- Prepare the house. Back to basics time. Is the church building accessible? Is there a wheelchair ramp? Elevator? Accessible restrooms? Can people get into the building and navigate the hallways easily? If your congregation wants families with young children to be part of the body of Christ, anticipate their needs and prepare for them. Children of all ages get bored in worship. Activity bags with scripture lessons, crayons, magnetic erase sheets, pipe-cleaners, and other quiet activities are great ways to keep kids engaged in worship at their own level. Children with special needs are no different. They want something to do. Modify as appropriate for their particular developmental capabilities.
- Prepare the congregation. Often children with special needs do not understand boundaries and they make noise. Church leadership needs to model that is okay. I recall one sermon in which a young man was becoming agitated. Though non-verbal, he was loud at times. Heads were turning. The pastor saw the parents were distressed and said, “That’s okay Cameron. This passage gets me upset too. I feel you buddy. You aren’t bothering me.” The whole room was put at ease. Years later I cannot recall the sermon at all (nor any other sermon preached years ago!), but I can recall the radical hospitality of offering grace for a bit of disruption. The Holy Spirit on Pentecost was pretty disruptive too, with the tongues of fire and all that. I think church services can use more disruption. A fine prayer, “Please God, let something happen today that isn’t printed in the bulletin.”
- Learn from your guests. Have conversations with the parents and ask them what their children like to do and what is appropriate for them. For some parents, inclusion means finding a way for their child to be in worship with them. Perhaps they would like to be partnered with a buddy in worship who will keep their child engaged so parents can be more fully present to the sermon, etc. For some families, what feels inclusive is having a place that is geared to their child’s particular needs and is apart from the sanctuary. Either way, intentional conversation and a volunteer to work with the family says to them, “We are glad you are here and want you to be comfortable.”
- It takes heart. There are plenty of resources for developing comprehensive special need ministries. Books by Erik Carter and Amy Fenton Lee are great starting points for practical ideas to get a ministry up and running. The main ingredient is heart. It takes people who love families and want to be offer a welcoming place for them. That’s it. If you care, they will come. The biggest stumbling block to starting special needs ministries is fear. Congregations can “what if” themselves into a corner, frozen by concern of not being ready for every single possibility that may come their way. Having a heart for welcoming wins out over fear every time. Families that come don’t expect everything to be perfect. We understand plenty about “not perfect.” We live it every day. What we want is a congregation that cares that we have come to church and wants us to be there even though we don’t fit the mold of the typical family.
October 5 - 11, 2014 is Mental Illness Awareness Week, and World Mental Health Day is on October 10, 2014. Join us for a week of online resources and prayer support at our Facebook Event.