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Is Your Church Special Needs Friendly?

Is Your Church Special Needs Friendly?

On Tuesday, I wrote about How Special Needs Ministry Blessed My Family. While I’m very thankful for my church, I know that there are other families that would greatly benefit from a ministry like this as well.  Here’s why you should seriously consider having a special needs ministry at your church.

Is your church special needs friendly?

Most people would say yes right off the bat without even thinking.  But having a church that is special needs friendly includes more than having handicapped ramps and going out of your way to be friendly to anyone whose disability you can physically see.

Have you ever considered what it’s like to attend church as a person with special needs?  Let’s take a walk down Imagination Lane…

Imagine walking into a church sanctuary and feeling like someone is shining a high-powered flashlight in your face.  Somehow, you are able to find your way to a seat.  When you sit down, the texture of the seat feels uncomfortable.  It scratches at your legs and is very distracting. The choir starts singing, but it sounds as if they are yelling at the top of their lungs. The loud singing, coupled with clapping and exuberant praises from the person sitting next to you are starting to make you feel very anxious.  Bright lights…scratchy seats…loud noises. It’s all so overwhelming that you cover your ears so that you can deal with just one overpowering issue at a time.  All you can think about is leaving at the first opportunity you get…

Doesn’t sound too inviting, huh?  What I just described to you is a church service through the eyes of many persons with autism and sensory processing disorder.

To be honest, I never realized how much of an issue it could be to attend church with a special needs child until I became the parent of one.

Going to church with a special needs child can be challenging.  Some parents would rather not deal with the added stress and stay at home.  Others take turns, hardly ever attending church as a family unit. This saddens me. I don’t believe that this is how God wanted it to be for special needs families.

While the life of a special needs parent is not all bad, it’s certainly not all easy either.  Some special needs children require total assistance with bathing, dressing, eating, and toileting.  Some are nonverbal or have problems expressing their wants and needs. Weekly therapies are often the norm, along with regular doctor’s appointments that can sometimes require travel. Without an adequate support system, it can be a very isolating and exhausting way of life for parents.

Dear Hubby is in the military and we move a lot, often leaving our trusted support system behind.  One of the first things we do upon arriving at a new base is to look for a church home.  Church should be one of the easiest places for persons to make new friends and build support networks, right?  Sadly, that’s not always the case, especially when a church has an environment that is not supportive to those with special needs.  There have been many occasions in which we felt like a church was a great fit for us, but totally wrong for our son.  As a result, the search for a church had to resume. I often feel anxious whenever I take Big Brother to a new church, because I have no idea of what to expect from him or from the church.

We once went to a church in which we were made to feel like our son was too much of a burden in children’s church. They paged us to come and get him because they couldn’t watch him and the other children too.  We left and never returned.

We’ve also been to churches in which our son was placed in regular children’s church, but was not encouraged to interact with his peers.  I guess the workers thought that as long as he was over in a corner quietly playing with a car, everything was okay.  But it wasn’t okay.  Our child has toys to play with at home.  When he comes to church, he should be taught about the Lord just like any other child that comes to children’s church.

I had a conversation last week with a youth pastor that was very thought provoking.  In a class some years back, one of his students was talking about the importance of showing love and compassion to those with special needs.  She was a teenager at the time, but showed wisdom beyond her years when she made this statement about another young girl with special needs:

“When she goes to heaven and is made whole, I bet she will thank all of those that taught her about Jesus.”

That’s something to think about, isn’t it?  Let’s take this thought a little bit further…

What kind of account will you have to give to God about the way you treated those with special needs at your church?

Did you automatically assume that they didn’t know what was going on?

Did you teach halfheartedly to them, while giving your all to those who were “normal”?

The Bible tells us to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…”, according to Matthew 28:19.  Nowhere in the Bible did it say to only teach those who are healthy and without developmental delays.

If there is only one child with special needs in the entire church, then that child deserves a chance to learn the gospel in a way that he or she can understand.  Jesus talked about this in Matthew 18:12 when he told the parable of the lost sheep, saying that a man with 100 sheep will leave the 99 to go after the 1 that was lost and rejoice when it is found.

Having a special needs ministry benefits the entire congregation.  Think about it this way.  When the parent of a special needs child knows that their child is being adequately taken care of during worship service, that parent is more likely to serve in other areas of ministry, thus helping to share some of the load.

What a sad state of affairs it would be for someone to miss out on reaching their fullest potential in Christ because the church wasn’t equipped to minister to their child as well!  Some churches may be hesitant to start a special needs ministry because feelings of inadequacy and fear get in the way, but the Bible tells us in 1 John 4:18 that perfect love casts out fear.

What is your excuse for not starting a special needs ministry?  Let me see if I can anticipate some of them…

We don’t have any special needs children at our church.

Are you sure about that? I bet there’s at least one child with special needs at your church, especially with the increasing rates of children diagnosed with developmental disorders.  I mainly discuss autism because that’s what my son has, but a special needs ministry can include any child with developmental delays, learning issues, behavioral or mental health issues, and those with severe medical problems.

We don’t have the resources and experience to start a ministry like that.

