Each week as the leaders in the church, we have the opportunity to invite the broken into our classrooms. We get to welcome those who are misfits in this world: those with disabilities – who don’t look, talk, walk, learn, or hear the same as typical people do. Those who seem broken to the outside world. Often the words “special needs” or “disability” is used to define these broken people. Scripture refers to “disability” over 450 times, so it is certainly something that is close to the heart of God.
Then He turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned! —At the resurrection of God’s people.” Luke 14:12-14 (MSG)
And in John 9:1-2 we find the following in the scriptures, “Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?’ Jesus said, ‘You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.’” (MSG)
Those who are living with a disability are not to be a distraction or a hindrance to our work in Kids Ministry, they are meant to be an opportunity for us to grow – to grow as Christ followers and as teachers of His Word.
Inviting Special Needs Children into Our Church Classrooms
I’ve had the privilege of partnering with many special needs families over 15 years at my church. God has brought children who cannot walk, cannot talk, or have an extra chromosome. With these kids came parents who were thirsty for the Word and in desperate need of a place where their family would be accepted, protected, loved, and could grow.
When we first began our special needs ministry it was all because of a fantastic little boy named Robbie. Robbie was non-verbal and had seizures on a daily basis. Robbie grew our church’s heart in the area of ministering to children with disabilities. We created a separate-setting room and prayed for God to fill the room with special kids. The first year came and went and we didn’t welcome one new special needs family. Then a few more years went by and we realized that while God had grown our hearts for special kids – they weren’t coming. We even sat on the board of the special needs group for our county looking for opportunities to minister.
Know that it can take a long time for God to grow a special needs ministry, as it is a very tender ministry for families who have often been hurt by the world and the church – where their child is seen as a burden rather than an opportunity to serve. After a few years of welcoming, and a few new special needs families (and our sweet Robbie moved to another town), we realized that inclusion was most helpful for our church and for the specific special needs kids God had brought to us. What inclusion has looked like for us has been keeping the special kids with their physical age group (even if they have developmental and learning delays) and having a one on one helper with that child. Our one on one helpers range from parents just willing to help out, parents of special needs children themselves, or professionals in the field.
We pray for God to work in the hearts of every child who walks into the doors of our church that they may come to know Christ as Lord of their life. We pray these huge, God-sized prayers for our special needs kids. For Robbie this meant that we would read a special Child Evangelism Fellowship “wordless book” to him, which we created and laminated for him. His buddy helper would cover each page with him (he was partially blind, so the bright and dark colors of the wordless book were also helpful) and we read Scriptures for each page. Then we prayed with Robbie. We did this Sunday after Sunday every year that Robbie was with us.
Today, after much prayer, God has renewed our special needs ministry and it is currently led by two moms of special kids. They are so fantastic and give the ministry the vision and life application that blesses our special families.
Creating a Welcoming Classroom for Children with Special Needs
When considering how to include a special needs child in a classroom (whether it is multi-age or age specific) helpful components include:
- A picture schedule – You may choose to take a picture of each activity you do on a Sunday morning and build a Velcro picture schedule. This is helpful not only for the special kids in your group, but also the group as a whole to stay focused.
- Depending on the child’s disability, they may require a one on one buddy. Pray for God to bring someone who has a willing servant’s heart and consider someone who is able to be there on a weekly basis to provide consistency. This is a great place for those more introverted members who have a servant’s heart but avoid positions like teaching.
- Create an “activity chart” for special kids. We use a sticker chart and give a start sticker each time they complete an activity successfully. We bring this activity chart with them everywhere we go on Sundays (playground, bathroom, classroom, craft time, etc).
- Consider the special child’s abilities – maybe they love cars and can share one Sunday about how much they love cars as part of the lesson. Perhaps they are very detailed and they could be given a special weekly task of setting out the cups for snack each week. Encourage their abilities and gifts; don’t just focus on the disabilities. Meaningful contribution makes anyone feel valued.
- Invite their parent (or a helper) to come in and share about their disability – Sometimes kids are intimidated or scared of what they don’t know. Sharing with the group (even in a brief general way about disabilities) can be very fruitful.
- Consider the layout of your classroom and ministry space – Is it well kept? Does it look orderly or chaotic? What colors are used – bright reds or neutral tones? Is it logical? Does it have handicap access ramps? These are all things that are helpful to consider when welcoming special kids.
- Consider sending parents/caregivers the topics that will be covered the following Sunday (and if there is something out of ordinary in the schedule). That way they can talk about it during the week so the special kids feel prepared rather than caught off guard by what they will be learning and hearing about.
Where do you go from here?
Pray that God uses your church in a great way to reach families with disabilities in your community. Pray that God works in the heart of the typical children in your classroom and your teaching teams to be welcoming of children with disabilities.
Come up with a plan!
Think about how, as a church, you will welcome someone with a disability from the first moment they come on campus. Do you have a potential buddy on standby? – think about how you can minister to the whole family (like hosting a respite night where care is offered for all the kids, not just the special needs child, so parents can have a date night?) Consider if you have any special adults who are a part of your church and would be willing to speak insight into these areas as well.
Consider how the Bride of Christ can grow in their relationship with the Special Needs community within its walls and outside in your neighborhoods. Let’s love like Jesus by loving the least of these and preserving with them.
Suggested Disability Ministry Resources
Same Lake Different Boat—Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability by Stephanie O. Hubach
Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace by Michael Beates
A Lifetime of Wisdom—Embracing the Way God Heals You by Joni Eareckson Tada
Just the Way I Am: God’s Good Design in Disability by Krista Horning
Held- learning to live in God’s Grip (A Bible Study for Special Needs Parents) by Lee and Sandra Peoples
Leading a Special Needs Ministry by Amy Fenton Lee
Stephanie Jackson served as the Director of Children’s Ministries at North Wake Church (since 2003), Located in Wake Forest, NC. After a health battle, she is now with her Savior.