RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Special needs advocates are fond of pointing out that Jesus spent much of His ministry among people with disabilities.
However, the message of His ministry was for everyone, said Carlton McDaniel, special needs specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“The second half of that story is that by meeting the needs of those He helped and gravitating to people in need, He really modeled love to the able-bodied,” McDaniel said during the July 11-14 Sunday School Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, N.C.
Considering that attendance at special needs conference sessions has quadrupled from past Sunday School conferences, churches may be getting that message.
“I see people with disabilities being more visible in the community, more included in life and not shut behind doors anymore, praise God,” said Jo Ann Banks of Weaverville, N.C.
For five years, Banks has led a special needs Vacation Bible School during Sunday School Week and for 25 years has led a special needs ministry. At Woodland Hills Baptist Church in Asheville, she teaches a class of adults with special needs.
Increased attendance at the conference could be due to churches seeing not only the need -– but the opportunity to provide Sunday School options for individuals with special needs, Banks said.
Banks’ daughter Kelly, 28, has mild cerebral palsy and a developmental delay.
“God has shown me we have to look at their abilities and not their disabilities,” Banks said.
McDaniel said there is hesitancy among churches, mostly because of the unknown in beginning a special needs ministry.
“We’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t feel equipped,'” McDaniel said.
The sessions at Sunday School Week varied from understanding learning needs and learning styles of individuals with special needs to introducing tools and materials to help special needs ministries.
LifeWay developed its “Special Buddies Bible Studies for Kids” curriculum, released in the fall of 2007, with an adaptable format geared to developmental levels that allows for plenty of repetition, application and review of biblical concepts. LifeWay also has added a new VBS line for children with special needs.
“Pastors are very interested, but it’s an incredible responsibility to take on a ministry that is this labor-intensive,” McDaniel said.
For Banks, leading a Sunday School class for adults with special needs also is an outreach to the group-home workers who accompany residents to church.
“We’ve found that 98 percent of group-home workers are not believers,” Banks said. “I have a good rapport with the workers. Sometimes the only exposure they have is watching how you behave on Sunday.”
Having a ministry in place also provides natural opportunities for individuals with special needs to feel needed, Banks said.
“They want to serve. They want to feel like they’re part of society and they have a purpose for being here.” Banks said her daughter Kelly “has such a servant’s heart. She does better to serve others than to be served.”
Starting a special ministry requires a “people-centered” outlook rather than one that is people-driven, McDaniel said.
That’s what happened at Thompson Station Church in Tennessee, adult Sunday School teacher Mike Yates said. When he noticed two couples in their class seemed to “tag-team” coming to church, he found that the reason was both couples had a child with special needs, with the spouses switching to provide care on alternate weeks.
From there, the church started a special needs Sunday School along with a monthly respite program to give a night out for parents of children with special needs.
Reagan Wagoner, youth and missions pastor at Thompson Station Church, said in the short time the program has been operating, at least 25 different families have been reached.
“If you go into the schools, there are specially trained people -– even one-on-one attention -– for the kids with special needs,” Wagoner said. “Why should the church be any different?”
Andrea Higgins is a writer in Raleigh, N.C.