Something that has delighted me over the past few years and has most certainly been God-ordained - and not the intentional plans of Lynn - has been the growth of a support team for children with Additional Support Needs (ASN).
You may have heard of the term children with special needs. The ASN legislation, which came into force in 2005, brought greater clarity (in my opinion) to the ways in which particular children may require support. Some children face barriers to "learning" and need additional support to make progress. Children and young people may need this help to assist them with reading or writing; to improve their access to school and its facilities; or to support their learning through difficult family or other circumstances. Additional support needs can be short or long term. Additional support may be needed for a child or young person who is being bullied, has behavioural or learning difficulties, is deaf or blind or has been bereaved.
Whilst the above is particularly apt for a school context, I paid close attention to this educational development, partly because I still work as a teacher now and then but also because I recognise that as a larger church we have a duty to take account of legislation such as this (although we are not bound to it in the way that local authorities are in educational provision).
I really felt that before God we had responsibilities to fulfill. The learning we want kids to do is to enter into a closer relationship with God and all of the things listed in the second paragraph can have crippling effects on the child's relationship with God.
I appointed an OUTSTANDING co-ordinator of additional support needs and over the years she has built a team of volunteers whom our regular Sunday morning team work very closely with, in an area called "The Den". I get alongside individual group leaders where they suspect some additional support may be needed for a child; I chat to the parents, introduce them to the ASN Coordinator and together we try to have a coordinated plan of action.This is the plan anyway - in reality it can take quite a few weeks to out-work. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot give examples of specific support needs; but they are beginning to be wider ranging than we initially expected.
The wonderful thing is that we can offer relief and support to parents who felt that they would never be able to attend a worship service without worrying about their child's actions and behaviours. But it's not about working as "child minders" - "the Den" volunteers attend the Kids Rock programme in a supportive role; reinforcing the love of God in everything they do; whether it's one-to-one with the child at the side of the room for a time or whether it's within the peer group. After completing a "Getting To Know You" sheet, we try to have individualised programmes; so that one child who loved the "New Light" Bible could have time just to sit looking at that with a volunteer. I cannot speak highly enough of the love and patience the volunteers have. I believe that there are battles over the lives of some of these children - again I cannot be specific - but for my part - and I know the other guys would echo this - we want to aggressively love the child and snatch them away from demonic or evil influences (yes - we have seen stark examples of this), speak the truth of God's immense love for them, nurture their experiences of God, go all out to support the parent(s) and build community.
This Sunday, one of the team reported back that a parent had expressed deep thankfulness to the point of tears. We see the "service" as an act of love and acceptance and simply what our Lord Jesus would want and do - and that is what motivates the team. They know there is deep value in what they do.
A. and I have always known that we were to "make ready"; to welcome more children from the community and more stressed out parents who did not know how they could attend worship with their child who had additional support needs.
And we are now seeing it. Last week, one of the daytime alpha mums who has never been to our church before brought her daughter to church. She was worried and stressed about it; she said her daughter may exhibit unusual behaviour (her words) for a church; and yet - at the end the daughter loved everything that had happened; she loved the worship and she experienced God and told this to all whom she met after the service. I am moved by the faithfulness of God - his words: "come to me" are for all who wish to come, regardless of age, status, condition or background.
And I ask for more.