By DeAnna Gibson
Sitting in a hallway of our church one typical Sunday morning, holding my child in my lap as he curled into the tightest 5-year-old ball he could make, I pleaded with him to return to class and try again. Something about the morning had set him off, and no one was sure why.
Then again, week after week, no one was ever sure why.
Not able to get my child to move, he did not want to go with me, and he did not want to return to class. It was quiet in the hallway, and this led to lengthy introspection.
What if it’s like this forever?
What if I never get to be in an adult class again?
What if he grows up and hates church?
What if his friends and teachers begin to dread him coming to class?
(And on and on….)
Nothing about that day seemed worse than any other Sunday—not an extremely public melt-down. The teachers asked if they could help or bring me something to drink? I guess even they knew I was going to be there a while.
Well into the service, this behavior was continuing. I sat with my son and let him eat ice chips in the back of the auditorium. I kept my head down. I did not want to draw any attention to myself. On the cusp of tears—a kind word would have burst the floodgates—I left early.
I spent that Sunday afternoon Googling things like “Christian moms autism” and “Church children autism moms,” and I think I even desperately typed in “Church with Autism is hard.” I read at least 20 blogs that day.
All but one summarized that either these Christian families do not attend church at all or the parents switch off attending church without the special needs child because it is just too hard to attend. All. But. One.
The one blogger who did attend church was a pastor’s wife and even she said it was nearly impossible each Sunday (and she, like me, had to make it work!).
Keeping my son at home, rather than attending church (as difficult as it was) would not accomplish what I wanted for him, which is Jesus and His church are as much for him as they are for me, and I also felt the church misses out on something God has for them by not having special needs people in it!
This internet search was like looking for the needle in the haystack, and three convictions emerged for me that day:
- Special needs families are not automatically excused from being a committed part of the local church.
- Churches are responsible for doing whatever it takes to reach, disciple, and minister to special needs families.
- Special needs families are statistically an under-reached demographic, and when committed to church, will be some of the most faithfully involved members of our churches!
I’ve concluded that we as church leaders and members must consider how we can effectively engage special needs families. The local church has a powerful opportunity to come alongside parents of children with special needs to help teach and train our children to know, love, and obey Jesus to their fullest capability.
I know special needs ministry will stretch the local church and comes with unique challenges, but what a huge blessing it can provide.
True confession: when it comes to meeting needs outside the Autism realm, I am like many church members: I am starting at zero. I need grace as I seek to serve families whose needs are different from mine, and this is wonderful! When we serve in grace and humility, Christ is exalted as we esteem others better than ourselves.
What might ministry look like?
Church leaders will need to consider what special needs ministry looks like in each of our churches. Factors like size, number of special needs families, or even flow of the service plays a part.
- Some churches devote entire sensory-minimized services to individuals with special needs.
- Other churches like mine, have buddies to help children navigate services and transitions.
- Your church may need to look at modifying spaces to better meet the needs of special needs families: family bathrooms, calming sensory-free rooms, or overflow rooms where the sermon can be heard and those who wander or make noises can be a little less conspicuous.
If you look around and see your church is empty of families with special needs, then your church is not complete!
Jesus is our example, proving all kinds of people are welcome at His banquet table when He said, “Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of town and bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and the lame. … Go out and compel them to come in, so that My house will be full.” (Luke 14:21b-23).
Those with special needs may no longer be hidden away on abandoned roads and back alleys, but they are often isolated in suburban homes or ostracized and stigmatized in other ways.
Jesus says to compel them to come. In doing so, we show the value of special needs families in our local churches—exalting Christ, glorifying Him in His church, and serving alongside one another.
What a beautiful sight to see the Lord’s church with all its variety and uniqueness.
DEANNA GIBSON is a ministry wife and mother of three boys—one of whom has Autism. Gibson writes about life as a mother of a child with special needs at deannagibsonwrites.com.