Imagine a new child coming to your fourth-grade Sunday school class. He has a motorized wheelchair. He cannot speak intelligible words. His eyes, when open, seem to wander aimlessly. But, every once and a while, he seems to focus on a face or a sound. He smiles. Sometimes he lets out an excited “Ha, ha!”
This young boy was in my class many years ago. And his presence, while challenging at times, turned out to be a precious gift to me and his classmates. I intentionally looked for ways to include him in the lesson. Sometimes it was simply placing a lesson visual in his lap for the class to see. Other times, if he suddenly let out a “ha”, I would smile and look at him and exclaim, “Yes, Michael, you are paying attention!” It was a joy to watch how the other children became more and more attentive to him as the year went on. By God’s grace, his special “needs” became special “gifts” to us. We learned to see that God’s image bearers – no matter the range of their abilities – are equally precious in His sight and have an important role in the body of Christ growing into maturity.
I am very thankful for the growing number of churches that are creating a welcoming, loving, well-thought-out, helpful ministry for children with special needs. How is your church doing in this regard? In his article, “Three Ways The Church Can Better Serve Special Needs Families,” Chris Hulshof gives the following general advice:
- Create a climate of inclusive hospitality.
…If a family has a child with a cognitive disability, who will be responsible to welcome the family, access the need through parental conversation, and suggest a suitable plan for the service?
…When a church has a plan in place to welcome those with disability, they are demonstrating a generous and inclusive hospitality. It is a hospitality that says, “We have been waiting for you.” As the number of people with a diagnosed disability continues to rise it is essential for churches to thoughtfully consider how hospitable they actually are.
- Minister to every member of the family.
…while disability affects one family member it impacts the whole family. There is mother and father who may not have been out on a date for some time because they do not know who to entrust with the care of their child. There may be a sibling whose adolescent apprehensions also include concerns for a brother or sister with a disability…An accessible church will consider how they can address the needs of the family as well as the needs of the disabled individual.
- Engage in collaborative ministry as part of missional ministry.
…God has gifted every believer for the work of the ministry within the church. Sadly, those with disabilities can find themselves on the sidelines because no one has taken the time to understand how they are uniquely gifted and can contribute to the body of Christ. This may not be an easy process but it will be a rewarding one. I believe a church that takes seriously the giftedness of their disabled members will experience firsthand the delight of worship without pretense. (www.christianitytoday.com)
If you and your church would like to be more intentional in ministering to children with special needs and their families, here are some additional resources:
- “Disability, Autism, and the Tender Mercy of Our God,” audio by Brenda Fischer, and an accompanying handout contains a wealth of practical tips
- “How to Serve Families with Disability” article by John Knight
- “Help the Children Love Different People," sermon by John Piper
- Joni and Friends, website with a variety of helpful resources