Church service caters to those with disabilities

St. John’s Lutheran Church has developed a worship service designed for children and adults who have developmental disabilities, such as mental retardation and autism.

The separate service will take place at 3 p.m. on Sundays starting Aug. 24. A public meeting will be held at 3 p.m. Aug. 10 to introduce the concept to the community. Tours of the church and a slide show presentation are planned.

“We want to present the gospel in a language that people with developmental disabilities will understand and a style that makes them feel comfortable,” said Vicar Steve Hilgeman, who will lead the special services.

Each service will last 30 minutes. The sermon will last three or four minutes and focus on one theme. Scripture readings will be short. Music will play a big part with song choices that feature easy-to-learn lyrics.

Hilgeman has rewritten the liturgy using simple vocabulary. For example, his new version of the Apostle’s Creed is a series of straightforward statements, including “I believe God made the earth” and “I know Jesus loves me.” He also has rewritten prayers so that they are easier to memorize.

Rev. Steve Smithberger noted, too, that the bulletins will use graphics to let worshippers know when to sit, stand, pray or sing.

After the service, attendees will enjoy refreshments in the fellowship hall and talk about how the service made them feel.

“It will be an opportunity for them to process it before they go home and to ask questions,” Hilgeman said.

While the language will be simple and the service short, the endeavor is nonetheless serious.

“We want to be respectful of the persons as adults. We’re not making it kid-like; we’re just presenting abstract concepts in more concrete ways,” Smithberger said.

For some who attend, worship will be a new experience. For others, the special service could be a segue to traditional services at St. John’s or other churches. For all, it’s a chance to “praise God in their own language,” Hilgeman said.

Expertise behind the Idea

As for what kick-started the idea to hold a service for people with developmental disabilities, Smithberger said it was a combination of things. The church’s new building on Keny Boulevard is handicapped accessible; more people with a variety of disabilities are attending the church; and the congregation includes people with talents that speak to the needs of people with disabilities.

Hilgeman’s background made him an ideal candidate to lead the services. The Washington Court House resident has worked in the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (MRDD) field for over 20 years. He is superintendent of the Fayette County MRDD program.

Hilgeman also is a seminary student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. His studies required him to observe “ministry in context;” he spent time at St. John’s, which led to a part-time position as the church’s vicar. As such, he assists with worship, makes hospital and home visits, and helps with Vacation Bible School.

The new services are the result of a group effort. Hilgeman will preach. Once a month, Smithberger will administer Holy Communion and conduct baptisms. “Shepherds” will be on hand before, during and after the service to help people with anything they need, from worship, to finding the rest room, to getting coffee. Family members or caregivers will need to attend the service to provide one-on-one care for those who are not as independent.

Speaking from Experience

Diane Miller Ryan grew up going to church, but after her son, Derek, was born, she stopped going for 14 years.

Derek has developmental disabilities and is in a wheelchair. That’s not what kept Ryan from attending church; it was the reaction of others.

“When you have a child with special needs that people can see, you get stares,” said the Plain City resident. “Sometimes, it’s really hard to feel like you’re accepted somewhere.”

This experience informs Ryan’s input as a member of the committee at St. John’s that is coordinating the new service. Ryan and Derek have been attending St. John’s for the last year and a half.

“Derek is 21 now and he is doing more community activities through the county MRDD program, where he knows he will be with people like him. You can really tell a difference in him,” she said. “So, for people with developmental disabilities to be able to worship with their peers, it will be a different way for them to feel.”

Ryan said the service will be beneficial to caregivers, as well.

“It will feel good to know that you can let your guard down and be yourself. It will be a more relaxed service,” she said.

For more information

St. John’s Lutheran Church is located at 380 Keny Boulevard. Anyone who cannot attend the Aug. 10 meeting is welcome to call to make an appointment for a tour or to ask questions. The church can be reached at 740-852-1522. Additional information can be found online at

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