What does a special-needs family experience when they visit your church?

TIM MOSSHOLDER PHOTO/PEXELS

Editor’s note: The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has designated July 14 as Disability Ministry Sunday.

We walked up to the registration area for the children’s classes one Sunday at the church we were visiting in North Carolina while staying with family. The woman we met there asked questions to figure out where the boys should go and typed the answers into her computer.

“What are their names? When are their birthdays? Do they have any allergies?”

The questions were easy to answer for our older son, but our younger son took more explanation. His birthday does not represent his developmental stage. The computer can’t consider all the variables that would tell her what class option would be a good fit. “Can I type in that he was born in a different year? Would that work?” she asked.

It was our first time visiting a new church after James’s autism diagnosis. We didn’t know what to expect, how to prepare, or even whether we would be able to attend or if they would turn us away. The church wanted to welcome us and figure out a way to include James, but without any options for kids who didn’t fit into the usual ministry structure, they weren’t sure how to proceed.

Visiting a church as a special-needs family is challenging. Of course, we are no strangers to challenges. We navigate special education meetings at school to advocate for our kids. We drive them to therapy appointments and incorporate those goals into our family life. And we learn new acronyms and visit specialists. We feel guilty about the time and attention one child requires over the others. And of course, we worry about what the future will look like for our children and ourselves.

Add in the unknown challenges of visiting a church, and you can understand why many families stay home on Sundays. Studies show that a family like mine who has a child with autism is 84% less likely to attend church than a typical family. When you consider that 1 in 36 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism, you realize the number of families missing from our churches is significant.

What can churches do to reach and welcome special-needs families? There’s a biblical example they can follow. In Matthew 21, Jesus entered the temple area and drove out those who bought and sold goods and the money changers. What we often overlook in this passage is what came next, “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple ….” (v. 14a). There were obstacles in the way that made it impossible for people with disabilities to enter the temple area that they had access to. Jesus overturned and overcame those obstacles, setting an example for us today.

Here are three ways to make it easier for special-needs families to visit your church and feel welcomed:

1. Put information on your website

Special-needs families are often going to visit your website before they visit your church. They will likely look on the children’s ministry page to see if there’s any information about how you accommodate kids with disabilities. Also, consider whether there is a way for them to communicate about their child’s needs before they attend. If you have an online registration option, you can add a question like this: “Does your child have allergies, learning disabilities, or special needs that we can be aware of to make sure he/she is safe and comfortable in our ministry?” If a family answers yes, you can ask more questions so you’re better prepared.

2. Train your greeters and guest services team

They are the first people who will welcome families. Make sure they know how to help a family go to the right place if they want to attend children’s or youth ministry activities. You can also help them know how to meet the needs of families who attend the worship service. In our church lobby, we have noise-reducing headphones and buddy bags with sensory items available for those who need them. Our greeters can make sure families know where they are.

3. Have some level of accommodations available

Churches of every size can take steps of inclusion. There are three common types of accommodations in children’s ministry and Next Gen ministry: inclusive settings (often with additional help from a buddy), specialized settings like a sensory room or self-contained class, or a hybrid of both options (when a student attends class with typical peers and has the option to visit the sensory room when needed).

Your church can work toward these options. For example, if you don’t have space for a designated room, you may have a sensory corner in a classroom or put sensory items in the hallway when kids need a break.

The next time we visited a church, we were better prepared. I had looked at the church’s website ahead of time to see if they had any information on their children’s ministry page about accommodations or options for kids with disabilities. I emailed the children’s ministry director to let her know when we were coming and told her more about James (how he communicates and what might trigger his anxiety).

When we went to the registration area in the children’s lobby that Sunday, they welcomed us warmly and introduced us to the man who would be James’s buddy. The plan was for them to start in the class for his age group and visit the sensory room if he got overwhelmed. When we picked him up after the service, his buddy brought him to us and said he enjoyed music time and playing with trains. We were able to attend the worship service without worrying because we knew they were prepared.

Taking these three steps—putting information on your website, training your greeters, and having a level of accommodations available—will help special-needs families like mine feel welcome, knowing you are prepared for their visit.

Disability Ministry Consultant
Sandra Peoples
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
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What does a special-needs family experience when they visit your church?

Editor’s note: The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has designated July 14 as Disability Ministry Sunday. We walked up to the registration area for the children’s classes one Sunday at the church we were visiting in …

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