“We need a new paradigm to reach those families OUTSIDE the church whose lives are shaped by the special needs of their child. We must find ways to BUILD relationships, enter each other’s realities and BRING them into some expression of Christian community – inviting them to BELONG so that they might come to BELIEVE.”
The church growth experts of today tell us that 20 years ago most people came to believe central truths about the faith – and that it was that believing that gave them entry into the family of faith. Indeed, even today, mainline denominations are likely to require a confession of faith as part of their membership process. It used to be that one believed FIRST and was then invited to belong.
Today we see the opposite. Members of Generation X and Millennials are coming to believe, not as a prerequisite to belonging, but as a result of it. All over the country followers of Christ are waking up to this new reality. The missional church movement leaders remind us to begin by building relationships with those curious about the faith, to then bring them to some small group expression of community and invite them to belong – all the while trusting that the experience of belonging; of doing life with people who love Jesus will give rise to believing. People who have not professed Christ as Savior are, in effect, being “discipled” into the faith as a means of evangelism! It’s messy, but perhaps it’s a closer approximation to Jesus’s way.
Those first disciples knew very little about Jesus when they were invited to drop their nets and follow Him. And Peter’s bold profession of faith came only after he had spent the better part of 2 plus years with Jesus and that called- out community of brothers.
Belonging leads to believing.
What does all this mean to those of us ministering with families with children with special needs?
First – we can recognize that families with children with special needs – both those “inside” and “outside” of the church are – at best – on the fringe of most expressions of community. If community exists it is likely only to be exclusive – including only those who also have kids with special needs. The bus stop conversations, the pre-game parent gatherings, the first week of school rituals all leave most parents of kids with special needs feeling left out. One friend of mine who has teen and young adult with special needs has shared that she recognized that it’s just plain hard to maintain a friendship with her family – to include them as life moves along. But that does not mean she does not want it, or need it.
Second – we can sound the call:
CHURCH: We have much work to do INSIDE our current paradigm with those who are currently INSIDE our churches. We have work to do to move towards really including families with children with special needs. I don’t mean inclusion programs – the church has advanced significantly here – I mean inclusion in LIFE. Only when we share life – when we take our ministry outside the walls of the church building and practice real Biblical community that includes the parents of the child with autism, the single mom of the teen with bipolar disorder and the adoptive parents whose child suffered significant trauma early in life – will we taste and see some of the Kingdom realities Christ spoke so often about.
CHURCH: We need a new paradigm to reach those families OUTSIDE the church whose lives are shaped by the special needs of their child. We must find ways to BUILD relationships, enter each other’s realities and BRING them into some expression of Christian community – inviting them to BELONG so that they might come to BELIEVE.
Belonging comes first. Let’s work together and find new ways to build relationships with families with children with special needs who do not know Jesus. Let’s encourage each other to BRING them along to small group gatherings that are open and inviting. And let’s work to remove the barriers to belonging that exist.
The barriers are many – there are physical and environmental barriers that make it tough for a family with a child with special needs to get to church, much less get around in it and have a non-threatening experience. There is work to do here and many, like the folks at Key Ministry are coming up with creative solutions. But I suspect that the biggest barrier to building relationships with families with children with special needs, to bringing them with us and inviting them to belong lies within us and is not confined to the building of relationships with just these families.
Individualism keeps us from community. That cultural lie that tells us not to get involved, that we don’t need others, that we can do life ourselves, that it’s better to go it alone – is most likely our biggest barrier. The authors of The Tangible Kingdom, Hugh Halter and Matt Smay have said it this way: “Our individualism is destroying the powerful counter cultural witness of the church”.
So – Church – let’s keep this conversation going. And let’s go beyond the necessary dialogue. Let’s make this personal.
Here is one small step. If the Lord has you in proximity to a family with a child with special needs who does not know Jesus – in other words – if you encounter this family where you live, work or play – take a small step towards them. Begin to seek God’s help in building a relationship. Invite the mom for coffee, the dad to a sporting event, the child for a play date, offer to grab groceries on your next trip or just call some afternoon to say “Hi”. Trust the Lord will use that relationship for HIS glory – after all Jesus lives IN YOU and as this family grows in relationship with you – they will inevitably begin to see Jesus. Watch for opportunities to BRING them into a gathering of people who love Jesus. Be open to inviting them to belong – and know that it’s in the belonging that people often first come to believe!
If our heart’s desire is to see people come to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior – we must ask – how can we help these people belong? Belonging leads to believing.
Libby Peterson has served Bay Presbyterian Church for 20 years – as Director of Children’s Ministry and most recently as Family Ministry Director. She was instrumental in helping begin the church’s Special Needs Ministry which serves over 30 children and their families. Libby also serves as Vice-President of Key Ministry, where her wisdom, patience and common sense are indispensable to our team.