I am learning as I go. I am not an Autism expert nor full of creative solutions. I do not always see things as they are; I am a parent, and sometimes my own vision and feelings cloud my ability to serve my church fully while also serving my son. I am flawed, prone to fixing things my own way, taking over when things do not go according to plan – my plan, anyway.
Church ministry to my Autistic son depends as much on me being a flexible and involved parent, as it depends on the willingness of those who serve my son to do whatever it takes to show him the love and truth of Christ. Requiring tremendous effort and commitment on all parts, it is only as successful as I am willing for my child to be part of that arduous process (and it will always be a process – not a tried-and-true system). I have already failed at this as a parent more times than I can count – and if you think a typical mama bear is a force to be reckoned with, you should see a mama bear ninja working towards a black belt in special needs! Hiyah!
Since I deeply believe Jesus and His church are as much for my Autistic son as they are for me, and the church misses out on something God has for them by not having special needs people in it, I have concluded that we as church members must consider how we are effectively reaching the goal of engaging special needs families. True confession: when it comes to meeting needs outside the Autism realm, I am like many church members: I am starting at zero. I will need grace as I seek to serve families whose needs are different than mine, and this is wonderful! When we serve in grace and humility, Christ is exalted as we esteem others better than ourselves. Evaluating special needs ministry will never be an easy check-the-appropriate-box process, but our evaluation benefits from three considerations:
- Special needs families are not automatically excused from being a committed part of the local church.
- Churches are responsible for doing whatever it takes to reach, disciple, and minister to special needs families.
- Special needs families are statistically an under-reached demographic, and when committed to church, will be some of the most faithfully involved members of our churches!
As an Autism Mom, I am not exempt from raising my autistic child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4). The methods by which I do this may look very different from parents of typical children, but as a mom of both a neurodiverse child and two neurotypical children, I know every child is distinct and requires uniqueness in how they learn about Jesus. The call is the same for every Christian parent: we must teach and train our children to know, love, and obey Jesus to their fullest capability. One major way we all learn about Jesus is through Christian community in our local church. Our children need to be a part of worship, see adults and children with open Bibles listening to teachers and preachers, and they need to experience kindness and encouragement from people (other than their parents) who display the love of Jesus towards them. It also provides a place of service towards others, because sometimes much of their home life is devoted almost exclusively to their needs.
As a church member and ministry wife, we need to consider what special needs ministry looks like in each of our churches. Factors like size, number of special needs families, or even flow of the service plays a part. Some churches devote entire sensory-minimized services to individuals with special needs. Other churches like mine, have Buddies to help children navigate services and transitions. We may need to look at modifying spaces to better meet the needs of special needs families: family bathrooms, calming sensory-free rooms, or overflow rooms where the sermon can be heard and those who wander or make noises can be a little less conspicuous. Whether a bigger church or a smaller church, it must be considered. If you look around and see your church is empty of families with special needs, then your church is not complete!
Lastly, Jesus is our example, proving all kinds of people are welcome at His banquet table when He said, “Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of town and bring in the poor, crippled, blind, and the lame….Go out and compel them to come in, so that My house will be full.” (Luke 14:21b-23). Those with special needs may no longer be hidden away on abandoned roads and back alleys, but they are often isolated in suburban homes or ostracized and stigmatized in other ways. Jesus says to compel them to come. In doing so we show the value of special needs families in our local churches – exalting Christ, glorifying Him in His church, and serving alongside one another. What a beautiful sight to see the Lord’s church with all its variety and uniqueness!!