Becoming a church friendly to those with special needs

Editor’s note: Southern Baptists of Texas Convention churches will observe Special Needs Sunday on July 10. The SBTC caxn help you evaluate your current level of accessibility and take steps to welcome even more families. Contact Sandra Peoples at specialneeds@sbtexas.com to get started.

When we got our son’s autism diagnosis in 2010, a lot changed for our family. Our plans for his schooling changed, the way we spent our money changed (“therapy” got added to our budget), and even our home changed as we turned an extra room in the basement into a safe sensory space for him. 

One more important part of our lives also had to change—our church. At the time, my husband pastored a small church in rural Pennsylvania. For us to stay there and serve the congregation God had called my husband to shepherd, they would have to welcome James and make accommodations for him. Thankfully, they did! 

God raised up helpers in the church who had backgrounds and experience in therapy and special education, as well as family members of those with disabilities to guide us in those early years of making first our children’s ministry and then all our church ministries welcoming for special needs families. James flourished there, and more families came because our church was known for being accessible. We didn’t make it complicated or expensive. We just followed Jesus’ example in the gospel of Matthew. 

After Jesus’ triumphal entry, Matthew 21 tells us He cleansed the temple of moneychangers and those selling animals for sacrifice. They were likely set up in the area open to Gentiles and those who were considered unclean, including people with disabilities. When Jesus drove them out and overturned the tables, Scripture tells us “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (v. 14). The barriers were gone—they could enter the temple area and come close to Jesus. 

Any church can break down barriers and invite those without access to come close to Jesus and be part of our church families. It takes three simple steps:

Identify the barriers that may be keeping special needs families from attending your church

According to the 2000 census, one in five families in the U.S. has a member with a disability. If that percentage isn’t reflected in your church, they may be facing challenges that are keeping them from attending.

Implement changes that will break down those barriers

You don’t have to think about these changes as adding programs or taking resources. They are signs of friendship and hospitality. How can our children’s ministry be welcoming to a student with autism or our youth ministry to a teenager with Down syndrome? How can we show hospitality to a family in our worship service that has a member who may make noises during what is usually a quiet part of the service? Because we see the image of God in all people He created, we can ask the Holy Spirit to first work in our hearts and then work through our hands as we break down barriers so everyone is welcome in our churches.   

Invite families in the community to join you

We consider special needs families an unreached or underserved people group. A great way to start reaching them is to offer respite nights or sensory-friendly events. Encourage your congregation to invite the families they know to special events and services. Word will spread that you are a welcoming church!

Special needs ministry isn’t about adding a new ministry to your church—it’s about making your existing ministries accessible so special needs families can be transformed by the gospel and use their gifts to build up the church body. Churches of every size in every corner of Texas can do that!

Special Needs Ministry Consultant
Sandra Peoples
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
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