Your Church and Special Needs
The church was so quiet you could hear a stray fly ping against a stained glass window. The communion trays were about to be passed down the long rows. No music, no murmurs, no cries interrupted the reverent silence.
Until my nine-month-old son decided he’d been still long enough.
After a quick exit, trying not to let my heels clack too much on the way out, my noisy little buddy and I spent the service in the lobby of the church we were visiting.
Oh, no one glared at us. There were a few smiles on our way out. An usher brought additional chairs to accommodate the number of people in the foyer. They offered to escort me to the nursery, assuring me the staff was quite excellent.
For this one service I chose to watch the screen mounted on the wall…but I had options. Many parents of children with special needs don’t.
Their child is too old for nursery. Too loud for the nursing mothers’ room. Too disruptive in the service and in their Sunday School class. So the parents take turns roaming the halls or staying home with the child instead of spending a much-needed moment being still in the presence of God.
Why bother going at all? A huge percentage—maybe 80 to 90%—of these families don’t, even though they may desperately wish to.
It can be easy to let them fall through the cracks. We don’t know what they need. Sometimes they don’t know what they need themselves. Sometimes they believe it’s just something they need to figure out and deal with on their own, as it’s their family, after all.
Guess what? They’re God’s family. So what can we do to make Sundays a day of rest for them?
Christ Fellowship has been a leader in the area of putting programs in place to address these issues. Here is how one of the programs works, as described by Charlene Owens, whose family has been blessed by this ministry:
You fill out a packet of information about your child and then you are asked to pray for a special needs shadow to sign up that will be paired with your child. Then the church is constantly seeking shadows to sign up. The volunteer also fills out paperwork, a background check is done on them, and then they go through training. When they start shadowing, another person will be assisting until they feel the new shadow understands what is needed.
If a child can handle going into their age specific class, then the shadow goes with the child and sits with them to help them throughout their time there. If the child gets overwhelmed easily and does better just remaining in the special needs room, then the shadow stays in that room with them. They try to do a small Bible related craft or read to the child and interact with them as much as possible.
The parent always drops the child off in the special needs room, meets with the shadow to update them on anything that may be going on with that child, and the parent receives a silent beeper in case they are needed during the service. Then the parent will always meet back in the special needs room to turn in their beeper, hear from the shadow how things went, and claim their child.
There is a Special Needs Admin on staff who will text or call the parents each week to find out if they are coming that weekend and for which service so that they can set up the shadows needed. If for whatever reason, something happens where the family cannot attend, they text the Special Needs Admin to tell them they aren’t able to come.
Not many churches are as large and have the reach Christ Fellowship does, with its seven campuses spread across South Florida and even New York City. But that doesn’t mean a similar program isn’t possible on a much smaller scale.
Jolene Philo, co-author of Every Child Welcome, talks about the buddy system, where two adults (who have been screened, of course) take responsibility for one child, alternating Sundays. They attend the child’s Sunday School class as a buddy, assisting there or taking them to another room if they need to complete the lesson elsewhere.
Charlene suggests, “Due to many children with special needs being overwhelmed with noise, etc., it is helpful if you have a special room set up. This room can include books, toys, bean bags, rubber mats on the floor, small table and chairs, or things along those lines.” It’s a safe, quiet room the child can spend time in if they need it.
Allana Martian tells what worked for them after going from church to church, trying to find the right place for their situation:
The turning point for us was when a friend organized a small group of people who were willing to take turns sitting with our son during the morning service at church. Since our son could not handle the loud music and crowds, they mostly either sat with our son in a classroom or wandered around outside catching lizards, etc. For the first time in years, we were able to successfully attend church together as a family. Before that, we were stuck taking turns staying home with our son, not having the energy to get him to church.
At a smaller church, where you only have one or maybe two children who have special needs, I think this type of arrangement could be done quite easily. Most people are willing to offer their services on a rotating basis, helping out one time every 6 to 8 weeks. It just takes someone who sees a need and grabs the bull by the horns and makes it happen!
If your church doesn’t have an official program set up yet, that’s okay. Talk to the parents. See what you can do to help them. Maybe even spend time in their home, allowing them to train you how to care for their child so that you’ll be equipped to take a turn on a Sunday, or during small group activities.
Be patient and persistent—not only in bringing the need to the church leaders, but also in dealing with the parents.
Some have been hurt or felt judged. Many have a hard time releasing their child to the care of someone else—often with very good reason.
“Take baby steps,” Jolene advises. “Build trust with the parents and with the kids.” Your efforts will be worth it!
~ Every time someone makes an effort to include Andrew or take time for him, it is a blessing to him, and also to our entire family.
~ It was such an incredible feeling being able to finally sit and worship through a whole service with my husband, while Connor was happy in special needs ministry.
~ We will forever be blessed by one friend seeing our need, and being pro-active enough to make a difference!
There are many things a church can do to help these families be able to worship with fellow believers. Look at the physical building itself and see what can be done to make it handicap accessible. Be welcoming and follow up with visitors to see how to make them and their children feel at home and included. Many resources are available on the subject, like the website The Inclusive Church, and the blog Different Dream For My Child.
This need isn’t going away. It’s only growing more apparent. And you—as an individual and as a church—can make going to church something these families actually look forward to each week.
If you missed last week’s article about ministering to these families on a day-to-day basis, check it out here.