A church that feels like Unified Soccer
When it comes to cultivating new worshipping communities, Unified Soccer at Whatcom Middle School is one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever seen. Let me tell you why.
But before I do, please remember that kids with special needs walk a different path through life. They frequently don’t get invited to birthday parties, playdates, sleepovers, and many other social rhythms. Where they sit at lunch might feel a bit isolating. Here’s a recent study talking about what happens when autistic and ADHD kids go to church.
In the midst of these challenges is Unified Soccer at Whatcom Middle School. Half the soccer team is comprised of “athletes” who are kids with special needs. The athletes possess a cornucopia of issues which cover a wide spectrum of physical and mental struggles. They’re a diverse bunch, but they’re unified in that they all have enough function to want to play soccer and they all go to Whatcom Middle School.
The other half of the soccer team is comprised of “partners” who are high functioning and athletic middle school soccer players. Many play on school and club teams at the highest levels of soccer for their age group. They, too, are unified in that they love to play soccer, they want to help the athletes be successful at soccer, and they all go to Whatcom Middle School.
Here’s the basic rules: There’s five kids to a side, the goalie has to be an athlete, and the four players on the field have to be two athletes and two partners. Only the athletes can score. No offsides and no throw-ins (they kick the ball in). These middle school students still want to win, for sure, but the main goal is about creating a game where the athletes can wear their school jersey, be a part of their school team, and have a great time playing a great game with their schoolmates.
Players are taught that not all kids with special needs are the same, and the speed of their defense should match their opponent. This means that if an partner who is an elite soccer player has the ball, and she is challenged by an opposing team’s partner who is also an elite soccer player, when she passes the ball to an autistic athlete on her team, the defender slows down and sometimes stops. The defense speeds up as they get closer to the goal, and the athlete goalie plays with whatever skill they possess. It’s a beautiful game.
Every middle school in town has a Unified Soccer team, so they get to play against the other kids in town. And because Unified Soccer is connected to Special Olympics, they get to compete in regional and state tournaments, having incredible experiences that would never be available to them anywhere else. Now, to be clear, part of what makes it so special at Whatcom Middle School is that we have the best coach on the planet in Dennis Taubel. His love, passion and skill at coaching youth of all levels is incredible, and he cultivates a team where these athletes and partners become friends. There’s a lot of great youth soccer coaches out there, but Whatcom Middle School has the best.
So when it comes to Church, I want to cultivate worshipping communities that feel like Unified Soccer at Whatcom Middle School. I want to be a part of services where the pace of the worship can shift depending on who’s there and what they need, where the teaching integrates a variety of learning styles (because everyone can teach and everyone can learn), and where friendships that don’t naturally happen in our culture can flourish. I want to go to a church that feels like a Unified Soccer game. And I want to be more like Dennis Taubel when I grow up.