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4 Ways Churches Can Support Families with Special Needs

 

 

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 tells us that the body of Christ is made up of many parts and that “God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be” (v 18).

We are all part of the body, and God has a role for each of us.

While unintentional, churches are often lacking in supporting individuals with special needs, and therefore the body is not working as a whole.

Verse 22 says, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without,” and verse 26 says, “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it.

If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.”

Our churches, our communities, our children, and ourselves are all missing out on the shared joy of the body working together.

We are suffering because of the lack of involvement of special needs in our churches, and we must make a change in the name of love.

 

As the mother of a child with multiple exceptionalities, I speak from experience when I say that it is truly beautiful, and unfortunately rare, to attend a church where we feel like our son’s needs are accepted and not an interruption, where we are not a burden, and that the childcare workers are knowledgeable about delays and flexible with him.

The most important step to including those with special needs and disabilities within the church is to build a culture of diversity.

This takes time, conversation, and intentional practice, but it will work.

People want to be loved and accepted, and churches are the best place for that.

If it is on your heart to develop or grow a place where people of all needs are welcome and included, here are four practical steps to get started:

 

 

1. Acceptance

The first thing churches must do to support families with special needs is to truly accept them as part of the church.

This seems straightforward, but the lack of special needs in our churches indicates that it is not happening.

According to Lifeway Research, nearly every Protestant churchgoer surveyed believes that someone with a disability would feel welcome in their church, yet less than one-third of those churches offer classes or events specifically for people with disabilities.

 

We must make it normal in our churches to have all kinds of children of God—those who make noises, wear headphones, rock, drool, or have medical equipment.

Those without different needs must be willing to help as needed with love and respect, offering dignity to everyone.

All types of people should be not only welcome but deeply loved, brought into relationships, and included in all activities.

 

2. Inclusion

Individuals with special needs can be, should be, and want to be involved. Find volunteer opportunities for them in your church.

They can be greeters, pass out bulletins, fill coffee cups, check the pews between services for anything left behind, and stock paper towels in the restrooms.

There is no limit to their skills! We have been limiting this group for too long.

Chat with the person and their family if appropriate, and find out how they would like to serve.

They can fill the roll independently or with support as needed.

 

For children, the buddy system is a great way to involve kids in the children’s ministry.

High school students make great buddies for younger kids, but of course, adults could do this as well.

Some students will need a very hands-on buddy who supports most, if not all, aspects of engagement.

Other students do well just knowing there is a special person in the room that they can go to if they are feeling overwhelmed or need help or a break.

Allowing students with special needs to attend a younger class can be helpful if that is something the family prefers.

My 2nd-grade son does better in the 3-year-old class than with his same-age peers.

This, however, should be an option offered to the family, and they get to choose rather than the church deciding that the child should be placed in a different age-group.

 

When working with individuals with special needs who are going to be involved in a group at the church, no matter their age, a great idea is to create an Individualized Spiritual Plan (ISP), though you could give it another name.

Similar to an IEP in public schools, this plan helps churches and families work together to support the needs of the individual.

The ISP identifies needs, goals, and best ways to work with the person, whether in the nursery, the youth group, or an adult Bible study.

Key Ministry has an example of a basic ISP, but your church could create its own with any information your team deems relevant.

 

 

3. Space

Accessibility is key. It is hard enough to get out of the house on time every Sunday morning.

If there are not good parking spaces, automatic doors, or wheelchair-friendly hallways and doors, it becomes hardly worth the effort.

Churches are typically wheelchair-accessible, but that does not mean they are disability-friendly.

If the parking lot is full of potholes, it is difficult to maneuver.

The outside doors may have an automatic open, but do the doors to different rooms inside the building have that feature?

Consider offering closed-captioning on screens in the sanctuary or sign language interpretation, if available.

 

A major issue in most public places for families of special needs is restrooms.

Your church could consider turning a restroom into a family restroom rather than a gender-specific one to allow opposite-gender caregivers a way to easily assist.

An adult-sized changing table is a necessity for some families.

This option makes the experience easier and provides dignity to everyone involved.

You would be shocked and saddened by the number of families who are changing diapers on the floor due to a lack of other options.

 

Another important consideration is to offer sensory-friendly options. “Cry rooms” can be renamed to be more inclusive to anyone who needs to have a quieter space.

Headphones to decrease noise can be offered as people walk into the sanctuary.

Sensory kits with stress balls, fidget spinners, et cetera should be available to use as needed during the service.

If your building has a room that is not currently being used, it can be transformed into a sensory-friendly room with dimmer lights, calm music, and relaxing toys.

 

4. Ask!

It is important that we not assume what people need and waste our resources implementing things they may not actually want.

Church leadership needs to find families in the church and community and work with them to determine the next steps to make their church as welcoming as possible.

“What would make it easier for your family to fully access our church services and events?”

is a beautiful question that honors families and will lead to true relationships and growth.

Not every suggestion will be implemented, and families understand that, but just being asked makes us feel seen and invited.

 

Host events that specifically target people with different needs.

Reach out to the community to let them know that you see them, you love them, and you welcome them.

Sensory-friendly movie nights, a special needs birthday party, or a parents’ night out with childcare provided at the church are all great ways to start.

 

If your church is interested in beginning or expanding a special needs ministry, Soar Special Needs has a variety of resources available, including training options for church leadership.

Intentionally involving all God’s children with our varying needs and skills will drastically change your community and church.

Courtesy; Megan Moore

Matthias David
Matthias David
Working in His vine, as He does even more at mine.
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