, where group prayer, singing, and listening to a storyteller occur. These are enriched through the use of flannel boards, puppets or other audio-visual materials. During the activities, accommodations are made for both boys. For example, Aaron is “action-oriented” and enjoys coloring, handling clay, painting, and singing, but isn’t too keen on sitting and listening for extended periods of time. Hence, when Aaron loses interest, perhaps wandering away from the group activity, a volunteer may take his hand and sit close to him or, if necessary, leave the classroom with him for a nearby resource room where they watch a videotaped Bible story, play a game or engage in another activity. David, who has serious movement and language difficulties, enjoys “just hanging out” with his classmates and listening to music. It is hard for him to not vocalize during group times when quietness is expected; at these times a volunteer takes him aside for an alternative activity or sits with him in her lap to help focus his attention on the activity.

While church staff and volunteers in the congregation are constantly looking for ways to provide inclusive activities to persons with special needs of all ages and ability levels, at this point there is more inclusive programming available for children than for youth and adults. Many of the older youth and adults attend the Special Needs Sunday School, a non-inclusive program, and also attend an evening program at the church called the I Am His Club that offers prayer, music, snacks, and crafts to participants with disabilities. This existence of both specialized as well as inclusive options in the church is due partly to the long-standing history of providing specialized programming to adults from the county residential setting. But, in addition, it stems from the fact that finding same-age non-disabled peers to provide needed supports for adults with disabilities in inclusive activities is more difficult. Hence, there are more inclusive opportunities for children, such as David and Aaron. For example, both boys, in addition to having a mainstream Sunday school program, attend an inclusive program each Wednesday evening called Kingdom Kids Pioneers, a club that offers Bible stories and activities, crafts and recreation, and worship opportunities. Moreover, they both attend an inclusive summer Sunday school and vacation Bible school each year.

The North Heights motto, “To Know Christ and To Make Him Known” has sparked the development of a vital social network that undergirds the inclusive religious education effort. Glimpses of this network and its importance can be seen in the results of a questionnaire administered to Aaron and David’s parents, teachers, and teacher aides in order to gain their impressions of how the two boys and their classmates have reacted to inclusion. When asked to describe Aaron’s and David’s reactions to being in regular Sunday school classes, responses from parents and teachers or teacher aides were as follows:

  • “He laughs and gets excited to be with the kids. He is always happy to be there” (David’s parent).
  • “…he is always enthusiastic to go into class” (Aaron’s parent).
  • “Loves being with the children – attends to videos, very visual activities; enjoys music if helped to participate; laughs when other kids laugh; laughs, smiles when they play and clap; often claps his hands when they do; scoots over or walks over to them during activities and smiles at them” (David’s teacher).
  • “He is a very smart child and enjoys the class. I think this shows in his interactions with his friends and classmates. He has never been disruptive to the class” (Aaron’s teacher).

Asked to reflect on the reactions of non-disabled classmates to the boys, here is what parents had to say:

  • “They like having him around and are helpful when needed” (David’s parent).
  • “In general, people seem to enjoy Aaron, including his peers in Sunday school. Many will talk to him by name. He likes to play chase games, duck duck gray duck, etc. and other children will join him for that at times. Because he is difficult to understand, they are sometimes confused by him. At this age, some seem to go out of their way to be compassionate and pleasant, as if they understand he is somehow special, but others seem to be oblivious to any differences” (Aaron’s parent).

Teachers and teacher aides, when asked to capture non-disabled classmates’ reactions to David and Aaron, wrote the following:

  • “Acceptance, usually – especially with the adult in charge helping other children who are not familiar with David to understand and help him participate. Ignoring, especially in more active activities” (David’s teacher).
  • “Eager to help with him. Curious and interested in him. Show concern for him” (Aaron’s teacher).
  • “Aaron is not identified as any different than they are. They show concern and give support when needed. They enjoy his company and playing with him” (Aaron’s teacher aide).

While overall a positive experience with inclusion is reflected in these comments, inclusion is not challenge-free. The presence of challenge becomes clearer when parents, teachers, and aides were asked specifically to talk about things they would like to see improved in the inclusive program and challenges they discern about inclusion in general. Here is what they said:

  • “The hardest thing is to find people willing to be with David. He doesn’t need one-on-one as much anymore, but I always make sure the teacher or helper is comfortable with him. I think church leadership could do more to help find partners for those with special needs. I know it is scary to get to know them, but usually once you do you will find a side of God’s love you didn’t even know was there…” (David’s parent).
  • “We think it is very important that the teachers and department heads know specific needs and information about disabled students. Like for Aaron, his family let us know of his needs and what helps with his specific responses” (Aaron’s teacher).
  • "There is little I would change, but I would make sure the right people, properly trained, were immediately available to support the teacher when a disabled child needed help. This additional help provides proper support for the teacher and maintains control of the situation while focusing proper attention on the needs of both the disabled child and their classmates” (Aaron’s teacher aide).

While this questionnaire focused on the inclusion of David and Aaron, the responses are guiding a broader effort to enhance the inclusion of all children with disabilities at North Heights. Plans include the following:

  • Recruit volunteers who are interested and willing to be trained in ministering to and promoting the learning of students with special needs.
  • Train all educational personnel in the use of instructional strategies in inclusive classrooms.
  • Create a set of policies and procedures that guide inclusion in religious education and reflect Jesus’ love for children.

Christ Himself demonstrated the highest possible form of inclusiveness with everyone He encountered, even those who rejected Him. In this, He set the standard for Christians to follow, and it is that standard that North Heights seeks to embrace.