How can church leaders make disciples of everyone—including those with special needs? Here are nine things to consider.
By Seana Scott
Marsha stopped attending church because of her child’s disability. Every Sunday her phone vibrated in the middle of the sermon asking her to pick up her daughter because of her child’s unwelcome behavior. Marsha couldn’t remember the last church event or Bible study she attended—and participated in.
Her story is a familiar one. Individuals and families living with disabilities sometimes experience unintentional exclusion in the local church. The unity of the body of Christ shouldn’t only include those with certain abilities. God calls the body of Christ to include the marginalized as we make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), but the practicality of inclusion sometimes eludes church leaders.
How can church leaders make disciples of everyone—including those with disabilities? It can feel intimidating and confusing to know how to do special needs ministry well.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to special needs ministry or including those with differences into discipleship of the local church,” said Jill Hartsfield, special needs programming director at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. “But there are lots of creative ways to ensure all people are welcome to worship and grow in their faith.”“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to special needs ministry. But there are lots of creative ways to ensure all people are welcome to worship and grow in their faith.” — Jill Hartsfield Click To Tweet
Here are nine things to consider when including and discipling those with special needs.
1. Preach inclusive theology
The soil of a church is watered at the pulpit. Churches must cultivate a vision of the body of Christ that includes all members of society, and it starts with teaching sound doctrine of humanity. All humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and have value (1 Corinthians 12:21–26)—male and female, able-bodied and disable-bodied, neurotypical and nontypical. All are created to glorify God (Ecclesiastes 12:13) and have a purpose (Ephesians 2:8-10).
To cultivate a community of inclusivity, we must speak of the value of all humans and include those with differences in sermon examples and in vision casting of the “good life.” Those with disabilities can exemplify a life of following Jesus.
According to research, more than 90% of churchgoing special needs parents cite the most helpful support to be a “welcoming attitude toward people with disabilities.” Meanwhile, only about 80% of those parents say that welcoming attitude is present in their churches. This welcoming attitude forms from what church leadership publicly teaches.
2. Build physical accessibility
Kim Hiday has cerebral palsy and started her faith journey when the local church drove into her neighborhood, piled kids in the bus, and took them to Vacation Bible School. “I really wanted to go, but I didn’t know if they could take me,” she recalled. “So, we asked. They took the extra effort to make sure I rode on the bus. That’s really when my family started attending church.”
However, she faced accessibility challenges growing up in youth group. The youth rooms were located upstairs, and leaders needed to carry her up and down. “If churches think about accessibility to all areas of their buildings, then people with physical disabilities will feel thought of, included, welcomed,” she said.Around 20% of churchgoing special needs parents say their church does not have a welcoming attitude toward people with disabilities, according to a dissertation study on the subject. Click To Tweet
Accessibility inclusion might look like doors wide enough for wheelchairs, ramps or elevators to areas of the building accessed by stairs, or wheelchairs made available for those with mobility limitations if they need to walk a long way to access ministry rooms.
3. Train staff and lay leaders
Hartsfield said churches know there’s a need for ministry inclusion, but they don’t know how to start. She recommends church staff undergo free training offered through Joni and Friends or Guidelight to increase awareness of the unique opportunities to minister to and include those with disabilities.
“Disability ministry can be easy, but it can also be messy,” Hartsfield said. “You want to be equipped well for medical, behavioral, and safety issues. Do research and prepare well so when God brings someone, the church is ready.”
4. Make inclusion a programming priority
Who might not be able to participate in your church’s programming? Why? What adjustment can easily be made to include them?
An example might include accommodations for those with sensory issues. Is there a sensory-friendly space in the building where people are still able to participate in the service? When planning a ministry event, how can you adjust for those with physical disabilities? Start with who you have and keep in mind who God might bring.
5. Be creative in meeting needs
Sometimes leaders need just a little creativity to find ways to allow those—of any age—with special needs to participate. Chapel Rock Church in Indianapolis bought a tablet for an older woman to utilize in worship when she started to lose her eyesight. She uses the larger screen, loaded with the worship and sermon slides, to participate with much more ease.
