Not every church has the resources for a special needs ministry. It’s not always the best time to launch a new outreach program either. I get that. But it’s not about programs.
It’s about the ministry of the Gospel. It’s about God’s call on the church to see people, to really see them, and to love them, in word and deed, with the best news they’ve ever experienced. It is to be about reaching the lost, building one another up in faith, extending Christ’s grace to all, furthering Kingdom things, reflecting the image of God to the world and keeping our eyes on eternity — all without discrimination or exception.
Did you know that people affected by disabilities (and their families) are considered to be the largest unreached group of people in the world? Yes, that includes the United States of America. A recent 2018 CDC prevalence study reported that 1 in 6 U.S. children has some type of disability (e.g., autism, speech impairment, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, Down Syndrome). And 56% of these families say they have kept their child from religious activities due to a lack of support (Whitehead, AL. Religion and Disability. 2018).
The demographic of our churches should reflect the demographics of the communities surrounding us. Consider this: according to that 2018 CDC prevalence study, 1 in 59 U.S. children has an autism diagnosis. Does 1 of every 59 children in your kids’ program at your church have autism? If not, why not?
Pragmatically, it’s difficult for any church to respond to the prolific, intense, complex and long term needs around us. God is unconcerned with pragmatism. Rather, nothing is too complicated for God. Do we really believe that His strength is perfect and that He will reveal His power in the weaknesses at our church? This is a test of our trust and the lengths we will go to prove what we really value.
You may be surprised to know that I’m not necessarily advocating for a program. I’m proposing that this is foremost about culture. It’s about the values we, as leaders, nurture into our churches. If the church is to be Christ-like and world-shaping, we need to be leaders and pioneers in loving all of God’s people, not lagging far behind our schools and social service organizations in how we respond to the needs around us.
We also don’t get a “pass” for being churches with a passion for certain people groups at the exclusion of those have disabilities. I know churches who are trying to speak into the hearts of millennials, others who have a passion for the homeless, some who have launched a Chinese church in the suburbs and so forth. But guess what? There are people with disabilities who are millennials. And homeless people may have disabilities or mental health difficulties. And disabilities affect every nationality and ethnicity.
Whether you ever have a “special needs program” at your church or not, I invite you to consider these essentials for every Christian leader.
BE IN TOUCH
Understand the specific questions and doubts that friends in your congregation are dealing with. Get close to those people in your congregation who are affected in any way by disability and let them help you develop eyes to see inside their world. Explore their perspectives about life, love and faith as you can’t know from your own situation alone. This will inform and broaden your teaching. If even one family is wrestling with what God has to say about their particular situation, there are likely others doing the same (e.g., their friends, extended family, others in their small group Bible study).
A crisis in your congregation like a newborn diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder can actually be an opportunity for the whole body to make new discoveries about God together. And your leadership can make quite a difference. So be in touch with the stories that are resonating among your members. You can provide reassurances of God’s power and a biblical worldview based on God’s promises, all while promoting and affirming their efforts to pull together in community as the “hands and feet of Jesus” to each other. A galvanized congregation will mature in faith as they do life together.
Being a church that is in-touch and welcoming also means using inclusive language in your sermons and prayers. When you pray, include references to issues that affect the aging as well as those who face physical and developmental challenges. For example, when praying for unity in the church, talk about every tribe, tongue and ability. When you share anecdotal stories and give illustrative examples, use examples involving disability. Thank God for how uniqueness in the families of your church creates a living picture of the coming Kingdom!
Everyone in the church needs to understand God’s values about human worth and dignity. With a degree of regularity, please teach biblical truth about things like disability and suffering. These should be dealt with as both separate topics but interrelated topics. Preach a steady diet of God’s promises to those who experience disability, mental health difficulty, aging, chronic illness and traumatic injury. Don’t avoid conversations about healing prayer but don’t make it all about that either. People who struggle need reassurance of the basics but they crave answers to their deeper questions, doubts and fears.
Help your congregation gain perspective about God’s un-discriminating heart. Emphasize that God’s promises are available to all who seek Him. Regularly remind your church of what God values as it relates to disability and suffering. Examples of biblical values include:
All people matter to God.
God is not limited by complicated circumstances.
Suffering and weakness don’t negate the value of life.
Suffering allows us to give and receive expressions of God’s grace, goodness and power.
God is generally more interested in changing people than changing their circumstances.
Our culture hates inconvenience but Jesus welcomed interruptions as opportunities.
God will always surprise us and do more than we ask or imagine.
MODEL THE GOSPEL
People see how or if you greet members and guests with special needs. They listen to whether you ever reference God’s good design during the baptism of a child with Down Syndrome. They notice if you are afraid to teach about healing. They will cringe during the service when a child with autism blurts out a distracting noise if you appear to be uncomfortable. People take signals from leaders they respect and respond accordingly. They will act graciously when you respond with warmth and mercy. They are inspired when they hear your passion about God’s creativity in how He designs us. They reconsider ways of including people with special needs when they see that you value every person as indispensable to your church family.
“In proactive pastoral ministry…more is needed than preaching and teaching. Pastors must seek to model healthy attitudes,” says John Kilner, in his book Why the Church Needs Bioethics. He urges us leaders to “celebrate the mysteries of the faith, to recognize the reality of unanswered and incompletely answered questions, to acknowledge the reality of doubt and struggle…encourage an atmosphere of mutual care in which the people of God travel together in faith, along with all their doubts and fears and questions, through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Most special needs ministries begin when people in a church recognize someone in their body is hurting and they begin reaching out organically with that one person or family. Initially, there is usually no particular fanfare and nobody is rushing to build an extensive program with a sensory room, refined Buddy system and quarterly respite night. But the healthiest churches do catch broader vision from simple caring experiences and become more intentional about serving more people and families, especially when they are supported and encouraged by their leadership.
As your church embraces people with disabilities and their families, there will be fruit. And that fruit will be visible. Some others may come. Does that possibility of growth scare you? Most of us have prayed with some angst that we don’t have the resources to support a disability program. God will stretch your church to catch up to His heart. Eventually, there may be need for more organization, formality or infrastructure. But that time will be clear and God will be faithful.
Every single church that claims Christ as their own has certain opportunities and responsibilities to welcome and engage with people who have disabilities. It’s not about whether we have special needs programs or not. It’s about making the love of Christ and the message of the Gospel accessible and generously shared with all people.
Lisa Jamieson is the author of books and Bible studies including the Finding Glory series of resources and the new children’s book Jesus, Let’s Talk. She is co-founder of Walk Right In Ministries and leads the Minnesota Disability Ministry Connection. Lisa and her husband, Larry, have been married 30 years and have three grown daughters. Their daughter, Carly, has Angelman Syndrome and lives at home with them in Maple Grove, Minnesota.