Should a Special-Needs Diagnosis Matter at Church?

This post is adapted from a previous four-part series.

A diagnosis is ultimately used as a tool to facilitate the treatment of patients/clients with identifiable medical/psychiatric disorders. Does the church treat kids with disabilities? Or do we disciple them?

I've seen two practices in the church that cause me to worry about emphasizing clinical diagnoses among those doing ministry with families of kids with disabilities...

Don't get me wrong—it's great that there are thousands of churches in the U.S. and beyond launching special needs ministries. Our team at Key Ministry is helping to promote the trend. But something bothers me about some of the ministries we see taking root.

As imperfect people, Christians are all too often quick to judge other people. We make lots of value judgments, including judgments about the causes of the disabilities experienced by kids who come (but are all too often missing) from our churches. We have "good" disabilities and bad disabilities!

Look at the focus of many of our "special needs" ministries—kids with wheelchairs, kids with Down syndrome, kids with cerebral palsy and kids with autism—as long as they have severe challenges with communication and significant intellectual disability. The kids served by our special-needs ministries are almost exclusively those with disabilities for which there is nearly universal agreement that parents bear no culpability.

Most people get what autism is about because of some fabulous public education initiatives. But way too many people think that ADHD is caused by poor discipline at home, anxiety is produced by a lack of faith and that depression persists because the person afflicted doesn't pray enough. If we get hung up on diagnoses, the value judgments of too many people in our churches becomes an impediment to creating welcoming ministry environments for all kids and families.

The second practice I'm concerned about is the propensity of churches to address the need by starting programs led by people who develop expertise in special-needs ministry that aren't fully integrated into the most vital ministries of the church. After all, churches have lots of "silo" ministries—men's ministries, women's ministries, singles ministries, children's ministries, youth ministries, family ministries and sports ministries. It may seem easier to train a team of people to serve kids and families with a defined range of disabilities than to create a culture of inclusion across all ministries that becomes part of a church's DNA. The challenge is that no two people meeting criteria for a specific disability have the exact same gifts, talents or needs. If you've seen one kid with autism, you've seen one kid with autism.

Inclusion ministry is ultimately about sharing the love of Christ with people who were created to be unique. It's not about putting people into programs. It's about offering the love of Christ in response to need. Assigning people to diagnostic categories at church doesn't help us make progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, what we're all about is helping churches reach families affected by disabilities. We have lots of parents who are also pastors or church staff members who discover our resources on the Web by entering search terms like "anxiety" "ADHD" "Bipolar Disorder" "Church" or "Special Needs." We're simply trying to disseminate our resources to as many churches as can use them. Parents who search for resources by googling their child's diagnosis (because the diagnosis has meaning to them) will often forward our info to church staff or volunteers.

Bottom line—we can minister effectively to kids with disabilities and their families without requiring knowledge of diagnoses that may or may not be accurate or by defining children and their adults by their disability as opposed to by who they are in God's Kingdom.

Addendum: Our friend and colleague Shannon Dingle posted on the topic of how much does a special needs diagnosis matter at church.  Check out her post.