I’m going to ask you like Elisha asked the widow woman in 2 Kings 4:2 – What do you have in your house?  Do you have members of the congregation who are teachers?  Do you have members that love children and have compassion for the disabled?  Do you have access to the Internet for ideas?  Do you have a budget for your regular children’s church ministry?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you can start a special needs ministry.

The Bible encourages us to “bear one another’s burdens”.  Our churches should be a place of hope, refuge, and support for special needs families. Who knows what signs, wonders and miracles could come out of a church’s willingness to serve the “least of these” and their families?

Let’s go back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post.  Is your church special needs friendly? Take some time to seriously ponder this question. If your honest answer is no and you want to do something about it, look no further. Tomorrow’s post will give you direction on how you can go about starting a special needs ministry at your church.

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • April June 2, 2016, 2:24 AM

    We have a 3 year old autistic boy that comes to our pre-school program on Sunday mornings. I help out on some Sundays since I really like working with kids. I would love to be able to help him be taught some bible stories/lessons, but…how can I help? He walks around alot between the 2 rooms we have for the pre-school, and he’s pretty much non-verbal… (A little happiness, though; the other day, when I came in the room, he actually ran up and gave me a little hug! I was really surprised.) So do you have any ways that I could better help him, Tonya(or anyone)? I’d really appreciate some advice. Thanks!

    • Tonya Nash June 2, 2016, 10:07 PM

      Hi April! Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment. I think you are already on the right track! His running up to give you a big hug shows that you have already started to build a rapport with him. That’s a big deal! Some children with autism like to move around a lot. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t paying attention or that they don’t understand what you are saying, even if they are nonverbal. When my son was around that age, we used a round cushioned seat that fit on top of a chair. It looked like an inflatable frisbee. He would wiggle around on the cushion and he was happy about that. You can also try fidget toys to help keep him focused, like furry balls or other textured items that he can hold in his hand. Speaking with his parents may be helpful for insight into how you can better connect with him and teach him. Find things that he likes and use those things in your bible lessons. You can also assign an older peer buddy to help him out in class as well. I applaud you for wanting to reach out to this little boy. I hope some of these ideas help! Let me know how it goes! – Tonya

      • April June 2, 2016, 11:22 PM

        Thanks for your reply! You mean like one of those cushions that you could tie onto a dining room table chair? Or something different? He likes to flip a car or other small toys around and around in his hand. 🙂 I’ll have to print out your 4 part series and show it to my pastor’s wife, who is our pre-school’s director! 🙂

        • Tonya Nash June 3, 2016, 3:05 PM

          Hi April! This is what I was referring to: https://funandfunction.com/15-wiggle-cushion.html
          Thank you so much for sharing my posts! I hope that they will be a blessing to your church!

          • April June 3, 2016, 9:55 PM

            Ohhhh, ok!! You’re welcome! Thanks, I hope so, too!! And about the cushion, have you found them or something like it in stores? Or only online?

          • Tonya Nash June 4, 2016, 6:27 PM

            I have only seen them online, but you may be able to find one at a medical supply store. My son got his from a therapist at school.

  • mj November 19, 2014, 4:38 PM

    As a mom to two beautiful children on the spectrum, I thank you for shedding light on a seldom-addressed issue. How well I recall times of dread in attending church, attention always divided between trying to get something out of the service and the delicate balance of keeping my children comfortable, always hoping and praying they would be able to grasp the love of Jesus. In my experience, there have been a few people who made the attempt to reach out to my kiddos,and,for those few, I praise God, but, I have to say I have never seen much in the way of an actual ministry or accomodations to assist special needs. It is something that ought to be advocated for, especially as these children grow to teens and adults who perhaps feel out of place in the usual ministries. I also think we all as Christians could benefit from more understanding of living with a disability as well as caring for the disabled. After all, Jesus died for them, too, and it is just as vital they know. How will they in an enviroment that provokes nothing but anxiety and awkwardness? Thank you again for raising the question and God bless!

    • Tonya Nash November 19, 2014, 10:34 PM

      Thank you for sharing your personal experience! And let me tell you, I agree with you wholeheartedly! I have seen a few churches start special needs ministries, but not nearly enough churches take on this very important area of ministry. It is my prayer that this will change and that more parents will feel free to speak up about this in their local places of worship.

  • Myra October 8, 2014, 2:16 PM


    Great article!! And dont forget that there are adults with special needs that might need a quieter section of the church to worship and participate in, and who might feel awkward due to social anxiety issues or what have you. I am an Aspie, and I do find it difficult to attend church.

    So happy to hear someone is reaching out to try to help!

  • Tara February 16, 2014, 6:15 AM

    I feel like this post was written just for me. I work with the children in my church. I think this issue is so important especially because my son may have sensory processing issues. I am so grateful for his kind, caring, and resourceful teachers. Thank you for the wonderful post!

  • Tenns @ New Mama Diaries February 12, 2014, 11:36 PM

    This is such a great idea for a post and getting the word out! I’m sure many pastors could afford to read your post and implement changes to better serve their entire congregation.

    Stopping by from #SITSBlogging!

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