By Laura Hurd
The pastor of our church has often said from the pulpit: “A church without children is quieter, less expensive, and cleaner—but it is also dead.”
More importantly, throughout the New Testament Jesus gave us clear examples of the Church’s call to minister to children. Moreover, He often reached out into the margins to care for those that were considered sick and lame.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we can find similar situations from the Bible right in our own communities.
In 2000, The Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an estimated 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The most recent findings from 2018 show those numbers have increased to 1 in 59 confirmed cases per year.
Now more than ever, the church has an opportunity to bring the love of Jesus to those who may currently feel ostracized from the church and the public in general.
Because I’m a mother to a child with autism, I’ve seen first hand how a church that makes a way for those with disabilities can not only be a blessing to special needs families, but in return will be blessed themselves.
Your congregation can tangibly care for families who have a member with special needs. Several good ways to start include implementing awareness, acceptance, and inclusion practices.
Begin With Self Reflection
I consider my pastor to be a great leader and a humble servant. Why? He leads by example.
He knows that for people to care what you have to say, they have to know that you truly care. For this to happen, you need to examine your own heart toward those with special needs before you can genuinely begin ministering to them.
God has already paved the way in His Word; all you need to do is obey and then shepherd the people of your church to follow.
Look For Opportunities That Already Exist
Maybe you currently have special needs families at your church. This is the perfect place to start.
God has sent those people there for a reason and there are many ways to support them, no matter what their needs. The quickest way to find out how the church can care for them is to simply ask.
Our family never had a list expectations for our church to follow. We just wanted to be able to come to church. One of the first things our pastor did was make a personal stop at our house to pray with us.
Since I’m the primary caregiver for our son with autism, he asked me to share with the preschool leader any way that they can help accommodate our needs. I did and soon after that, I noticed God had prepared members’ hearts to step up and serve.
4 Tangible Changes You Can Make Right Now
1. Create boundaries for safety.
Keep a baby gate in the open doorway as children enter the classroom for Sunday school and Wednesday night service.
When my son was young, he was prone to dart off and wander away from any designated area. The gate gave me peace of mind and I was able to go to my own class with less worry.
2. Keep Play Doh on hand.
It might sound a bit too simple, but this goes a long way: Make sure there’s an endless supply of Play Doh.
One thing I’ve learned as my church made a way for us to be able to attend is that most of the time it doesn’t cost any extra money. Play Doh is cheap and they already had it there.
Now, if my son is going to be in a certain classroom, they always have fresh play dough on hand.
3. Bring awareness for the entire congregation.
April is Autism Awareness Month. The first April after receiving our son’s diagnosis, the preschool director bought little puzzle piece (a symbol often used in autism awareness campaigns) stretchy necklaces for all of the kids.
This was a simple gesture in itself, but the overarching idea was support and inclusion. The next April some of the ladies had shirts made to show their support as well. Several people had taken group photos and posted them on social media with our church’s page tagged.
By sharing these moments online, it let thousands of others in our community know our church welcomes those who may feel marginalized because of their disability.
4. Set Up a Designated Area.
Our church managed to find extra space within the children’s department and they created an area for special needs families.
It was a room they had repurposed by simply changing the schedule of events for that department so we could have a place to stay on campus during worship. It’s one room that serves many purposes.
They were open to change and that makes a world of difference in the lives of families that are homebound from the lack of public accommodations.
If God has sent special needs families to your church, you can be sure He has placed people there in advance to minister to them. All you have to do is determine how much time, money, and energy you want to put into making the love of Christ accessible to this unreached people group.