“‘I will put my teachings in their minds and . . .on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people . . .All people will know me,’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
Jeremiah 31:33-34 is one of my favorite verses because it declares that God wants everyone to know Him. The Woodlands United Methodist Church lives out that verse through their mission statement, “Win People to Jesus Christ — Disciple Them in Faith — Help Those in Need.”
As the director of the Special Needs Ministry, my goal is to make our programming and events follow that mission statement, not forgetting that Christ wants everyone to know Him. Our ministry reaches out to families in our community that have members with special needs. It doesn’t matter what age or disability, we are to be the hands and feet of Christ to all. How does this happen? Through prayer, administrative support, many volunteers, and following Christ’s example.
Before embarking on any event or programming, we ask God’s guidance to show us His will in the event. We want His eyes to be our eyes in seeking the best practices to meet the needs of all our congregants. But this kind of programming would not happen without the support of our administrative staff. Ten year ago our staff was moved to support the creation of this ministry through the provision of space, materials, and financing. Our church pastors, administrative board, and other staff members continue to support this ministry with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service on an ongoing basis. Because our church is larger in size, staff and volunteers are vital to the ministry.
Here are some of the basics that are important for every service. First of all, making sure your event is accessible for wheelchairs & walkers is essential. If your stage doesn’t have a wheelchair ramp, have some strong men around to assist. And make sure your Handicapped parking spaces are close to ramps and automatic opening doors. We also provide shadow services (someone who assists a child with special needs) for our weekend services and during church-wide events. Ongoing training for staff and volunteers takes place on a quarterly basis, and together we regularly review best practices in discipline, teaching, and sharing God’s love.
Beyond these basic needs, we believe that Christ is called “Teacher” because he is a great example and a master at getting his point across (see Matthew 26). So we learn from him. Both children and adults—special needs or not—learn best when taught using methods that engage a variety of their senses. So we pay attention to the following:
Smell (Matthew 26:7)
Scent speaks volumes to someone blind or visually impaired. Paired with a soft pillow and words of Jesus’ love, a scent can symbolize Christ in a tangible way. Imagine how the disciples would think of Christ every time they were around the scent from the alabaster jar.
Sight (Matthew 26:14, 15)
Visual learners love drama. Let everyone participate. Offer the opportunity for them to get involved and encourage them along without forcing the issue. Those who aren’t able to involve themselves in a drama effectively could be considered for a greeter’s position.
Touch (Matthew 26:26)
Touching a loaf of bread, feeling Jesus’ robe, and holding the thirty pieces of silver would make chapter 26 of Matthew come alive to many children and adults. Upon entering a sanctuary, a handshake also goes a long way—it makes everyone feel welcome.
Taste (Matthew 26:27-29)
Taste the elements before communion; taste the fish and loaves during Lent. Use your imagination to come up with foods that can represent points in a lesson, while keeping in mind that many have allergies to glutton, peanuts, or other common foods. Plan accordingly with glutton-free alternatives or create a “peanut free” zone.
Hear (Matthew 26:30)
Music is an essential part of worship and gatherings. It can lift one’s spirits in praise, but can also draw out deep contemplation. But remember that many people with special needs have sound sensory issues, so work to warn them of upcoming musical pieces or loud sounds. For example, you can use red light to warn audience members with sound-avoidance issues. Cymbals can also be difficult for some to bear. Noise-reducing headphones are quite helpful. Those needing quiet can be considered as candidates for stuffing bulletins, making copies, or sorting mail.
Just as it is difficult to plan events for any kind of person, it will be challenging to be mindful of every special need. However, by beginning to plan ahead, using your imagination, and looking to Christ’s examples, events can begin to engage your entire congregation. By simply acknowledging the desire to reach and involve those with special needs, it will move your congregation into God’s heart to reach all people. It may also open doors in your community as people learn about your passion for those with special needs.