According to a study published by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR), children with special needs, disabilities, and chronic health conditions are most likely to never attend worship services. This is especially true for conditions that impact social interaction or impede communication, such as autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays, and ADHD.
An estimated one in six children has at least one developmental disability, representing a 17 percent jump from 1997 to 2008. As a result, children with special needs are now one of the largest unreached people groups—yet many churches have been slow to respond. According to a 2001 survey, only 10 percent of congregations said they provide some type of care for people with disabilities. In other words, the mission field is wide open.
In an interview with Baptist Press, Texas pastor Lee Peoples says that for churches, people with special needs are “some of the most underserved” and “unreached” groups. Peoples and his wife, Sandra, have a 10-year-old son with autism, and Sandra has a sister with Down syndrome.
Peoples’ church, Heights Baptist in Alvin, Texas, had so many people with needs that it named a special-needs ministry director, Lisa Rose. Her brother’s family had stopped attending church because it was too difficult to bring their daughter, who has a genetic disorder. “We had a lot of special needs in our church that just weren’t being served,” Rose says. “So we said, we haven’t helped you, how can we fix this?”
Solutions included converting two areas into sensory-friendly rooms, using the “Special Buddies” curriculum from LifeWay Christian Resources, and setting up a respite program for caregivers.
Taking those types of steps to reach families with special needs is key. According to the JSSR research, church involvement is just as important to people with disabilities as it is to those without them. In addition, studies show that attending worship services has positive effects on children with special needs, as well as their families. When children with disabilities are involved with church, they have better emotional health, higher self-esteem, and improved overall well-being. Parents and siblings also benefit, thanks to increased social support and better physical and emotional health.
What Obstacles Get in the Way of Special Needs Ministry?
When it comes to church attendance, children with special needs or chronic health conditions face five main barriers, according to a 2007 study. These include architectural issues such as building access, negative attitudes expressed by church members and leaders, communication difficulties, programming obstacles, and “liturgical barriers.” When combined, these obstacles make it seem difficult for families to integrate into the life of a congregation.
In addition, many parents who have children with special needs reveal that the effort to attend church—and to advocate for their kids in yet another area—often feels overwhelming, despite their desire to be part of a congregation. “We wish we had a community to belong to,” one mother says, “however…we have not had the time or energy to seek out and prepare a new spiritual home for ourselves.”
Those frustrations are echoed by other statistics cited in the JSSR study. For example, 33 percent of parents of children with disabilities have switched churches because their child seemed to be excluded. Fifty-six percent of parents have kept their child from participating in religious activities due to a lack of support from the congregation. Half of parents of children with disabilities say their church and its leaders have never asked how to best include their child in worship, education, programs, and activities. And more than half of parents say they were expected to stay with their child during church services, rather than getting a break to worship.
Special-needs families who leave a church or never make it inside one might be getting their religious needs met elsewhere, the JSSR study notes. But the church, as the body of Christ, has many often-missed opportunities to step up and welcome children of all abilities.
In general, congregations do better at overcoming barriers related to health problems that are physical in nature, such as muscular problems. By contrast, conditions that are “primarily characterized by deﬁciencies in social interaction or might impede communication are most consistently and signiﬁcantly associated with disengagement with attendance at religious worship services,” according to the JSSR study. Examples include autism spectrum disorders, which increased in prevalence by 78 percent from 2002 to 2008, and ADHD, which increased in prevalence by 42 percent from 2003 to 2011.
How Can Churches Meet Needs?
To overcome obstacles that keep children with special needs from worship, churches must evaluate their physical property, making sure vans, wheelchairs, and other devices have easy access to all areas. Congregation members need to be encouraged and reminded to be welcoming at all times, remembering that first impressions are crucial for families who are accustomed to negative responses. Leaders as well as laypeople must take the initiative to interact with families, asking specific questions to discover what help is needed. And churches should review their programs, adjusting as necessary to make them appropriate for children of all ages and abilities.
Many resources are available to equip churches interested in developing a special-needs outreach. Key Ministry provides free downloadable resources, video conferencing, and free onsite training, when possible. The group’s mission is to ensure there’s “a church for every child.”
Other organizations assist churches with establishing respite care, providing much-needed relief to parents and other caregivers. The Christian nonprofit organization 99 Balloons, founded by parents whose son lived just 99 days, offers “rEcess” respite-care curriculum and other resources for $25 per month or $250 per year. Scholarships are available.
Providing quality respite care “is something you can do that has a real effect in your community,” says Matt Mooney, who founded 99 Balloons with his wife, Ginny. Through the brief life of their son Eliot, who was born with a chromosomal disorder, the Mooneys say they learned so much about the value of every single human life.
Churches also can consult a variety of books by experts in the field. Titles include Leading a Special Needs Ministry by Amy Fenton Lee, The Special Needs Ministry Handbook: A Church’s Guide to Reaching Children with Disabilities and Their Families by Amy Rapada, and Special Needs Ministry for Children: Creating a Welcoming Place for Families Whose Children Have Special Needs by Pat Verbal.
By being intentional about reaching out to families with special needs, churches can have a major impact on many lives. When children with disabilities are welcomed, included, and loved, their parents are more likely to return to your church—and to join in your mission of ministering to all of God’s children.