I’m going to let you in on a little secret—church is something that the parents of kids with special needs dread. We are an exhausted group of people, and making it to church on Sunday is hard in big ways. It is also hard for our kids, many of whose needs result in difficult and loud behaviors during church that draw lots of unwanted attention. They’re not trying to be disruptive or naughty; often their bodies and brains can’t process the sights, sounds, and structure of a service.
But we remember Christ’s words, “Let the little children come to me” in Matthew, and we understand the importance of bringing our kids to Jesus’ feet to hear about his love and forgiveness. Sometimes we are also motivated by our desperation to see other adults during the week that aren’t our kids’ therapists. Sometimes we even dare to hope that we will be able to distract our kids long enough to make it through singing just one of our favorite hymns.
It’s hard work—physically and emotionally—for us and for our children. Here are some things for the church to think through when it comes to being the hands and feet of Jesus so that families can receive rest from the one who welcomes those who are “weary and burdened.”
Special needs present themselves in different ways. Children may have autism, PTSD, Sensory Processing Disorder, or ADHD—all diagnoses that don’t affect a child’s physical appearance. However, these are very real and challenging things to live with, and they affect a child’s brain and behavior in deep, lifelong ways. Treat the children and their families in your congregation with the kindness and gentleness Paul speaks of in Galatians. There may be more to a child’s behavior that you simply do not know about.
Provide opportunities for Dad, Mom, and siblings to worship and learn. This can be as simple as providing a staffed nursery or special helper in the pews to give families aid and respite so that everyone is given a chance to learn, pray, and sing during worship.
Be advocates for struggling families. They’re probably used to stares or unkind comments in the grocery store, doctor’s office, or park. Let your church be a place where these families are supported and encouraged. If you see others making them feel unwelcome or unwanted, reach out to encourage the hurting family—and remind others that God calls us to carry each other’s burdens in love. Notice the times when their child is behaving well or having a successful day. Tell them about the amazing qualities you see in their child.
Equip your Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and other youth programs to accommodate participation from children with special needs. Make sure that the parents of these children feel welcome and safe dropping their child off by enlisting the help of their child’s therapists to make sure that you have a team in place to make the environment safe and successful. Most therapists are thrilled to help you make your program a better place for a hurting child. No one should be excluded from opportunities to learn about Jesus and enjoy fellowship with peers.
Children with special needs call for special care. And it brings special blessings for those of us who care for them. We get to see these children held tightly in the arms of Jesus and know—we had the joy of helping make it happen. Help your congregation experience this joyful blessing. Put God’s love in action.
Carly Seifert and her husband, Joel, live in Bozeman, Mont. Joel is the pastor of Shining Mountains Lutheran Church. In addition to teaching piano, Carly is a freelance writer. She and Joel have two children—Ella, who is seven, and Benjamin, who is three.