What we mean when we say our new church is "special needs-friendly"

Last weekend we had a couple over and we were talking about our new church. The husband looked at my husband and asked, “What do you mean when you say your church will be ‘special-needs friendly’?”

It’s a good question. Last summer my family and I packed up everything we owned and moved from rural PA to the fastest growing suburb of Houston, TX. Our goal is to plant a church—a special-needs friendly church.

We’ve been talking about it nonstop to anyone who will listen (or join our launch team, or make a donation, or pray for us!). But that question made us pause. Had the phrase become like Christianese? Do we say it so often we forget it’s a concept some people have never thought about before?

What do we mean when we say our church is special-needs friendly?

I’m sure ministry leaders from across the country would give slightly different answers (and I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments!), but here’s what we mean when we say the new church we are planting is going to be special-needs friendly.

It means we have a theology of disability based on Scripture. The passages that have shaped our understanding of disability include:

  • Psalm 139 – We are all fearfully and wonderfully made

  • Exodus 4:11 – God allows disabilities for His purpose

  • John 9 – Jesus Himself said disabilities exist so “that the works of God might be displayed … “

It means we believe all people are necessary to fulfill God’s purpose for the church. 1 Corinthians 12 teaches us church is made of many parts, and some of those parts are weaker than others but are still worthy of honor, “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (vv. 24-26).

This isn’t to imply people with disabilities are “less than” people without disabilities. But speaking from my experience of having a sister with Down syndrome and a son with level 3 autism, some have limitations that keep them from doing some things in the church, but not all. Churches don’t love and serve people who can best serve them back. They love and serve people (period). 

It means we provide access to all families so they can be full, active members of our church. Access to the gospel, to community, and to worship. We make accommodations and adjustments when necessary so we don’t have to turn away families who come to our church and church events. It means every activity we do, from Sunday morning worship to small groups to sports camp to potluck lunches, are open to everyone. It can take more money and more volunteers (two details church plants are often short on!), but we trust God to provide. As we read in 1 Corinthians 12, a church is made of many parts. I truly believe God has already placed people in churches who can meet the needs of the church members He calls there.

It means we actively seek out the nearly 1 in 5 families in the U.S. impacted by disability. We plan outreach events that specifically target special-needs families. Like a sensory-friendly movie morning. And a reserved time at the local bounce house. We hope to host respite nights and a day of pampering for moms/care givers. We don’t settle for a come and see approach. We go and do.

We’re excited to see how God will teach and stretch us in the coming months as we are sent out from our supporting church, build a launch team, serve our neighborhoods, and start preview services. We hope to spread the message that all churches should be special-needs friendly and show it can be done even in the smallest of churches. Knowing what we mean when we say our church is special-needs friendly is a good place to start!

What do you mean when you say your church is special-needs friendly?

Sandra is the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family. You can connect with her on her site, sandrapeoples.com