The Case for Talking about Adoption in Worship

Not talking about awkward emotions, say after infertility, pregnancy out of wedlock, or adoption, may seem kind. But it's better for churches to include adoption and related issues in baptisms, worship, and church life. A feature story exploring the case for talking about adoption in worship.

Howard Vanderwell had a lump in his throat when he baptized two children from Haiti in July 2004. For one thing, he felt moved to know that this little boy and girl would become part of Hillcrest Christian Reformed Church, a Hudsonville, Michigan, congregation that already included children adopted from Guatemala, Haiti, Korea, and Liberia.

What's more, in baptizing Isaac Kenny and Abigail Midjina, he was baptizing his newest grandchildren-welcomed into the family of Tom and Cheryl Vanderwell and their three teen daughters.

"They came from the God's Little Angels orphanage in Haiti. They were age two and three when they arrived, not siblings, and had not met each other till adopted. But Isaac and Abby are firmly bonded siblings now," their grandpa says.

Yet, for all the joy of baptism, Howard Vanderwell felt disquieted. "The needs of adoptees and their families are quite different from announcing a birth. I never felt we did justice to the situation. It kept rumbling in my heart as an unfinished agenda item that we need to find better ways to receive and assimilate them," he says.

For decades, churches have been silent about people most affected by adoption-including birth parents, adoptees, infertile couples, and adoptive families. Now congregations and denominations are beginning to include these joys and concerns in worship.

Name what's happening

Wanting to do better led Vanderwell to develop two litanies about adoption. He wrote them in consultation with adoptive parents and John Wynbeek, director of international services at Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

One litany is for baptizing an adopted child. The other litany is for marking an adoption without baptism.

In both litanies, the pastor reminds the congregation, "All of us, as a congregation, are children of God by grace and adoption." The litanies include sections for the adoptees (if old enough), the parents, any siblings (if old enough), and the congregation to affirm the adoption.

The responsive prayer in each litany sets adoption in a larger context than one family's experience. The pastor and congregation petition God to:

  • Bind everyone present together in love and nurture.
  • Offer grace, healing, and confidence to parents who have relinquished children.
  • Comfort married couples "who desire the gift of a child yet are disappointed."
  • Show mercy to those who wait in orphanages for someone to come and love them.

Each week Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt, both worship consultants, post a complete, new worship service plan. They're working on a series of resources that will include adoption in more worship contexts.

Celebrate God's view of adoption

If you've never heard much about adoption in church and haven't thought much about it on your own, then chances are you've missed seeing what the Bible says about adoption.

Fellow believers often say to adoptive parents, "Too bad you couldn't have one of your own." They assume that adoption is a "second best" choice, says John Van Regenmorter, chaplain at Bethany Christian Services and director of its infertility ministry, Stepping Stones.

But in the four places where the Bible uses the word "adopt," it's always in a positive context. And when Pharaoh's daughter adopted Moses and Mordecai adopted Esther, those new family situations were clearly part of God's plan of deliverance for Israel.

In the family of God, Jesus is the only begotten son. The rest of us have been adopted into the family. Interestingly, Jesus was also adopted-by his earthly father, Joseph.

"Isn't this incredible? God chooses us to be his adopted children, not because he has to, but because hewants to..Whether one becomes a parent biologically or through adoption, the fact is that children are not a right-they are a gift from God," Van Regenmorter writes in a Stepping Stones Newsletter.

Besides paying special attention to adoption during baptism, there are other easy ways to celebrate adoption in worship.

If your church normally displays a rose for every new birth, how about displaying one to celebrate each adoption as well? Pastors can preach on biblical passages about adoption. Those who lead prayer can specifically pray for adoptees and adoptive families. They can also thank God for adopting all of us.

Remember all involved

Some churches put so much emphasis on family-and by that they mean a mom, a dad, and their biological kids-that they make other members feel there's no place for them.

Mother's Day can be especially painful for many churchgoers, say John and Sylvia Van Regenmorter in their book When the Cradle Is Empty: Answering Tough Questions about Infertility.

While they're all for celebrating mothers, and for remembering our own mothers, they ask worship leaders to acknowledge how Mother's Day can renew the hurt for some women who've never been mothers, single women, mothers who have lost children, and mothers whose children are not walking with the Lord.

"Worship planners should not arbitrarily acknowledge these experiences in worship services. Rather, they should make use of natural opportunities that occur in every congregation to remember those facing infertility, miscarriage, and adoption," John Van Regenmorter suggests.

These occasions include Mother's Day, Father's Day, and holidays when families typically gather. It also makes sense to specifically mention these needs in bulletin announcements, prayers, songs, or sermons when:

  • A family in the congregation adopts a child.
  • The pastor plans a sermon series on parenting or family issues.
  • Someone in the congregation experiences a miscarriage or infant death.
  • The congregation organizes a support group for couples facing infertility or pregnancy losses.
  • The congregation observes Sanctity of Human Life Sunday-a prime time to pray for women who have had an abortion as well as "courageous birth moms who have made an adoption plan for their child."

Van Regenmorter adds, "All these provide a wonderful-and natural-opportunity for the congregation to 'Rejoice with those who rejoice [and] mourn with those who mourn,' as Romans 12:15 says."

Learn More

Read "This Little Child from Far Away: A Prayer and a Song for the Baptisms of Adopted Children" fromReformed Worship.

Feel free to use or revise these litanies when baptizing an adopted child or marking an adoption.

Read Ron Nydam's book, Adoptees Come of AgeBook him to speak on the pastoral needs of adoptees. Listen to audio excerpts of Nydam talking about:

Bethany Christian Services offers adoption resources for churches, including many worship elements for marking an adoption or baptizing an adopted child. You might also consider these Anglican (scroll down),CatholicLutheran, and Reformed ideas for welcoming an adopted child in worship.

Here's how to plan services about lament or for troubled hearts or about faith that sighs and sings. You might also like these worship service or home ritual ideas to acknowledge birth parents who give a child to new parents in an open adoption, help older adopted children overcome negative messages, and annually celebrate a child's adoption day.

Consider reviewing and donating books about adoption to your church library. Gail Godwin's novelEvensong explores what it means to be a family, whether through adoption or other bonds. Evensong could also yield several anecdotes for sermons.

Read When the Cradle Is Empty: Answering Tough Questions about Infertility and find support fromStepping Stones, Bethany Christian Services' ministry to couples facing infertility and pregnancy loss.

To help adults in church education get a better grasp on adoption issues, you could:

Browse these blogs and articles to understand

It may surprise you that though U.S. parents adopt many children from other countries, many children born in the U.S. are adopted by families in other countries. Check out surveys about Koreans who've been adopted and U.S. attitudes toward adoption.

Browse related stories on baptism and architecturedesigning worship together, joy and lament in the Psalms, and seeing yourselves as God's people-together.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to have a healthy discussion about including adoption and related issues in worship:

  • Does your church have any special worship rituals related to adoption, infertility or pregnancy loss, or entrusting a child to new parents in an open adoption? Would you like to refine or add any worship elements related to these issues?
  • How often are the joys and concerns of adoptees and adoptive families mentioned in your worship services?
  • What do you think about the idea that faithful worship must sometimes include sorrow, lament, and anger?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to address and talk through worship and pastoral issues related to adoption?

  • Did you find a resource-visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar-that helped your church meaningfully include adoption during worship services or adult education?
  • If you have surveyed other congregations in your area or denomination regarding their outreaches related to unplanned pregnancy, infertility, or adoption, will you share the best ideas that you discovered?
  • Did you ask elders or other pastoral leaders to note which members or families are affected by adoption? And, if so, what did you do next to better minister to their needs?