I’m delighted to introduce today’s guest blogger, Mike Woods from Making Room. As part of our series on “Thinking Orange,” I asked Mike to provide a perspective on what parents of kids with hidden disabilities need from their local church.
Mike received his Masters Degree in Conflict Management from Trinity College and Theological Seminary. He is a certified Crisis Prevention Instructor. In his previous position, Mike worked for the largest school district in St. Louis as an Autism and Inclusion Specialist and is a Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst. Prior to joining Rockwood, he served as a Master Training Specialist for the Judevine Center for Autism and as an Early Interventionist for the Missouri First Steps Program. He also taught continuing education courses on autism at Coastal Carolina College in North Carolina. He’s currently serving as the Director of Special Needs Ministry at First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida.
Mike has conducted workshops for a variety of churches, several national level autism conferences, and various annual state conferences.
He is happily married and the father of three wonderful boys, all three of whom are on the autism spectrum. He and his family attended Grace Church while living in St. Louis. Grace has a wonderful group of people who graciously provide a ministry (“Special Edition”) to families of children with special needs!
You Are God’s Gift to Families
When I moved to Saint Louis with my boys back in 2002 one of the first things on my “to do” list was to find a place of worship. At first glance it seems like a fairly easy process because you can open a phone book and look under the listing “Churches.” In a town the size of Saint Louis you will find hundreds of churches listed. No problem, right? Wrong.
The search for a church poses a big challenge for me. Why? Because I have three boys who are on the autism spectrum. Taking a child with autism to church can be a source of stress for many parents. People often stare, make comments or fail to understand any mishaps or behaviors that may occur. For example, out of the blue, my son Joshua will frequently kneel down and rub the carpet on the floor briskly with his fingertips. He is seeking sensory input as a result of sensory integration difficulty which is not uncommon for someone with autism. To a casual observer, however, the sight of a 13-year old boy kneeling on the ground and rapidly rubbing the carpet appears very strange. As a result of similar types of experiences, families often feel uncomfortable taking their child to places where people gather together such as church. Feeling like they cannot socialize or relate to others due to the behaviors of their child, parents of children with autism start to experience a sense of isolation from a community of faith.
Did you know that statistics show that only about 17% of families who have a child with autism belong to a family of faith? That means that only 2 out of 10 families who have a child with autism know what it’s like to have a church that they can call “home.” A big reason for this is that many churches do not have a ministry to meet the needs of families who have a child or adult with intellectual disabilities. For most places of worship, the lack of special need considerations is not intentional, it is simply a matter of not having familiarity with the intellectual disability/special need environment. So I knew that when I started calling the list of local churches in the yellow pages one-by-one to ask, “Do you have a special needs ministry?” the majority of the answers were going to be, “No.” And they were. I called 37 churches that first day, no luck. Weary, I decided to try again another day.
Some parents would give up searching for a church after awhile. It’s easy to do when you’ve been told “no” enough times no matter how polite the person on the other end of the phone sounds. Feelings of rejection/isolation can start to creep in. It often arises when you start to feel that you and your family have little importance or value in other people’s lives. Social psychologists tell us that feelings of isolation begin to occur when a person begins to feel excluded from interpersonal relationships. Isolation from relationships can either be an active process in which an individual or group intentionally excludes someone. More often than not, however, isolation is usually a passive process by which people simply do nothing when needs are expressed by individuals who are experiencing major life challenges.
Scripture reminds us that we were never meant to live in a state of isolation. We were created to be relational beings. None of us was meant to live alone, away from meaningful connection. Spend one minute looking at Genesis 2:18 and the words “not good” ring out. “It is not good for man to live alone.” Living an isolated life does not accurately reflect the One whose image we bear. “Alone” and “isolated” were never to be used to describe His children. Henry Cloud said it well, “God created us with a hunger for relationship—for relationship with Him and with our fellow human beings.” At our core we are relational beings. Cloud goes on to say, “The human soul cannot prosper without being connected to others.”
Do you want to know the one thing that keeps me going in search of a church? People like you. I firmly believe that the odds are good that if you are reading this blog it’s because you have an interest in special needs ministry. If so, you’ve come to the right place because that’s the focus of Key Ministry. And here’s one thing that I know about you from the Holy Scriptures: You are God’s gift to families who have a child with autism. God calls people just like you to Himself, and then blesses you with the purpose of becoming part of a community of Christ-followers focused on helping “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). In Scripture God calls his people to live out the gospel pattern of welcome and generosity. “Therefore, “ Paul says, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Ro.15:7).
I could list a handful of wonderful gifts that you give my children by providing a special needs ministry. Today, however, I’d like to share with you four wonderful gifts that you bless my wife Linda and I with by providing a special needs ministry to our children and by being a welcoming church:
Gift #1: The opportunity to express our love for God. Going to church is a visible, tangible expression of our love and worship toward God. It is where Linda and I can gather with other believers to publicly bear witness of our faith and trust in God. It is where I can bring Him offerings of praise, thanks, and honor, which are pleasing to Him. Indeed, the Lord is deserving of our time and energy to honor Him with our service of devotion. “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created” (Rev. 4:11).
Gift #2: The opportunity to fellowship with God. Life can be confusing and at times overwhelming for me as I try to sift through and sort out right from wrong, truth from error, acceptance of things that I cannot change from the courage to change the things that I can. All the more reason to go to church regularly. It is in church that the voice of God speaks to me through sermon, Scripture, liturgy, and hymns. His is a voice of strength and comfort, the voice of healing that I need to desperately to hear.
Gift #3: The opportunity to be loved and encouraged. All of us face dilemmas and disappointments. We all wrestle with discouragement and heartache. Being a part of a loving, caring community is an important ingredient in my quality of life and good health maintenance. Coming to church gives my wife and I an opportunity to receive an encouraging word, a hug and a smile. It means having someone who will listen and speak the words of comfort and direction that we need to hear. How often a timely word of Gospel spoken from the heart of one believer to another makes the heart joyful!
Gift #4: The opportunity to build up our spiritual strength. Receiving the preaching and teaching of the Word of God increases our faith and builds us up spiritually. Every believer knows what it is to face spiritual conflicts to their faith, and realizes the importance of being fed spiritually so that they can overcome the challenges. Paul states that Christians must put on spiritual armor for protection, as it will take everything at our disposal to stand (Eph. 6:10-18). How important then that parents of children with special needs be given every opportunity available to receive ministry and strength from God’s Word. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
I may have not had any luck on that first day of calling churches. However, on my second day of making phone calls to churches I finally did hear, “Yes…yes we have a ministry for families of children with special needs!” That group of people, people just like you, have been God’s gift to my family for the last two years.
I would encourage you today to look for those families in your community who need a “gift.” They’re out there and they need to know that someone cares. Perhaps you’re not sure of where or how to start. If that’s the case then call Key Ministry today. They are here to help you help families just like mine.
Originally published March 23, 2011.
Mike has been involved in the development of Not Alone, a blog written by parents of faith who have children with special needs. They have in excess of 7,500 followers within their first two months of operation. Check it out, along with the free Special Friends Ministry app First Baptist has made available through the iTunes store (available by clicking the link in the sidebar on this page).