Special-needs families are an under-reached demographic, but when committed to church, they can become some of the most faithfully involved members.
Church ministry to my autistic son depends upon my being a flexible and involved parent. It also depends on the willingness of those who serve my son to do whatever it takes to show him Christ’s truth and love. Being a mother and a ministry wife gives me the unique perspective to know that a special-needs ministry does not come without challenges but is always well worth the effort!
As church members, we must evaluate our outreach strategies to see if we are engaging special-needs families effectively. One major way adults and children of all neurological capabilities learn about Jesus is through Christian community in our local church. Does your outreach strategy to families with special needs consider how to overcome obstacles for attendance, facilitate avenues of service, and provide quick pathways into deeper relationships in the church (like Sunday school and small groups)?
Here are a few suggestions to start a dialogue:
Ask parents of those with special needs who are already a part of your church for their input: “What can we do to serve you better?” “Do you have ideas on how to better reach those with additional needs with the gospel of Christ?” Special-needs parents are eager ministry partners who can help identify weaknesses and strengths our churches have toward those who may be falling between the cracks.
Determine a good starting point for your church. Where will your church begin? Begin with what you have instead of focusing on what you lack.
Evaluate four considerations:
- Time frame. Will you offer a one-time event like a parents’ night out, a weekly support group and prayer time, or perhaps a sensory-friendly class during a worship service once a month? What starting point best fits your church when you consider volunteers and their involvement and commitment to outreach ministry?
- Talents/giftings of your volunteers. There are endless possibilities! Do you have coaches and athletes in your church who might want to start a team or do a sports camp, working with a variety of skill levels? Do you have people in the medical field who can host classes on topics that matter to teenagers with special needs? School teachers are an amazing resource, as are musicians, chefs and photographers. Have you ever considered how difficult it can be just to get a family portrait? Try to make events free, but maybe limit the number of people you will serve so that you will not overwhelm your volunteers.
- Desired purpose: outreach leading to disciple-making! Discover the needs in your community. Evaluate, pray, and build an engagement strategy. Look at how your church is already engaging families with special needs, support small group involvement, and think about how to bring each person one step closer to Jesus at every encounter.
- Potential next step. Be flexible, but consider where this might lead and, if successful, are you ready with a next step? Consider possible scenarios and shortcomings. Is there a discipleship plan? Is children’s ministry ready for more children? What about a follow-up event?
Jesus is our example, inviting people with special needs to His banquet table, saying, “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 as we serve 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 who writes about life in the Lord as a mother of a child with autism at www.deannagibsonwrites.com. Her husband, Brett Gibson, is the music minister at Holly Ridge Baptist Church, Simpsonville. The Gibsons are parents of three boys.