The Search to Belong: No Place For Us

We have been in Colorado Springs for almost a month now. We took a nice week off and began looking for a church home the second weekend here. So far we have visited three different churches and met three different situations a family with special needs might encounter. Out of the three so far only one has had a special needs ministry.

We have been very fortunate up to this point. When Daniel was diagnosed with epilepsy the church we belonged to jumped in with both feet. When we left there, the next church had the beginnings of a special needs ministry so they welcomed us with open arms. We have never experienced a church setting where we were not wanted or welcomed. That changed last week.

I should clarify something before I go on. There are times when there is no doubt you and your child with special needs are not welcome. Many families face this reality weekly in the American church. Often a trip to church is no different than a trip to the store with people staring and making derogatory or inappropriate comments.  Many times the families are being told to leave or that they are not welcome, in so many words. I have had other Christians scoff in disbelief when I tell them the church is not always welcoming. I am with them, I find it unfathomable to think that someone is not welcome in the house of the Lord. Those of you who do not subscribe to the whole Christianity thing are probably screaming at the computer now: “I told you, church is full of hypocrites!”. To which I would say, yes, yes it is. We often forget as church people that we are still sinners who give into our own fears, desires, evil motives and misguided beliefs. It is those things that cause churches to exclude the people that received three-fourths of Christ’s recorded miracles in Scripture.

There are times, however, when being not wanted or welcomed are subjective. Often times we as parents of children with special needs perceive we are not wanted because of things families with typical developing children may not see. Many parents are forced to attend events with their child if he/she wants to participate. Other parents and church leaders may not see an issue, but to us this sends a loud message. It might be something as simple as the teacher ignoring the child with special needs. We want our kids to be included and treated like every other child, as far as their abilities allow. These are the things many don’t see that we do.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking we should get over it. You are too sensitive. Maybe we are. But if we are it is because the world has made us this way. What parents of a typical developing children may not understand is how our children can be treated in the world. We have all watched our children be discriminated, mocked and even insulted. We see their feelings get hurt. We see the push to end bulling in the schools, but at times wonder if it really applies to those with special needs. I know I have become calloused and somewhat jaded; quick to be offended and slow to offer grace. So, yes, I am probably too sensitive, but you would be too. It’s a negative side affect of standing up for those who cannot stand for themselves; for being the voice of the voiceless.

For us, it was the second case. It was a subjective case. See, we were very welcomed at this particular church. They were happy to see us, we were greeted warmly by numerous people. Someone guided us to where we needed to be to get Ben checked in. We were ushered to a seat where Daniel could sit in his wheelchair during the service. A staff member sat in front of us  and after the service was happy to answer any questions we had. I felt welcomed and accepted by all.

Still, there was no place for US.

While they had things for the kids and small groups for us, they did not have a place for Daniel. When we asked about special needs, they admitted they had nothing. They are a three year old church plant and said they can not do everything. I would agree. Churches tend to spread themselves too thin trying to do every good thing instead of focusing on one or two great things. I do not fault them at all for this. A church has to follow the prompting of God first and foremost.

We suddenly found ourselves in the 55% of church going families with special needs who have to keep their child from participating or are expected to stay with the child if they are going to participate. ( I was told that maybe we could help start one if we decided to attend there. While that is what I have been called to Colorado for, there is a big difference between “maybe” and another church we are talking to that has been praying for a ministry for months.

There is, however, a fundamental flaw in the argument that churches cannot do it all. The church is called to do one thing and one thing alone: MINISTER TO THE WORLD. Not every church is called to reach every people group. That is why we have different churches and God gives each one different passions. Regardless of what the specific passion a church has, it is still called to minister to people. Somewhere throughout the years special needs was pushed into a category all its own. Instead of seeing those with a disability as people who we need to minister to, they are seen as a ministry to be taken on by only those who are called to it.

Jesus had compassion for those with disabilities. When the crowds rebuked the blind, sick and the lame for crying out to Him, he healed and blessed. Jesus routinely healed and ministered to those with special needs. He saw them as people who, while having physical and mental needs, needed a Savior more. So he addressed the worldly ailments so that the spiritual ailments could ultimately be cured.

I’m not advocating that all churches need full blown disability ministries with sensory rooms and monthly respite nights. Churches like Grace Church in Overland Park, KS have a specific calling spearheaded by an advocate who knows what God has called him to. I believe only a few are called to that scope of ministry, but all are called to minister to people who are broken and lost. That is how Jesus saw those with disabilities; as people, not ministries.

So what does that look like? Simple, showing compassion on families and individuals with special needs. Being prepared for the day when a families walks through the door who needs some extra assistance to attend church. Being ready to come alongside the young family who has just gotten the autism diagnosis. It means seeing the people first.

But how do we do that you might ask. Simple:

  • Fast and pray!!!
  • Locate the one person in the congregation who God has placed the most compassion for special needs on their hearts. It is likely not a staff member!
  • Get training for the person you have identified and your children’s ministry staff.
  • Give the person you have identified the ability and encouragement to build a small team to assist them.
  • Give God room to work!

Your specific church may never need those volunteers, but it is far better to be prepared than to be blindsided and miss an opportunity to advance the Kingdom by loving on a family who is hurting. The sad truth is, autism alone is on the rise. One child out of fifty-nine is diagnosed with autism. The likelihood of your children’s ministry having a child with autism grows every year. Many parents will not tell you about their child’s diagnosis out of fear. You owe it to those your church serves along with the volunteers who work with the kids to be prepared. It only takes a split second for a possible situation to turn into a full blown emergency.

If your church needs help with training or resources send me a message through the contact form. I would love to help you on the journey.

Jesus continued going around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:35-38 CSB

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