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 your 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. And while I don't know if this heartbreakingly high number is because not all of them 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 so church is more of a burden than a family. Because they've been hurt by comments their fellow church members or 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.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and a special needs child needs a godly and intentional one. The church can and should be the place where ALL children are loved and nurtured and accommodated by their church family.
Some men came, bringing to him [Jesus] a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus, and after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic "Son, your sins are forgiven." Mark 2:4-6
That story in Mark 2 is a beautiful picture of the church, doing whatever was necessary to bring this man to Jesus. Sure, it required extra effort. But that man was a part of their community and they treated him as such. And Jesus saw the faith of those men who served the man with a disability. There are so many places in Scripture where those with disabilities or diseases were outcast, unwelcome. Jesus never treated them as such, and neither should we. He always loved and welcomed them.
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). He's twelve and likes trains? I promise you if you borrow some of the trains from the preschool room he'll feel comfortable and play contentedly with the trains and want to come back to church to play with the trains. And make sure there's a few trains for him when he does come back.
Make sure you know all of their needs and accommodations. It may be a little overwhelming, but remember that the parents do this 24/7 and you only need to be vigilant for 1-2 hours during the church service and are being a huge blessing in serving this special needs family. She is gluten intolerant? Make sure she doesn't get any goldfish crackers or anything else with gluten. He has a tendency to run out of the room? Make sure you lock the door so he cannot escape. He can be a little aggressive with other children? Keep a close watch to protect all the children and assign a volunteer to be his special buddy and keep an eye on him.
It is so easy for some people to only see the diagnosis and the weaknesses. 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 helping to clean up after snack time and thank them for helping.
Yeah, I know I talked about how to help love and accommodate the special needs children into your church family, but I have to throw this in there. Did I mention special needs parenting is exhausting? It's stressful too. 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. Send them a thinking of you card (or a text!) letting them know you were praying for them--when they open that card or see that text it will mean the world to them. Offer to baby-sit one night so the parents can go out on a much-needed date. 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.
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 program to implement this. Just be the hands and feet of Jesus. Or the hands and feet that brought a man who was paralyzed to Jesus with a little bit of extra work. 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 being part of my family's church family!
See you on Sunday, Jenn