The call of God is for God’s people to have compassion for the needy and marginalized, represented again and again by Old Testament directives to seek justice for “the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow.” Yet in our Gospel-minded pursuit of justice, we must not limit ourselves to the much-discussed matters of poverty, gender and racial justice, but rather, we must seek to embrace and reconcile ourselves to other marginalized communities as well. In this light, I ask my Christian brothers and sisters to consider special needs children and adults in church.
A Single Mom and her Disabled Children Walk into a Church…
My children are both disabled. My older daughter has a chromosomal abnormality known as DiGeorge syndrome while my younger son has high-functioning autism, which means that both of my children are often behaviorally challenged. A few years ago, when I was a single mother, I found myself struggling to manage them in church even more than usual. I wound up gathering my children to me and leaving the service early in tears of frustration.
Later that night, I received an e-mail from one of the leaders at my church. Several people had complained about my children’s conduct during the service, with one gentleman in particular lamenting that my attempts at managing my disruptive son during the service had “made it difficult for [him] to prepare his heart for communion.” Though her tone was gentle, this leader put the onus for managing my children entirely on me and stopped just short of accusing me of bad parenting. She seemed entirely unaware of how much effort I had already been making that day.
A wave of anger, hurt and numbness washed over me. Why were people complaining about my children when no one had offered to help me that day? Did my children have no place in church if I couldn’t manage them alone? And why was helping this man “prepare [his] heart for communion” a greater priority than making sure my family could be a part of that communion at all?
If we want to welcome the mentally disabled and their caregivers into the Body of Christ, there are three changes we must pursue.
We Must Change Our Perspective
After I learned Hebrew in college, I purchased a ring with a Hebrew inscription that read, “Here I am, send me!” (Isa. 6:8) Then I waited eagerly for God to reveal the ministry that he would call me to. When my disabled daughter’s birth catapulted me into the time-consuming world of therapies, surgeries, IEPs and endless conferences with medical providers, I determined that I would just have to find some way of fulfilling God’s calling for my life while taking care of her. When my son received his autism diagnosis, I began to despair of ever doing anything with my life other than taking care of my children. I’m ashamed now to admit that, on my darkest and most self-pitying days, I questioned whether my children’s disabilities were a punishment from God, a curse sent down on me for some serious sin on my part.
How blind I was! Children with special needs are not a curse. They’re a ministry, and if you have had one, then God has called you to this ministry. I kept on telling God, “Here I am! Send me!” when God had already sent my ministry to me from the moment my daughter was born.
We Protestants often profess to belong to a “priesthood of all believers.” But our actions in this regard seldom match our words. We fail to see the everyday ministries of those around us. We must not view caregivers who are managing children and adults with special needs as distractions from worship, but as priests of God with a rightful role in our tapestry of worship. Our names may never be printed on the church staff list or a bulletin of missionaries the church supports, but what we do is every bit as much of a ministry as what the pastors, elders, deacons and other church leaders do. We are ministers of the Gospel, the same as they are.
We Must Check Our Assumptions
When well-meaning leaders ask me to change how I am handling my children at church, the assumption always seems to be that I am not already actively trying to manage them, that I am “letting” them misbehave. My children are approached as a disruption to the order of worship that must be sequestered or silenced, and I am a failure for allowing them to “distract” from worship.
This treatment of people with special needs represents a missed opportunity. God revealed part of the reason that he allows some people to be born with disabilities in John 9:2-3, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus explained, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (NIV) Our disabled brothers, sisters and children present us with an opportunity to display the works and the glory of God.
We can do more for people with special needs in our services than chase them out. In October of 2017, while the Pope was giving an address, a little girl with Down Syndrome approached him in spite of her parents’ attempts to manage her. The Pope invited the girl to sit next to him in the bishop’s chair and hold his hand, which she did for the remainder of his address. A photograph of this act of kindness went viral and was seen around the world, to the glory of God.
Just like Jesus, we must do the works of the God who sends us (John 9:4) in regards to the disabled.
We Must Make Space in Our Worship, Our Ministries and in Our Hearts
Not every special needs person in church can ascend the stage and hold the speaker’s hand. This being the case, what are some practical ways that churches of all sizes can include children and adults with special needs?
Larger churches might consider starting an actual special needs ministry, such as the Special Friends ministry at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. My children attended Special Friends for years and always had a positive experience there.
Smaller churches should ask for volunteers to serve as one-on-one aides to the people with special needs in their congregations. Sensory toys and small musical instruments that children can play during worship are a good way to engage special needs children of the hyperactive variety.
I also urge churches to consider the volume level of their worship in their main services and in their youth groups. My daughter has a sensory disorder and has found many youth groups to be unwelcoming environments because of the volume level of the worship and the activities. Every youth group meeting doesn’t have to be about loud bass, fog machines, and flashing lights! As an alternative, it would be great if more churches kept noise-canceling headphones on hand for guiding a child with sensory disorders through the louder parts of a session.
At a minimum, when approaching families with special needs, the attitude of church leaders should never be, “Could you please try to disrupt the rest of us less?,” but rather, “What can we do to help you include your special needs loved one in worship with us?”
A good church is not one that does not make mistakes, but rather, one that learns from its mistakes. I am happy to say that, after several conversations with my pastor and the leader who had confronted me, my church leaders and fellow members became more receptive to the work I am doing with my children. The leader would later visit me in my home and work hard to understand my children and what they need. Now, when I’m struggling at church, the sensory toys come out, or the musical instruments, or people just pitch in to help.
Let those of us in the Church be the keepers of the ones God has given us, even those children and adults with special needs. They have much to teach us, and we have much to gain in embracing this work from God.