In every community you will find individuals with special needs and families supporting loved ones with special needs. You may not many of them in our churches but they do exist. Nineteen percent of the general population lives with special needs and have families impacted by those special needs. Ninety percent have no church home. Do you, like me, find these numbers distressing?
Why don’t we see them?
They have had previous negative experiences with the Church.
They may not feel their child or loved one with special needs is accepted as fully participating members of the community.
They may not be comfortable bringing their child or loved one with special needs to events and gatherings due to social, behavioral and/or physical issues.
They may be using all their available energy to meet the needs of their family and their child with special needs.
Does your faith community have a responsibility to nurture and support those with special needs?
Jesus welcomed – even healed - many people with special needs. He gave them His time and attention. Why should the Christian community be any different?
The Body of Christ is called to live the Gospel in all its fullness. We are they eyes, hands and feet of Jesus on earth – empowered by the Holy Spirit. All God’s children should be welcomed and brought into full congregational life. Their gifts and talents make the Body of Christ whole.
Many families are already a part of the faith community but stopped attending church because of a perceived (and probably real) lack of acceptance. Their children and loved ones with special needs should be welcomed into the community as every other child and individual is welcomed. They should be supported through the additional trials they face and the joys of caring for their loved one with special needs
Individuals with special needs are an often marginalized segment of society. They are often excluded because they look and/or act differently. Most know and feel the discomfort of being excluded.
Much of society doesn’t value those with significant needs and/or cognitive challenges. In fact, many (90+ percent of those with Down syndrome) with known genetic syndromes are aborted in utero. Babies created in Him image disposed of as useless tissue! It is time we took back what is taught in God's Word and live it! Over the years, in the post-modern culture, the Church has become more secularized and some denominations have become part of the popular culture to the extent that they call abortion a blessing
God loves and values all His children - He makes no mistakes...and I'm sure He weeps at the state of parts of His church.
So, let the faith community be different. Embrace those with special needs and their families as Jesus would!
What you, as an individual, can do:
In every community you will find many who would love to support individuals with special needs but aren’t sure what they can do.
1. Invite and welcome them into your church home.
What do you do when you meet someone who is seeking a church home? In the natural course of relationships, we invite them to our church!
When inviting individuals with special needs, remember many cannot drive. They will need a ride to church. Those in institutional settings will, most likely, also not have a ride to church. This is probably the biggest obstacle in bringing individuals with special needs into our churches.
It seems that we may shy away from inviting families dealing with individuals with special needs, Perhaps we see problems vs. opportunities. Perhaps they don’t feel their church is equipped to handle needs beyond what they perceive as "normal."
In truth, we are all equipped by God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to meet those needs. All are created in His Image and should be welcomed and encouraged to participate in the fullness of congregational life.
2. Support and guide them.
It often isn’t easy for any of us to learn our way around a new church and meet new people. Support and guide individuals with special needs, as needed, as they make their way through learning the church layout, the liturgy, the Hymnal, Prayer Book and meeting others. Don’t forget to fade your support as they become independent and get to know people.
3. Treat them with dignity and respect
As an individual created in God’s image! God loves all His children and we should too – giving them the respect they deserve and at all times protect their dignity.
4. Meet them where they are.
Isn’t that what friends do? Meet them where they are emotionally, socially and developmentally and gently guide them forward on their path to spiritual growth. Help them discern their spiritual gifts and how to use them. Remember they have the same spiritual needs as everyone else. They want to know our Lord better and become closer to Him. They desire to worship with a church family. They want to be welcomed in fellowship and be valued for who they are.
5. Teach others how to love and include them.
There may be those in the faith community who harbor unfounded fears and prejudices – or just don’t know what to do or say. They may be need to be taught by example what to do and say.
In keeping it simple, this is all about relationships and living the Gospel. The implementation may seem complex but it is one individual or one family at a time, brought into the fullness of the Body of Christ, supporting and learning from each other, and bringing God the glory!