Daniel Brown, children’s pastor at Chapel Rock, noticed kids with neuro disabilities when he started at the church. He thought outside of the box and converted a storage closet into a sensory-friendly quiet room right off the kids worship area for those who need space to step aside. “In ministry leadership, we need to slow down to recognize the needs of those in our ministries and then accommodate them the best we can so we can all participate in the life of the church,” Brown said.“In ministry leadership, we need to slow down to recognize the needs of those in our ministries and then accommodate them the best we can so we can all participate in the life of the church." — Daniel Brown Click To Tweet
Brentwood Baptist Church utilizes a “fidget cart” in their youth ministry, a rolling cart full of a few monkey noodles, a timer, and fidgets to help students with disabilities be able to participate in activities. “Churches don’t need big budgets to include those with differences in the unity of the Body of Christ,” Hartsfield said. “We just need to think creatively sometimes.”
Whether a fidget cart, sensory-friendly rooms, or technology for those losing their sight—churches can think outside of the pre-packaged ministry box to shepherd the sheep in their care.
6. Cultivate unity in programming
Angela Kautz, a mother of two special needs children, expressed the need for developmentally typical kids and those with disabilities to interact with each other instead of always being separated. “Some larger churches have the capability to have a designated special needs area, but it cultivates disunity at times,” she said.
Instead, she suggests same-aged youth of all abilities have times in the programming where they interact with one another. “It might mean peer-aged kids spend one Sunday a month in the special needs area or they have a time in the weekly programming where they are all together. We need to think creatively when we talk about inclusion.”
7. Provide diverse serving opportunities
One mistake ministry leaders sometimes make is seeing special needs ministry as a one-way service. But God equips every believer with gifts to offer the church body “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Ephesians 4:11-13, CSB).
What serving opportunities are available for disciples with special needs in your congregation? Maybe they can serve as welcome hosts or help with communion prep. Perhaps they can sing in the choir."Churches are all called to make disciples and part of making disciples, including those with special needs, is helping them find ways to live out their faith.” — Shannon Pugh Click To Tweet
“Every person has gifts,” said Shannon Pugh, leader of special needs ministry at Irving Bible Church in Irving, Texas. “There are no exceptions. We cannot say to one part of the body, ‘I don’t need you.’ Churches are all called to make disciples and part of making disciples, including those with special needs, is helping them find ways to live out their faith.”
8. Teach in a way all people can understand
Special needs are not only physical but also include those with learning disabilities. As an adult, Hiday stopped attending her childhood church for a few years when the new pastor preached so fast and with such big words that it was hard for her to follow. “I love my home church, but I was basically just sitting there, not understanding anything he was saying.”
Some suggest preaching Sunday sermons with clarity and simplicity and then providing more scholastic opportunities in Bible study classes. Even in Sunday School classes, choosing curriculum is important. “Special needs ministry is not babysitting. It’s discipleship,” Hartsfield said. “Adapt the curriculum you already have or access curriculum suited for those with learning differences.” She suggests Lifeway’s Access curriculum and The Adapted Word on Teachers Pay Teachers.
9. Start with who you have
Pugh explains special needs ministry as a relationship, not a program. “We minister to who God brings. How can we, as the local body of Christ, include everyone that’s here in the life of the church? Is there one person you can start with to make their inclusion a reality?” Pugh also encourages churches to prepare for who God might bring. “One of the worst things we can do as Christians is turn people away,” she said.
Start with those in your church right now who can use support. Our churches can become places of welcome and discipleship for all—with intentionality, a sound doctrine of disability, training, and a little creativity.
Seana writes and speaks to equip and inspire others in their relationship with God. She produces and hosts the Well Soul Podcast, a weekly devotional podcast with Scripture, reflection, and prayer. Her writing has been featured at Christianity Today, Fathom Mag, (in)Courage, and Lifeway Research. You can connect with her on Instagram @wellsoulpodcast.