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Special needs ministry remains an untapped opportunity for many churches

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BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP) — Almost all churches believe they are welcoming places for everyone. But many families that include individuals with special needs often feel otherwise. Experts say it doesn’t have to be this way.

Churches that want to welcome everyone, including those with special needs, should begin by asking questions, said Sandra Peoples, the disability ministry consultant for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and mother of a son with autism. Leaders often make assumptions about what happens in their congregation and whether needs are being met.

Nearly every U.S. Protestant pastor (99 percent) and churchgoer (97 percent) believe a person with disabilities would feel welcome and included at their church, according to a 2020 Lifeway Research study. However, for many on the other side of that question – families of people with special needs – churches’ actions don’t always match their intentions.

“So many families like mine feel overlooked or neglected, even at church,” Peoples said. “Only some members of our families can participate fully without accommodations in place.”

First steps of special needs ministry

While the church may believe it would welcome everyone to participate, those with special needs may not feel welcome unless the church takes active steps to find and remove any hindrances. Peoples said the necessary accommodations can vary from child to child and family to family. When churches have a relationship with the family of someone with special needs, she said, “It’s best to ask, ‘What barriers are keeping your family member from being able to fully participate?’ and work with the family to make a plan for inclusion.”

As churches ask questions and seek to welcome those with special needs, leaders should aim to be intentional, said Jill Hartsfield, programming director for Embrace Community, a weekday ministry for adults with disabilities at Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. “Disability ministry cannot be an afterthought,” she said. “Create a team. Do your research. Ask special needs families in your community what they need. And start slow.”

Hartsfield advised churches to avoid duplicating what other churches in their area are already doing. Look for gaps in ministry your congregation can fill. “Your intentionality in asking, listening and creating opportunities to meet the specific needs of your community is the best way to welcome special needs families,” she said.

Churches must be willing to try, said Gary Felton, minister of special needs ministry at First Baptist Dallas, Texas. “Your church doesn’t have to have all the answers,” he said. “Listen to the families and care for them. The most important aspect of special needs ministry for those serving is flexibility.”

After listening, Felton said churches must take action to remove the obstacles preventing some individuals and families from participating in the life of the congregation. “Like the man carried by four friends and lowered through the roof to get to Jesus, some face physical barriers,” he said. “Others encounter social barriers that make it challenging to connect or find their place. Churches that break down barriers and remove obstacles will find families impacted by special needs will come joyfully to be a part of their fellowship.”

To better serve churches taking steps to minister to those with special needs and their families, Lifeway created a special webpage dedicated to highlighting resources designed for those individuals and situations: Lifeway.com/SpecialNeeds. This year marks the 45th anniversary of Lifeway publishing material specifically for those with special needs. On the newly developed webpage, churches will find curriculum for children and adults with special needs, as well as articles, podcasts, training videos and help for ministry to those individuals and families.

Peoples, Felton and others involved with special needs ministry are members of an advisory group Lifeway created to inform the types of resources on the new section of Lifeway.com. “Our goal at Lifeway is to equip and resource churches as they seek to serve those with special needs and their families,” said Jana Magruder, strategic initiatives director for Next Gen Ministries at Lifeway. “We want to provide tangible tools to help church leaders provide a place where individuals with disabilities can thrive and grow in their faith.”

Next steps

As churches move forward, Peoples says they should focus on the two most important components of special needs ministry – safety and belonging. “I want my son to be safe, and I want him to feel like he belongs,” she said. “Safety includes being in an environment that meets his needs with adults who understand how to support him. Belonging includes feeling like a valued part of the class he’s in and being able to use his gifts to build up the body of believers.”

Felton echoed the need to help both the individual and families feel like they belong. “Many families tell their story of finding a church in these terms: ‘When we found a place that was good for our child, we knew we found our church home,’” he said.

For Hartsfield, this has been part of the success at Embrace. “When a new friend joins, we commit to providing safe, meaningful, and gospel-centered care for each of our participants,” she said. “This allows their mom, dad, siblings and caregivers to be freed up to get plugged into community themselves. We meet so many families that have been unable to attend church for years because of the needs of their child. It is such a gift to allow all family members to find rest and provide opportunities to get poured into through godly community within the church.”

Motivation and mission

Churches should pursue a special needs ministry because everyone is made in the image of God and deserves access to the gospel and a church family, said Peoples. “1 Corinthians 12:22 says the parts of the body that seem weaker are actually indispensable,” she said. “Without special needs ministry or a plan for inclusion that makes accommodations for accessibility, many people with disabilities are unable to attend. But we can show them how indispensable they truly are.”

Felton said churches that never provide ministry to those with special needs are missing out on opportunities they never knew they could have – “the opportunity to fulfill the command to go make disciples from every people group, the opportunity to experience the uninhibited joy of the Lord that so many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities display and the opportunity to add the gifts and talents of those individuals to the body.”

As they begin to welcome these individuals and their families, Hartsfield said churches should consider what a successful ministry will look like. “It isn’t defined by record attendance numbers or a state-of-the-art facility,” she said, “but rather a safe and welcoming place where people with disabilities of all ages are taught the gospel, included in all aspects of church ministry and empowered to serve others.”