After serving just a few weeks at my current post, one of our long-time elders and his wife paid me a visit. After the opening pleasantries, he threw down the gauntlet with this provocative question: “Are you here to minister to ALL the children of our church, or just MOST of them?” All sorts of thoughts went through my head before my mouth formed an answer…What do you mean by most? We’ve got a lot of children in this church! I’d be happy reaching about 95%! What was that parable about the 99 sheep? But of course, I gave the right answer: “Yes, sir, I am here to minister to ALL the children of the church!” Well. he had me right where he wanted me, as he went on to tell me about five of our youngest children who had various disabilities. As a father of a grown child with special needs, he didn’t want these covenant children to be ignored or overlooked. So, in my office that day, the commitment to Special Needs Ministry was born.
Lesson Eleven: Serve ALL Children
No Christian working in children’s ministry intentionally seeks to leave out or neglect some of the children of the church. And yet, children with disabilities can present with such challenging needs that we may feel incapable or afraid to serve them. The bottom line is that to serve ALL children, a church must have a specific Special Needs Ministry as a part of its overall children’s ministry. Since my space here is limited, I will presume you recognize the Biblical foundation for this assertion–as the gospel is for ALL who are broken, needy, poor, sick, etc. So, let’s briefly summarize what this special ministry needs to be and needs to do…
1. A committed team. As with all ministry teams, it all begins with a commitment to Christ, the gospel, and the church. In a unique way, members of a Special Needs Ministry Team will need to be committed to enter into deep suffering and difficult situations. So, you really need individuals who will serve in long-term ministry and be very active in the lives of families touched by disabilities. They must have a laser-like focus on assimilating these families into the life of the church.
2. A committed leadership. It goes without saying that the work of the church is severely hampered if her leaders are poor. Even more so, Special Needs Ministry will languish and ultimately die if perceived y the leadership as being only for the “fringe few” of the church. Pastors and elders must cast a vision of mercy for ALL in the congregation and community. Deacons are essential to come alongside the Special Needs Ministry to do various works of service. Leaders of all other ministries must connect as well, since disability touches all ages and stages of life.
3. Embrace your families. Like no other “group” in your church, those touched by disability can feel the most on the outside. Their unique needs must be known by your team. But more than that, these individuals and families must be loved and embraced. Too many individuals with disabilities have experienced rejection from people in other spheres and institutions. May this never be in the local church!
4. Provide accessibility. Connected to the basic human needs of Christ and Christian community, those impacted by disability desperately need accessibility! This certainly includes essentials such as ramps, ADA bathrooms, assistance for the hearing and visually impaired, etc. But beyond these sorts of accessibility must be efforts to make God’s Word and worship accessible as well. How will you help individuals be able to learn in Sunday School? What about the worship service? The Special Needs Ministry Team will have to work long and hard to address the breadth of accessibility issues.
5. Encourage community. Understandably, many families touched by disability find their fellowship and family within the disability community. So, even if the church reaches out to those with special needs, they may be tempted to remain on the fringe. Be persistent and winsome in demonstrating the essential nature of membership in the local church. Hopefully, other families in your church will be a part of this effort as well, drawing others in.
6. Provide respite. Another great need of parents who have a child with special needs is respite–rest and relief from the daily grind of caregiving. Providing a “Parents Night Out” on a regular basis should be a major part of your service to these families. This is also a way to do outreach to the disability community as a whole, showing the love and mercy of Christ to the churched and unchurched.
There is so much more to cover, which means Special Needs Ministry demands a “101” series all of its own! As far as Children’s Ministry goes, it begins with a commitment to serve ALL of the children in your church and community. This will necessarily include children with disabilities who are often ignored and overlooked. Don’t be satisfied with ministering to “most” of your children and families–serve them ALL!