Our churches have worked hard to create a community in which every person experiences the unconditional love of God no matter who they are or how they could be classified by race, age, income or experiences. We may look at our specific congregations to evaluate if our church demographic reflects that of the surrounding community. But how often do we consider providing resources for children or adults with special needs? As parents of a child with special needs, my husband and I are particularly interested in helping our churches grow in this area.
According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 20% of the U.S. population has a disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. These can range from hearing or speech impairments to vision impairments, intellectual challenges or physical challenges to autism or ADD/ADHD.
Here is the challenge: Children with special needs can present perceived obstacles to teaching well-organized classes in the “traditional model”. There are unique challenges for parents to attend meetings of the body and small group activities. These children may need special accommodations that require a great deal of thought and possibly additional manpower. So why would we make that a priority in our children’s ministry or in our church?
While Jesus walked on the earth he healed the deaf and blind, the disfigured, disabled and tormented – not because they were imperfect, but because he wanted to demonstrate the incredible glory and love of God. In John 9, Jesus tells his disciples that a man born blind was not being punished for his sins, or the sins of his parents, but he was born blind “so that God’s works might be displayed in him.” John 9:3 (HCSB)
Jesus considered the opportunities, and so must we. As we reflected on our church, we saw that although we had started various programs in the past, they eventually faded away. We realized that we had to help our members see the children and their needs differently. We needed to see them in the light of 1 Cor. 12. What makes a church complete is diversity... people with special needs create an important part of the diversity and are indeed indispensable! One of our goals as a church is to grow in the “fruits of the Spirit”. Many people with special needs can outshine the best of us in some of these fruits. They require special care that helps us grow in our fruits. As parents, we do not believe God allowed our son to have a disability so that we could care for him. He allowed it to teach us (and others) how to be more like Jesus. After speaking with the leaders, our region made the decision to include parents and caregivers in services more often. As they express their love and appreciation for how God has moved through their special children, others learn to see the opportunities for God to be glorified. As caregivers share their stories of challenges and victories, the members are inspired to build their own relationships with the families and children, and to learn God’s lessons as well.
Our region also worked within the children’s classes – to teach our children how to appreciate those who are different. We asked random adults to sit near the kids during the music service in “big church” wearing odd outfits, hairstyles, hats and had them behave in some unusual ways (this was hard on the ushers, so imagine how hard it was on the kids!) Then in class, we talked about all the ways we respond to differences...sometimes we giggle, get irritated, get distracted, we try to make sense of it and we may struggle!
We also helped the children “try on” disabilities through simulation and had them do a timed activity as teams. They experienced firsthand what other children may face every day. They learned that frequently the hardest thing about having a disability is not the physical challenge, but the social isolation they feel because they are viewed as different or less than others.
We recently did the same training for the Kid’s Kingdom volunteer’s and included our Region Leaders and one of our Elders.
Our region created a special needs assessment team. We recruited an occupational therapist, a social worker, a special education teacher, a behavioral aid, a speech and language assistant and a prayer warrior. We are also looking for a crafter who could help out with creating specialized materials. The members of this team are not assigned to Kingdom Kids classes, but are always on call.
When a new child with special needs comes into Kingdom Kids, the appropriate members of the team meet with the parents and create a plan to help the child be successful. Within the group, we have the ability to draw out the parents, modify curriculum, develop physical and visual supports, train the teaching staff and implement the plan. This group is also available to troubleshoot with kids who are already in our ministry.
We are organizing a group of teacher aids, specifically for special needs children, who will receive specialized training and be on a separate rotation within Kingdom Kids. Additionally, we’re organizing monthly family meetings for parents of children with special needs.
It is not a perfect plan, and there will probably be plenty of glitches, but it is a start and something we feel like we can do right away. We will keep you posted on what is working and what is not. Please keep us in your prayers as we continue to learn how God is glorified by these special little souls! Our heart’s desire is to have the inclusive church that 1 Cor. 12:23-24 talks about: “23 And those parts of the body that we think to be less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor... God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable”(HCSB)