You’re Wanted Here: Welcoming Children with Disabilities in the Church

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

The KidzMatter Blog/Special Needs/You’re Wanted Here: Welcoming Children with Disabilities in the Church

Dylan wasn’t like the other preschoolers at church. While the other children sat at the table and colored, Dylan ran laps around the hallways. When we talked with him, he roared. Literally. 

Our children’s ministry didn’t want to turn Dylan away, but we were baffled. We wondered, “Does he have autism?  Or ADHD?” But mostly we asked, “How can we make this work?” 

Dylan was active and sometimes physically aggressive, but we learned how to help him. We posted a visual schedule, enforced rules, and offered hugs. Though we ended some nights exhausted, Dylan slowly adjusted and even began to enjoy church. 

Soon after this, I finished a master's degree in special education and began teaching a special education preschool class. My class was full of Dylans. As I got to know these children and their families, I realized that Dylan wasn’t the only child with a disability who struggled at church – and this struggle didn’t just affect the children. Sometimes entire families missed church because they feared their child would be a burden.

I wondered what resources were available to help churches minister to children with disabilities. Did other churches face challenges as we did with Dylan? And if so, what could we do about it?

The Need
As I explored further, I found that Dylan and my students weren’t isolated examples. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that over three million children in the US had a disability. Are churches serving them well? 

Most churches think they are. A 2020 Lifeway Research survey showed that 97% of church members believe someone with a disability would feel welcome in their church. Unfortunately, statistics and personal stories say this isn’t always accurate.

A study by Andrew Whitehead (2018) showed that children with certain disabilities are likelier to never attend church than children without disabilities. He also cited a study that showed over half of families of children with disabilities said their children didn’t participate in religious activities because they lacked support from the church.

Personal stories agree. Ashleigh is a young woman with a physical disability, and Jennifer is the mother of a daughter with a developmental disability. Both of them sometimes felt unwelcome in church. Ashleigh told me that there were times at church when she felt excluded because she couldn’t participate with her peers in youth group. Jennifer said that in one church she attended, the childcare workers seemed annoyed when Jennifer brought her daughter to the nursery. She also knew other families of children with disabilities who wouldn’t even bring their children to church because the church wasn’t supportive. 

So, while some churches effectively minister to children with disabilities and their families, many do not. Somewhere between the 97% percent of church members who believe they are welcoming and the stories of Jennifer, Ashleigh, and others who have felt unwelcome, there is a disconnect. How should we respond?

The Motivation
Before we address “how,” we may need to address “why.” Why does it matter that we minister to children with disabilities?

Jesus Himself gives the answer. Consider this account: Jesus was teaching when families with children approached Him, asking for His blessing. Instead of welcoming them, the disciples shooed them away.

Jesus disagreed with the disciples’ response. Rebuking them, He said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14b NASB). 

Jesus prioritized children even over teaching. Scripture doesn’t say that these children had disabilities, but the language suggests they couldn’t approach Jesus independently. In spite of that, He still wanted them. Even more, Jesus said these were the kind of people to whom the kingdom of God belonged. As such, He welcomed them and rebuked those who tried to turn them away. 

If we imitate Christ, we’ll acknowledge that each person has value in God’s kingdom, especially those who can’t approach Jesus on their own. Rather than echoing the disciples, we can say, “Come – I’ll help you find Jesus!”

The Solution
Maybe you’re wondering, “How do I help?” You don’t need fancy equipment or intensive training to minister well to children with disabilities. Three steps can help you begin.

1. See beyond the disability. Maybe the first thing you notice about a child with a disability is the wheelchair, the flapping hands, or the facial features. But children with disabilities are, first of all, children who are created in God’s image. And like everyone, these children suffer because of sin. While all of us face fractured relationships, sickness, and sadness due to sin, children with disabilities also encounter bodies and minds that don’t function as God originally designed. But just like us, these children have hope for redemption through Jesus. If we are going to minister well to children with disabilities, we must see beyond the disability to recognize the child who bears God’s image, suffers under sin, and hopes for redemption through Christ. 

2. Invite communication. When a child with a disability enters your church, you may not understand his or her needs or how to meet them. You may feel intimidated and unsure of where to start. Begin by asking questions of both the parents and the child, if possible. Jennifer encourages us not to fear asking questions because it shows our concern. Get to know the family as you would any new family, then ask how the child’s disability affects his or her participation in church activities and how you can help. Then listen to the answers – those answers can provide the starting place for ministry. 
3. Be willing to change. As you learn about a child’s disability, you’ll find areas where your typical children’s ministry and the child’s disability won’t mesh. What should you do? Sometimes the answer is clear, like adding a wheelchair ramp or finding large print materials. Other times, the answer may be more complex. Sometimes you’ll have to be flexible and adjust your expectations of how children’s ministry should look. For example, maybe the child with ADHD needs to sit at a table and squish playdough during the Bible lesson rather than sit on the rug with the group. Or, perhaps the child with sensory processing disorder doesn’t need to join the loud large group for worship music. Instead, she could go in another space and listen to worship music at a more sensory-friendly level. As you search for specific ways to help the children in your group, you may find it helpful to learn about particular disabilities, but primarily, you need to learn about the children. Discover their individual needs, then try new ways to meet those needs. Be willing to learn what works and what doesn’t work.

It took time to learn what worked with Dylan, but we eventually did. He’s no longer a preschooler, and I don’t get to see him frequently anymore. But when I do, he smiles shyly. He may not remember much about his introduction to church, but he does remember the people who reached out to him and loved him. 

Now we also know that Dylan isn’t the only one. When the next Dylan shows up at our churches, how will we respond? I hope we’ll take his hand and say, “Come with us! Jesus wants you here. We do, too.” 

Kori Buchanan is a special education teacher and children’s ministry worker who lives in Georgia. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading, watching old movies, and finding the best teacher memes to share with her family.

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