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Special needs ministry a field ‘white unto harvest’ for Snellville church

A person with special needs swings in one of the Church on Main's three sensory rooms. Photo from Church on Main

SNELLVILLE Ga. (BP) – The Church on Main will not soon forget Hannah’s baptism. A 15-year-old with cerebral palsy, Hannah was nonverbal and communicated through a device that tracked her eye movements and generated speech for her. Through that device, she told her mother she had committed her life to Christ and wanted to be baptized.

The baptism was tricky. Because Hannah is unable to close off her airways, she could not be submerged in the church’s normal baptistry. So she was placed in a portable baptistry, where the pastor, the executive pastor and two other staff members could handle her with care and brush water over her head rather than holding it under the water.

“It was one of the top five incredible experiences of my life,” said Jeff Jansma, the church’s community engagement director and leader of its special needs ministry. “Her whole countenance was angelic.”

Hannah is one of more than 50 people with special needs to attend the Church on Main weekly. The special needs ministry, now more than 30 years old, includes Bible studies and activities for children, teenagers and adults with a variety of special needs. The Atlanta-area church (formerly First Baptist, Snellville) is committed to reaching and discipling people with special needs. They hope more congregations will join them in that endeavor.

“The resources are becoming much more available, and there is a hunger within the local church for reaching families with special needs,” Jansma said. It is a “wide open, white unto harvest mission field.”

As many as 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. (27 percent) have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes 12.8 percent with a serious difficulty related to concentrating, remembering or making decisions. Another 7.2 percent struggle to live independently.

Those individuals and their families may be among the largest unreached people groups in America. Ninety percent of special needs families do not attend church, Jansma said, often because they cannot find a church that knows how to love and teach them.

Lifeway Christian Resources is attempting to make a dent in the special needs lostness by offering a variety of resources. They include the Bible Studies for Life Special Buddies curriculum for kids with special needs, an annual special needs VBS curriculum and the Access Bible study curriculum for adults with special learning needs.

People with special needs often grasp their need for a Savior, Access editor Alice Stegemann said, but it can be challenging to help them understand the Bible’s teaching on how to live for Christ.

“Understanding what the Bible communicates to us, how to apply the biblical principles for life – that may be on a level that’s a little harder to comprehend,” Stegemann said. “If the Bible is not communicated in language that’s on their level, that they can understand, in some ways, you’re neglecting their spiritual growth.”

But will enough churches answer the call to ministry among this largely unreached population? The Church on Main hopes its enthusiasm will inspire other churches.

After decades of adult special needs ministry, the Church on Main began to increase its offerings for children and teens five years ago. Now there are special needs classes for preschool and elementary aged kids during both Sunday morning worship services and the church’s Life Groups hour. Middle school and high school children with special needs have their own Life Group.

On average, 30 preschool and elementary school children attend the Sunday special needs classes. That’s in addition to half a dozen youth with special needs and 20-30 adults with special needs who attend the early worship service, followed by a special needs Life Group. There is Wednesday night programming for special needs individuals of all ages.

When special needs people need a break, they can visit one of the church’s three sensory rooms. Those rooms offer a calm, quiet space where people with special needs can concentrate on bubble tubes, marble walls, fiberoptic lights and mirrors.

The key to discipling people with special needs, Jansma said, is keeping it simple.

“We have to break it down into very simple Bible truths and the teachings of Jesus,” he said. “We look at how He looked upon people, and cared for people and provided support.”

Outreach also is vital to the special needs ministry. Once a month, the Church on Main provides a respite night for adults with special needs and their caregivers. It includes dinner and a program—sometimes ministry-related and sometimes entertainment. The programs have run the gamut from movies and sock hops to southern gospel and contemporary Christian concerts. More than 100 people attend each respite night.

The largest special needs attendance came when the Church on Main hosted a Night to Shine with the Tim Tebow Foundation, a prom night centered on God’s love for people with special needs ages 14 and older. Nearly 1,000 volunteers and guests attended.

The evangelistic efforts have borne fruit.

“We have had several of our special needs people give their lives to Christ and get baptized here at the church,” Jansma said. “Those have been some of the most wonderful experiences” because “you don’t see it very often.”

The Church on Main has an average weekly attendance of more than 1,000. But they don’t want anyone to think special needs ministry is limited to large churches. Congregations of any size can and should do special needs ministry, Jansma said.

“The church – whether it’s small or it’s large – should be reaching out to whatever [special needs] family comes to their church,” he said. “You’d be amazed at how the word will spread when a church of 20 people has one special needs son or daughter and they’re in school. That becomes an open door for another one or two or three families because they all know” about the church.

In Snellville, word has spread about the Church on Main. When the church learned Hannah’s mom was changing her on the floor of the women’s restroom, they installed an adult changing table. The mother told all her friends.

“You lose yourself for the sake of the Gospel” when you do special needs ministry, Jansma said. “You’re losing your life for bringing life to those who desperately need it and desperately desire it.”

This article originally appeared at The Christian Index.