What We Mean When We Say Our New Church Is “Special-Needs Friendly”

Last weekend we had a couple over and we were talking about our new church. The husband looked at my husband and asked, “What do you mean when you say your church will be ‘special-needs friendly’?”

It’s a good question. Last summer my family and I packed up everything we owned and moved from rural PA to the fastest growing suburb of Houston, TX. Our goal is to plant a church—a special-needs friendly church.

We’ve been talking about it nonstop to anyone who will listen (or join our launch team, or make a donation, or pray for us!). But that question made us pause. Had the phrase become like Christianese? Do we say it so often we forget it’s a concept some people have never thought about before?

What do we mean when we say our church is special-needs friendly?

I’m sure ministry leaders from across the country would give slightly different answers (and I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments!), but here’s what we mean when we say the new church we are planting is going to be special-needs friendly.

It means we have a theology of disability based on Scripture. The passages that have shaped our understanding of disability include:

  • Psalm 139 – We are all fearfully and wonderfully made
  • Exodus 4:11 – God allows disabilities for His purpose
  • John 9 – Jesus Himself said disabilities exist so “that the works of God might be displayed … “

It means we believe all people are necessary to fulfill God’s purpose for the church1 Corinthians 12 teaches us church is made of many parts, and some of those parts are weaker than others but are still worthy of honor, “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (vv. 24-26).

This isn’t to imply people with disabilities are “less than” people without disabilities. But speaking from my experience of having a sister with Down syndrome and a son with level 3 autism, some have limitations that keep them from doing some things in the church, but not all. Churches don’t love and serve people who can best serve them back. They love and serve people (period). 

It means we provide access to all families so they can be full, active members of our church. Access to the gospel, to community, and to worship. We make accommodations and adjustments when necessary so we don’t have to turn away families who come to our church and church events. It means every activity we do, from Sunday morning worship to small groups to sports camp to potluck lunches, are open to everyone. It can take more money and more volunteers (two details church plants are often short on!), but we trust God to provide. As we read in 1 Corinthians 12, a church is made of many parts. I truly believe God has already placed people in churches who can meet the needs of the church members He calls there.

It means we actively seek out the nearly 1 in 5 families in the U.S. impacted by disability. We plan outreach events that specifically target special-needs families. Like a sensory-friendly movie morning. And a reserved time at the local bounce house. We hope to host respite nights and a day of pampering for moms/care givers. We don’t settle for a come and see approach. We go and do.

We’re excited to see how God will teach and stretch us in the coming months as we are sent out from our supporting church, build a launch team, serve our neighborhoods, and start preview services. We hope to spread the message that all churches should be special-needs friendly and show it can be done even in the smallest of churches. Knowing what we mean when we say our church is special-needs friendly is a good place to start!

What do you mean when you say your church is special-needs friendly?

About Sandra

Sandra Peoples lives near Houston, Texas with her husband and two boys. Sandra is the Social Community and Family Support Manager for Key Ministry. She is also the author of Speechless: Finding God's Grace in My Son's Autism and Held: Learning to Live in God's Grip (a Bible study for special-needs parents).
This entry was posted in Inclusion, Key Ministry, Special Needs Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to What We Mean When We Say Our New Church Is “Special-Needs Friendly”

  1. Amy Troyer says:

    Love this so much!!


  2. Marny says:

    Love this! A church near us has quarterly “rest days” where special needs kids and their siblings can come for 3 or 4 hours of fun with volunteer caregivers, and then the family is sent home with dinner as well. It’s been a blessing to many families i know.

    For me the big thing is an INCLUSIVE approach to Sunday school, youth group, etc. I don’t want a special class for my daughter, I want a teacher who is trained and supported and most of all willing to accommodate her.

    Also, sign language interpreting (for worship and other activities). If there is an actual Deaf church in your area in your denomination or a similar one, there may not be a need. Many Deaf would rather attend a service conducted in ASL than an interpreted one. If such a church exists, maybe you can partner wiht them for service and fellowship activities from time to time. If it doesn’t exist, consider offering interpreted services and activities. Don’t fall into the trap of “we don’t need an interpreter b/c we don’t have any Deaf people.” Maybe you don’t have any Deaf people b/c you don’t have a ‘terp

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vernice says:

    Wish there was one in the Garner Raleigh area


    • Sandra says:

      There are lots of special-needs welcoming churches in the Raleigh area! We attended Richland Creek Church when we lived in Wake Forest and they are very accommodating.


