It’s the hidden disabilities that keep kids out of church

A landmark study in the disability ministry field was published by Dr. Andrew Whitehead of Clemson University in this month’s Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion examining the impact of a variety of physical, developmental and mental health disabilities upon church attendance using data generated from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH).

What makes this study a “game changer” is the suggestion that the kids who are least likely to attend church aren’t necessarily those who have been the traditional focus of the disability ministry field – kids with intellectual or physical disabilities. The study found that the children most likely to be excluded from church are those with autism spectrum disorders and common mental health conditions – anxiety, depression, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder and ADHD.

For the purpose of this study, Dr. Whitehead accessed data from three waves of the NSCH (2003, 2007, 2010-11) and compared the reported rates of children never having attended a religious service in the past year among kids with no identified disability to rates among children with twenty different chronic health conditions included in the survey. The large sample size of the survey – 95,677 phone interviews were conducted for the 2010-11 wave – allows for meaningful statistical comparisons.

Dr. Whitehead noted that children with no reported chronic health condition were significantly less likely to report never attending church services compared to the population as a whole. In contrast, kids with the following health conditions were significantly more likely to report never having attended church

  • Children with autism spectrum disorders are 1.84 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with depression are 1.73 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with traumatic brain injury are 1.71 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder are 1.48 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with anxiety are 1.45 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with speech problems were 1.42 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Children with learning disabilities were 1.36 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Kids with ADD/ADHD were 1.19 times more likely to never attend church.
  • Kids with bone, joint and muscle problems were 1.15 times more likely to never attend church.

The study also noted a number of other chronic health conditions that had no effect on church attendance. Those conditions included:

  • Tourette Syndrome
  • Epilepsy
  • Hearing problems
  • Vision Problems
  • Intellectual disability (2010-11 wave)
  • Cerebral palsy (2010-11 wave)

Dr. Whitehead’s interpretation of the study results was that conditions that negatively impact upon social interaction or communication are those that result in the greatest impact upon church attendance.

It appears that across a range of chronic health conditions, those that areprimarily characterized by deficiencies in social interaction or might impede communication are most consistently andsignificantly associated with disengagement with attendance at religious worship services. Furthermore, these results strongly suggest that the higher probability of children with particular health conditions never attending religious services has been stable over time. Prior research signals that thisis likely due to factors attributable to barriers within congregations as well asthe characteristics of the children’s disability. As Ault, Collins, and Carter point out, the behavioral characteristics of children with various chronic health conditions play an important role in structuring if and how they will be integrated into congregational life. Children with autismspectrum disorders, developmental delays, and conduct disorders allmanifest a range of social and behavioral characteristics that routinely resultin strained social encounters and interactions. Likewise, children with speech problems might not be able to communicate as easily as their peers. The particular behavioral characteristics or physical limitations associated with these health conditions appear to limit these children’s ability to attend religious services.

Dr. Whitehead’s analysis didn’t include data examining the frequency of church attendance among kids with the chronic health conditions identified in the study. My hypothesis is that not only is it less likely that families of kids with autism, mental health concerns and other hidden disabilities will ever attend church, but those who do attend church are able to attend less frequently than families unaffected by those disabilities.

The findings of his study are consistent with the hypotheses that underlie the inclusion model our team developed for churches seeking to become more intentional about welcoming families affected by mental illness. I’d add to his observations about social communication and interaction that conditions impacting a child’s capacity for emotional regulation and self-control also appear to cause great challenges at church. The highly significant association reported between church attendance, depression and anxiety likely results from the impact those conditions have upon the ability or willingness to enter into social interactions and relationships at church.


If your church is prepared to act, our team is prepared to help!

We have a simple and flexible model for mental health inclusion ministry that we believe is useful for churches of all sizes, denominations and organizational styles.

We have a complete library of free training videos to help pastors, church staff and volunteers to understand and implement our mental health inclusion model.

We have trained and experienced staff and volunteers available to help address questions and challenges that arise as your church seeks to develop a mental health inclusion strategy. Your inclusion team can use this link to contact our ministry team for help.

Dr. Whitehead’s study is a clear call to pastors and ministry leaders that it’s time we do more to ensure that there’s a welcoming church available for every child and every family!

Are you a pastor or ministry leader searching for resources to better understand how to support children, adults or families affected by mental illness in your church or in your community? Check out Key Ministry’s Mental Health Resources page, containing links to video, articles and topical blog series designed to help you minister with persons with common mental health conditions. Also available through the website are a free, downloadable mental health ministry planning tool designed to accompany Mental Health and the Church, along with links to recommended books, like-minded mental health ministry organizations, relevant research, sermons addressing mental illness, social media resources and a compilation of stories from families affected by mental illness.



About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Autism, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health, Strategies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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