Dear Fellow Church Members,
I am the mother of not one, but two children with special needs. We have moved three times in the last five years, requiring us to find a new church family, and while it can be challenging to find a new church community that our family can thrive in, it becomes even harder when you're not sure if every member of your own family will be fully accepted and loved for who they are.
It's estimated that around 90% of special needs families do not attend church.
While I don't know if this heartbreakingly high number is because not all of these families are Christian, I do know that there are lots of Christian special needs families who do not attend church because it is too hard to get there on Sundays. Because the church is not accommodating their children and church is more of a burden than a family. Because they've been hurt by comments their fellow church members or ministry workers have said to them. These special needs parents need to spend time worshiping the Lord, where they can release their worries and their children into the hands of loving church members, if only for an hour or two each week. That hour or two of respite in the presence of the Lord and a supportive church community is a gift to a special needs parent with all the extra stress and burdens they carry as they care for their families.
Approximately 1 in 5 families have a child with some kind of disability, yet so many of these families find church a place where their children are not welcome and where their needs are unmet.
I believe this goes against the heart of Jesus because when a group of individuals cut a hole in a roof to bring their friend–a paralyzed man–to Jesus, He praises their great faith and determination and lovingly meets the needs of this man. (Mark 2:4-6)
I believe this goes against the heart of Jesus because Jesus tells a parable about a banquet and urges the servants to invite the poor, the lame, and the blind, and once they were in, then to invite in others. (Luke 14:12-24)
I believe this goes against the heart of Jesus because when Jesus drove out the money changers in the temple area just before He died, His actions made it a safe place for those marginalized and uninvited-including children and those with disabilities-to be able to enter into the temple to worship. (Matthew 22:12-15)
Greet him or her by name and with a smile. Find out what they like or are interested in (and if they can't communicate it, speak to their parents or caregivers about it). Keep in mind this special interest each time you interact with them.
Make sure you meet the needs of the family once you are aware of them, and if you don't know them, ask. Ask about food allergies or special diets before offering food. Provide a special place in the sanctuary where they can worship freely as they desire. Assign a volunteer to be their special buddy to support them during the service or in their classroom. It may be a little overwhelming to consider all the individual's needs, but remember that their parents do this 24/7 and you only need to be vigilant during the church service and by doing so, you are being a huge blessing in serving this family.
But each and every person is fearfully and wonderfully made by God (Psalm 139:14) and has been blessed with gifts, talents and strengths. Find out theirs and see how you can implement it in the church. She loves art? Ask her to draw a picture of your Bible lesson and share it with the class when she's done. Help them feel included by introducing them to a friendly peer and help nurture that relationship. Invite them into the activities the group is doing, but don't push if they don't feel comfortable. See if you can give them a special task they enjoy, such as being a greeter before the church service or helping to clean up after snack time in children's church and thank them for helping.
Reports say that special needs parents can have stress levels as high as soldiers in combat. So when you see the parents say hi and smile and ask how they are doing. Then ask again, because I promise you, they'll say they're fine, but they might not be and are waiting for an invitation to share what's really going on in their lives. If they do share what's going on, listen completely, without interrupting. When you do speak, don't cast judgement or give advice unless it was asked. Share the promises of God with them, because I can guarantee you, special needs parenting makes you doubt the promises of God from time to time. Ask how you can be praying for them and their family, and then do pray for them.
Offer to care for their children one night so the parents can go out on a much-needed date. Offer respite at your church from time to time for all the special needs parents in your church community to get a time of rest and for their children to be well cared for. Offer to bring them a meal (especially after or while you know their child may have been hospitalized or undergone a surgery or you know the family has been sick). Offer to cut their grass or help pick up groceries or whatever is on your heart to do that you believe will help these families. Create a care package for the parents with favorite items such as chocolate or coffee or tea, self-care items, encouraging books, or whatever you think the parents will enjoy. If you know a Christian special needs family that is not attending church, invite them to yours and be intentional about making them feel welcome if they do join you. Those small acts of kindness will be HUGE to these parents who feel like they are on their own.
It doesn't matter if your church is big or small, all churches can do this. You don't need to have a church disability ministry to implement this. Just be like the hands and feet of the friends that brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. It required some extra work, but they didn't hesitate because they wanted their friend to see Jesus. If you have a moment, please watch this video. It is a beautiful picture of what the body of Christ should look like, and yet so many churches that I have been to are missing the special needs community in their church body.
Thank you for reading and for being willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus to all families!
See you on Sunday, Jenn