My wife and I have been parents of a special needs child for the last 21 years. Our daughter has cognitive disabilities that allow her to function at about a six year old level even though her chronological age is 26 years old. As the pastor’s daughter, she has been present at a boat load of worship services, special church functions, congregational meetings, and other gatherings of the Christian community. She has long term relationships with church members that have been very positive and she has also created many a perplexed look as people do their best to relate in a positive way.
The climate for reaching out to the special needs community has changed remarkably in the last 40 years. My undergraduate degree in mental health from the 1970’s required an internship in a corrections facility and in a ‘retardation’ center. I served in a large state operated home for disabled children and adults that housed hundreds of individuals. My intern placement was in a unit that specialized in young men with Down’s syndrome. I will never forget trying to take a bicycle ride with 15 teenaged boys. They were all smiles but it took me several hours to round them all up and get them all home safely.
Today, that large state operated home has disappeared. It was closed, bulldozed and now is the site of a beautiful upscale housing area. Most of the young people who were once housed in institutions are now cared for by their families, by small group homes, or by individual care givers. Times have changed.
Times have also changed for the church. Special needs children, youth, and adults can be found in every community in the United States. But have they actually found an open door to the life of the church?
Most parents of special needs children automatically live with an internal hyper-sensitive antenna that is in place whenever their family is in public. Are people staring at my child? Can I take my young adult with me to the store? Will people in the church look at me funny if my adult child makes a funny noise or moves around a lot? The answers to those questions have been confirmed time and time again. And the answers are often the reason parents and caregivers choose to stay home—especially from church!
Here are some ways the church can become attractive and open to the special needs community.
1) Start with your own people.
Ask the parents of a Down’s syndrome or autistic child about their experience. Inquiring means that you are thinking about them and are seeking to understand.
2) Investigate your community with an eye for special needs programing.
Look for vocational programs, group homes, and community based day programs. Don’t forget to include your school system and the special education teachers in your area.
3) Learn all you can about the needs in your community.
Remember that the special needs community is often out of sight and maybe even a little invisible to the typical traffic patterns of the average church member. When you find a great community based organization, partner with them!
4) Start with the needs that are readily available.
Include special needs kids in Vacation Bible School, create space for young adults to be a part of the youth ministry, host a special needs dance at your church, develop a group of people are trained to welcome and reach out to special needs individuals and families.
5) Talk about this unique ministry opportunity as a vision priority.
Some congregations see ministry to the special needs community as a painful obligation that is imposed by the Americans With Disabilities Act (www.ada.gov) or by your denominational leaders.
6) Be innovative while remembering that effective ministry is always focused on building lasting relationships.
When you reach out, open the doors, and make a place for special needs children, youth, and adults you will discover a wonderful blessing that will flow through your entire congregation. You will be blessed, the families will be made welcome, and ministry will be extended, and the gospel will be alive in your church. On top of that, faith and grace will abound!
Here are some congregations (there are many more) and organizations that are continually reaching out to develop meaningful relationships with the special needs community.
“Special Friends” ministry at Willow Creek Community Church
“The Gathering Place” Chapelwood United Methodist in Houston
Castle Oaks Covenant Church Castle Rock, Colorado
National organization that probably has an active chapter in your area