FORT WORTH–When Willis Richardson graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2009, he never imagined he would plant a church for families with special-needs children in his community a year later. Yet this fall, Beth-El Fellowship in Fort Worth will launch with 35 members and a goal to become a “fully inclusive” church as it pertains to families.
“What we’re doing here is far beyond providing ministry to special-needs families,” Richardson said. “It is not just having those kids in a room so that they don’t interrupt big church. It is about making joyful noises, focusing on the body of Christ.”
And while the church reaches out to special-needs families, Richardson said he hopes Beth-El will become a church that reflects the diversity of the body of Christ. The church will be further down the road to that goal when God provides additional laypeople who feel called to teach and serve in such a community of believers.
“We decided to make Romans 12:4-5 our guiding verse for Beth-El. Its focus is not only being one with Christ, but also one with each other,” Richardson said. “In other words we can’t be all we are supposed to be in Christ without our relationships with one another.”
“We believe that everyone at Beth-El regardless of their race, age, socioeconomic status or even mental development contributes to the spiritual development of every other person in our body. This is the reason why we try to include everyone into every aspect of our church. We might all be different, but we all contribute to the development of the body of Christ.”
Richardson said the church is striving for a 50-50 ratio of families with special needs and those without. “Right now if everyone shows up on Sunday, we have about that ratio,” he said.
Regardless of numbers, Richardson stressed Beth-El seeks to ministers to families.
“It is a family ministry. The divorce rate is higher among those families with special needs. Siblings have anger issues,” he said. “We will take every person whether they have special needs or not, present the gospel, see them accept Christ, disciple in a way that person can understand and plug them into ministry.”
But Richardson said he wasn’t always aware of the pressing needs of special families in his community until he met a family with an autistic son.
“That one family came and opened our eyes to greater needs of the special-needs community,” he said. “When we heard about these families not being able to go to church, not feeling welcome, it just kind of yearned in my heart to minister to them.”
And when people question Richardson’s vision to plant a church for special-needs families, he said he directs them to James 1:27.
“True religion is caring for widows and orphans. When you look at the times it was those who couldn’t care for themselves. I think of the modern-day widow and orphan as the special-needs community?those that Christ loves that the world tends to marginalize.”
Yet when churches do accept special-needs families, Richardson said they tend to separate them from the rest of the congregation.
“We don’t want to create a special education church,” he said, describing special education programs in schools that offer separate classrooms and curriculum for special-needs children. “We don’t want to be a special education church where only special-needs families come to our church, and everyone else calls Beth-El Fellowship the special-needs church on the west side of Fort Worth.”
“We want to be a full-inclusion church–one that strives in every aspect of our church life to fully include all members in everything that we do as God has gifted.”
To this end, Richardson envisions special-needs children tasked with roles during worship such as playing in the praise band, greeting visitors, and even speaking during the service with assistance.
“I can’t think of a greater testimony than one who says ‘I thank God for my autism, because without it I wouldn’t have been humble enough to seek him as my Savior,'” Richardson said.
Heather Hall joined Beth-El about a year-and-half ago desperately seeking Christian fellowship. At the time Hall joined the church, her son, Benjamin, had recently been diagnosed with classic autism. Hall’s husband is currently serving in Iraq.
“Beth-El has accepted my son’s autism with open arms. When we first joined, he was completely non-verbal,” Hall said. “Not to mention the times he would scream like crazy and/or run up on the stage during Pastor Willis’ service.
“I needed the support and fellowship, and they gave me a place to serve and honor God regardless. They truly desire to be selfless, to allow others to hear God’s Word.”
Hall attended a variety of churches in the past and discovered that while many churches try to be accommodating, very few offer a ministry focusing on the unique concerns of special-needs families.
“There may be one or two members available to assist but not with the passion of Beth-El,” she explained. “Our mission is to train up all members to love all regardless of their needs, just as God did for us through his son, Jesus.”
Yet Hall and Richardson conceded that the vision of a full-inclusive church is not without its challenges.
“With most church plants you want to reach your population, bring them in, disciple them and help them see the vision of the church. And then from their gifts and tithes, you build your building,” Richardson said.
“With this population, the majority of them have been burned by churches in the past,” he explained. “Their child looks normal, but doesn’t act normal. Because the child looks normal, the parents usually get looks like ‘why can’t you control the child?’ And so they typically leave churches and isolate themselves.”
In order to attract families with special-needs children who feel unwelcome in a typical church, Richardson said they began outfitting the church building to make it more functional for children with special needs. Renovation began with an initial financial gift from Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
“The sensory overload can be enormous for the child,” Hall said, indicating that some special-needs children are bothered by bright lights and loud noises. “Naturally, the physical set-up can cause issues, but parents will accommodate for that if they can just find acceptance from believers such as God has accepted all of us.”
To address potential auditory issues during worship services, Richardson said they monitor the sound system and have chosen muted colors and hypo-allergenic flooring for the building. Additionally, they lowered the platform for wheelchair access.
“We tore out our baptistery, because it was a narrow stairway. I didn’t think we could get anyone in a wheelchair up there,” he said, adding that they hope to purchase a portable baptistery.
The church also added a “cry room” at the back of the church. “We like to call it a ‘practice praise room,’ where kids go back to learn how to worship. If they need to move around, make noise, they can look out through windows and have speakers and still know what’s going on.”
But Richardson said it is important for the children to be able “to look out and see proper behavior … all the while make it so it’s not interrupting the larger church service.”
Richardson hopes the renovations on the building will allow the children to feel acceptance and give them the opportunity to participate in worship. “Through that, we can modify their behavior and make that connection.”
Speaking personally, Richardson said it is often challenging to incorporate special-needs children in Sunday worship, particularly as he shares his sermon.
Grateful for the training he received at Southwestern that equipped him in expository preaching, Richardson said, “I preach without notes and that helps me to keep my focus. One time a girl’s suction tube went off and yet everyone stayed focused. There are kids running on stage or one will yell. I try to pick out people in the audience and stay focused in preaching to them.”
Richardson said the demonstration of biblical attitudes can also be a challenge in ministering to families with special needs.
“Parents are extremely passionate as they should be [about needs of their kids]. They have felt abandoned by medical community, schools, their own families, and the church,” Richardson said, noting that many special-needs families still grapple with resentment. “It would be a lot easier to put on a puppet show for a sermon and just say ‘we’re going to love you.’ That’s a lot easier than to hold you accountable to truly live out Christ.”
For more information about Beth-El Baptist church, visit them online at bffw.org.