  4. Lorri says:

    Glad to see more churches are becoming special needs friendly:)


  5. Melanie says:

    Love this! We are right outside of Houston, have you already started the church? We’d love to attend with our kids(2 have some disabilities)! can you email me more information? Miangeleyes9@yahoo.com


  6. mowglismom says:

    I love this! Please also consider how to include and accommodate families who are dealing with food allergies. So many activities at church include food. It has meant the world to me when our small group has planned food-free family events so that we could participate. Unfortunately, our son has not been able to attend any of the children’s department’s special activities (for example, parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s) because they are not safe for him. I wish you all the best! Blessings, Christina


  7. wendyatkinson1 says:

    Would love to talk sometime…I have been working to make our church special needs friendly for 16 years. We currently have one to one buddies for students on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings for all children’s programming. We have a sensory room for those that need safe calm down place for meltdowns or just a place to get ready to go to class. We also have teachers that come the 20 minutes in the middle of the hour to do a lesson for those that can’t yet handle the full time in inclusion. We offer a parents of special needs support group that meets x2 monthly and with that we offer what we call Sunday Funday which is childcare for them and siblings. We offer two sports programs soccer and basketball that are 7 week seasons. We offer buddies for our vacation bible school and for our summer music camp offered to all children. We have a group called FFL that meets twice month for special needs adults. They have a dinner and club night and a bible study night. We offer a 2 1/2 to 3 hour training at least every quarter that is required to serve in the ministry. We also have a peer buddy programming in our youth ministry. Praying for you as you step into this journey.


  8. Ruth-Ann McKellin says:

    Our Special Friends ministry involves not only the families of our special friends, but the whole church. We volunteer for the annual fishing derby, attend the excellent musicals our friends produce, and some volunteer for the weekly opportunities to serve. Special Friends are an integral part of our church family.


  9. Cindy says:

    When we came to our church, myself a single mother with two children with special needs, the church manifested Christ’s love so completely in their compassionate consideration of our needs that there was no doubt where their love came from. And it is in large part because of this love and practical ministry to us that my son who was nonverbal and severely Autistic came to know The Messiah. The day he was baptized was a most beautiful day…. :).

    I would suggest you consider ways to involve the special needs members of your church and their families in service and ministry. While yes, we tend to need refuge, and to be ministered to, we also need the opportunity to serve others, need to be a part of giving love as well as receiving.


    • Sandra says:

      Sounds like a wonderful church! I did mention in the article that we need everyone to fulfill God’s purpose for the church and all are full, active members, which includes serving. Thanks for sharing your story!


  10. susan says:

    I will be praying for your church. The biggest problem with meeting the needs of “special” families is that each child is different, so you really need an army of volunteers. My 14 year old son has autism and speech apraxia. We started attending our current church (in 2009) precisely because it had a special needs program. Unfortunately, as my son got older he has become more aggressive and erratic. The special needs program just couldn’t handle these behaviors and now have to hire a babysitter in our home Sunday mornings to attend church.


  11. Ray says:

    Does it mean that families with special needs children/adults will not be shown to the back of the auditorium, or the cry room or lobby because they are/may be disruptive? Does it mean the “normal” attendees won’t stare and whisper as a special needs family enters the building? Unless the special needs family doesn’t feel welcome, your theological
    stances and mom’s days won’t mean a thing. A former special needs dad…


    • Sandra says:

      I think it’s clear we won’t do that, since I am a special-needs mom and sibling. They will know our theology by our love.


  12. janesforever says:

    Hi, I wanted to share my experience of our church welcoming our adopted daughter, Star. Star is beautiful, full of joy, she also has Down syndrome.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. muchalone says:

    I love that you have started with special-needs friendly as a primary goal and not an optional addendum–so refreshing!
    I wonder about addressing so many individual differences though. My kids are anxious, so we need an early worship service. Other Moms struggle with the morning routine and need a later time. New church plants we have visited structure the worship music like a rock concert–dancing strobe lights are a hazard for my son who has seizures, the dark auditorium makes me struggle to get him in and out safely because of limited vision, and the smoke machine triggers another child’s asthma. Theater seats that fold up hurt my oldest son’s unstable hips, but make the building seem less ‘churchy’ to seekers. And the children with food allergies can’t attend if there is a snack, but my youngest leaves screaming if there isn’t.
    I love an inclusive atmosphere, but it seems impossible to be all things to all people. I want my children in the regular Sunday School class. I want to be able to attend family services/events as a family unit, and not have to ‘divide and conquer’ or take turns going.
    I pray that your new church will find the combination that works for the most families with need of a church home–whether they have special needs or not…you have so many things to consider!


    • Sandra says:

      We will do our best to meet the needs of the families who come. There are other churches in town also serving special-needs families, and we pray there will be more and more in the coming years. Like the saying goes, we may not be able to help everyone, but we can help each one we can.


  14. Pingback: What We Mean When We Say Our New Church Is “Special-Needs Friendly” | VictoryAndLyme

  15. Debbie says:

    I LOVE this idea! I have a 29 year old son, w/devopmental delays! He’s, I believe, how God meant us ALL to be, loving, thoughtful, helpful & most of all forgiving (& he has to forgive ALOT, unfortunately)!


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