The 3- and 4-year-olds marched into "big church" with giggles and flushed faces. Parents strained to find their children as the young performers began their first, much-rehearsed song.
One couple craned their heads to the left and right searching for their son, knowing Caleb would likely be at the back with his head down. With developmental delays and autism, he was not about to seek out the stares of hundreds of adults. Not seeing Caleb on stage, his anxious father hurried to Caleb's classroom to see what was wrong. To his relief, Caleb was safe.
Although the father was glad his son was all right, he questioned why Caleb was left in the classroom while all the other children were performing. "I was just told to be here with him, because didn't need to participate," the volunteer explained.
Unfortunately, scenarios like this play out every Sunday in churches across America. Whether it's a lack of participation in an event or inclusion into the life of the church, both children and parents are hurt when excluded due to a special need. This exclusion is not usually intentional, but is more a lack of awareness. It is imperative that senior pastors and children's leaders recognize the needs and feelings of families affected by disability in their churches and communities.
What you can do in your church
As the parent of a child with special needs, there is much you can do to help. Here are a few tips to assist with the communication.
- Begin with prayer. Commit the needs of your child and other family members to God. It is His desire that your entire family be included in the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 the apostle Paul tells us that every believer has a place in the Body of Christ. He says in verse 18: "God has arranged every member of the body, just as he wanted them to be." It is no accident that your child has a disability; God has a plan for him or her and that plan involves inclusion in the Body of Christ.
Often parents approach their child's need for inclusion based on assumed rights and expectations. And it's true according to Luke 14 where Jesus commanded us to bring those with disabilities into God's House. However, worship and fellowship are a privilege for all of us, disabled or not. Ask God for the right spirit in approaching the pastoral staff.
- Recognize your pastor's workload. Those in ministry are often overburdened with more needs than they can humanly meet. Their failure to be disability-friendly may simply be a matter of "not seeing the tree because of the forest," to reverse an old cliché.
In other words, if your child is not receiving the attention he or she needs, it may be inadvertent rather than intentional. Approach pastors with grace and understanding. Instead of presenting just the problem, provide solutions as to "how" the church can include special needs children. Pastors know there are challenges. What they're looking for are solutions.
- Share your feelings and needs. Most church friends will not know your family's concerns and will assume you are content with current arrangements. Share your heart with your pastor, small group or other church members. Life as a special-needs parent can have many additional challenges outside of the norm of parenting a typical child. Share the joys and trials that you experience on a daily basis. Explain your desires for your child's spiritual development and for other family members to be fully engaged in church life.
- Be proactive. Churches have an invaluable resource — people. You will find people in your church who have gifts and skills to work with your child, and some do not even know it. At Joni and Friends, we frequently hear about special needs ministries that began with a proactive parent. Be willing to ask for help and give the time needed to train volunteers to minister to your child. Whether it is providing one-on-one attention or modifying curriculum, a few volunteers can go a long way in helping your child (and you) participate in church life.
So, how did things finally end with Caleb? Shortly after his non-performance, a ministry to children with special needs was launched in that church, ensuring that all children would be welcomed and included. Unbeknownst to Caleb, he was the inspiration for that ministry. How do I know? Because I was that anxious father!