Church groups' civic engagement

Andrew Whitehead’s research focuses on Christian nationalism, childhood disability and the intersection of religion and sexuality.
Image Credit: Clemson University

CLEMSON — A Clemson University researcher has found that health conditions hinder children and their families from attending church and that the likelihood of attendance changes depending on the type of health condition. The research finds that children whose disability affects social interaction are the most likely to be deterred from worship.

Andrew Whitehead, assistant professor of sociology at Clemson, said research into the relationship between disabilities and church attendance exists, but very little is focused on young people with disabilities. He hopes his findings can help reveal systemic issues that congregations can address so children with disabilities can be equally valued members of their chosen communities of faith.

“I would like to think that this research could serve as a wake-up call to the religious communities in our nation,” Whitehead said. “In many ways, this population is unseen because they never show up, or when they do, they have a negative experience and never return.”

Whitehead is personally motivated to examine this understudied population. As a father of two children with autism who are non-verbal, his family has experienced hurdles in attending religious services because of disabilities.

He found, overall, that the odds of children with a chronic health condition never attending religious services are 14 percent higher than those without conditions. Surprisingly, physical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or muscle problems have almost no effect on attendance according to the data; children with these conditions and children with no health conditions are equally likely to not attend church.

The major difference comes in disabilities that affect social interaction. One in four children with developmental delays, learning disabilities, anxiety and conduct disorders never attend church. That ratio becomes one in three for children with autism, depression, speech problems and brain injury.

Whitehead research - church attendance

Image Credit: College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences

Citing prior research, Whitehead notes that one in three parents with a child with a disability change their place of worship because they felt the child wasn’t sufficiently included. Whitehead’s findings confirmed a hypothesis just as they helped him put his own experiences into perspective.

“You can imagine a child with autism spectrum disorder who cannot sit still during children’s worship time or be left with an unprepared nursery staff,” Whitehead said. “The environment may not help them learn in a way that connects. The parents may find out that the congregation can’t or isn’t willing to work to provide the necessary supports. Over the years my family has encountered similar situations.”

Whitehead came to his findings after examining existing literature that mainly focused on autism, ADHD and certain physical impairments. He sought to fill in research gaps by taking a look at these and a broad range of conditions.

By combining data collected from government entities, including the Centers for Disease Control, he emerged with nationally representative data that examined over 20 different disabilities, their prevalence and their relationship to church attendance. The study recently was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

According to Whitehead’s research, congregations as a whole have been slow to address these issues, and attendance likely suffers because of it. Findings since 2003 suggest there have been no systemic changes made across congregations to eliminate barriers faced by children with a health condition.

This should be a worrying statistic for congregations since there is a growing number of children to serve. One in six children in the U.S. is reported to have at least one developmental disability and that prevalence has grown from 1997 to 2008.

“If congregations rarely have children with chronic health conditions who show up to worship, that doesn’t mean congregations can’t still be prepared for them,” Whitehead said. “Families with children with chronic health conditions will be able to determine very quickly if they have any hope of being a valued part of a religious congregation. Preparation and planning tell these parents, ‘We see you, and your child matters to us.’”

Whitehead said there are a number of quality examples of congregations who are accommodating and distinguish themselves from the majority. He said when church leadership is open to having conversations about how a family can be served, they signal they are willing to work with children who learn in different ways.

“Every child with a chronic health condition is different, so there is no effective, cookie-cutter approach to welcoming them,” Whitehead said. “However, having a system in place where families are seen, heard and valued will go a long way toward preventing a religious community from becoming yet another bureaucracy these families have to navigate. Instead, these communities can become places of rest and refuge.”

Whitehead’s research focuses on Christian nationalism, childhood disability and the intersection of religion and sexuality. He serves as the assistant director of the world’s largest online religion data archive, the Association of Religion Data Archives. The archives exist to democratize access to the highest quality data on religion, and they also provide interactive resources to make the data accessible to students, researchers and journalists.