This is a good question. It’s a logical one. It’s one that often comes up when a church first begins discussing special needs ministry.
It’s just not the right question.
Here are some better questions:
1) If you had no children’s ministry – no nursery for babies, nothing taught in an age-appropriate way for preschoolers, and so on – do you think families with children would feel welcome in your church?
Another way of wording that: if you were starting a church but had no children in the first few families, would you include a children’s ministry, or would you say, “No, we won’t concern ourselves with that until kids show up. Then maybe we’ll consider it” or something like that?
I’m not saying your plans need to be complex and cover any and every eventuality. But a special needs family will come to your church, and you need to know what you’ll say and do then. A welcoming plan can be as simple as this: “We’ll tell families, We’re not sure what this looks like, but we’re committed to working with you so your child can be included” and then we’ll follow through to make that happen.”
2) Do you have people with disabilities in your community?
I can already tell you that the answer to that is yes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, more than 12% of Americans have a severe disability impacting their daily life. To provide some context, that means the number of people in the US living with severe disabilities – 38.3 million people – is the same as the total population of California. If more than 1 in 10 people are living with a substantial special need and your church doesn’t have any, are you effectively reaching your community?
Maybe you’re thinking the number must be lower for your area. It’s probably not, but if you want to know the exact percentages and breakdowns by disability area for public school students in your area, search for “child count” on your schools district’s website or call the special education department and ask for that information. For funding purposes, every district is required to track and support the count of students with disabilities, and this information is part of public record. Those numbers won’t include children who are in homeschools or private schools, nor does it include children too young or not yet diagnosed. It is a good place to start, though.
3) Do you want to share the Gospel with everyone in your community, or do you want to limit who has access to your body of believers?
Some churches communicate this to their members: “Please invite your friends to join us next week. (And as a note of clarification, by ‘friends’ we mean friends that would fit well and easily in our facilities and current programs. If you would like a complete list of who to invite and who to exclude, please see one of our ushers in the back after the service.)”
Okay, maybe the last bit is a stretch. I don’t know any churches that would communicate that outright. But if your members don’t see kids with disabilities being included, then they’re not likely to invite that mom from the playground whose son has autism to your church. In other words, even if the clarifying note above isn’t the message you want to send, it might be the one you’re sending.
Throw out the initial question. Answer the other three instead.
Shannon Dingle provides consultation, training and support to pastors, ministry staff and volunteers from churches requesting assistance from Key Ministry. In addition, Shannon regularly blogs for Key Ministry on topics related to adoption and foster care, and serves on the Program Committee for Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s Disability Ministry Web Summit. Shannon and her husband (Lee) serve as coordinators of the Access Ministry, the Special Needs Ministry of Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.
Say hello to Shannon if you’re planning to attend the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit this coming Thursday and Friday (April 30-May 1) in Hendersonville, TN.
Check out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.
Yes! We (the Body of Christ) needs to reach out to special need families. Many of them want to be in a church but they don’t where they fit in.