Pop Quiz:

What is the largest minority in the United States right now? (Do you hear the Jeopardy theme song playing?)

Many might have guessed the Latino community. At over 18%, that is a good guess. While statistics vary because of the difficulty to count those who are often hidden, at nearly a statistical tie according to the 2010 census bureau, the largest minority (almost 19 percent of the population amounting to 58.7 million people) are those with special needs.

People on the autism spectrum. People with Downs syndrome or crippled arms and legs. People with Cystic fibrosis, ADHD, PTSD, blindness, hearing loss, CP, ambulatory difficulty, and cognitive difficulty. The list could go on and on. 

Why should we care?

We are followers of Christ and as followers, we are called to reach out to every tribe, tongue, and people group. Unfortunately, those with special needs is a nearly unreached people group.   

The Americans With Disabilities Act guarantees equal opportunity for people with disabilities. Those in church leadership should ponder these questions: Is that true in our church? Do people with disabilities have equal access to all that happens at church? 

While there are pockets of churches who are doing a good job at this, a glance across our American church landscape shows there is very little being done to reach those with special needs. 

For some, it is unfamiliarity. What should I say? How should I act? What if I do something that is hurtful?  

For some, there is a far more cruel reason. In the episode called The Insights of Outsiders on Kate Bowler’s podcast Everything Happens, Kate and her guest, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, suggest that the special need crowd is ignored in church because it is terrifying to be around those who remind us of how fragile life is. 

So we ignore anything that shows us that it is even a thing, or that it could become a possibility in our own lives. We want the shiny and the perfect around us because that is who we want to be. We can become very uninviting at church or we avoid the sick, the needy, the one whose heart is crushed by circumstances, the person who is struggling, lonely, broken or the one who has a disability. 

Why does Jesus care?

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress….”  (James 1:27). 

Is it too far a stretch to incorporate people under the banner of widow and orphan who are suffering and disenfranchised because of disability?

Jesus said when we care for ‘even the least of these’ we have cared for Him (Matthew 25:40). Because those with special needs are close to the heart of Christ, we need to pay attention to those in this group.

Jesus sought out the blind, the man with a crippled arm, the woman with an issue of blood to heal. If He loved them and cared for them, then who are we to not? These are the people God calls us to love.

The power of the Gospel is most often seen, not in the shiny and perfect but through us in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).     

God often chooses the ‘weak and foolish’ (1 Corinthians 1:26-29) to confound the wise and honor His name. I believe He enjoys using those who are in need of extra mercy and grace to glorify His name in His Church. 

What does this mean, practically?

Most church leaders would agree that they want their congregation to mirror the demographics of their target community. If 19% of the county has special needs, is that reflected in your church? What needs to change to make it so? Beyond that, Joni and Friends suggests that 80% of family members of the one with a disability do not go to church either.

There needs to be education from the top. We cannot be afraid or disconnected from those with special needs if we want to incorporate them into the life of the Body. 

Don’t get bogged down with what the cost factors may be to be a welcoming place for the disabled.  Start with theses questions:

  • What are we missing by not including the special needs family? 
  • What gifting and ministry are we missing because the special needs individual is not in our midst?  
  • Is the value of inclusion worth the costs to modify, accommodate and welcome the disabled like we would every other person?

8 Ideas to Include Special Needs People

1. Those who are contemplating building a new church building should make plans that include worship center, bathrooms, offices and classrooms to be on one floor. Add in the cost of an elevator that will get to every other floor.

2. Include those with special needs on the greeter rotation so visitors with special needs know that you are a welcoming place for those with disabilities. 

3. Leave room for walkers and wheelchairs in how chairs are set up.

4. Build a quiet room for those with sensory issues.

5. Provide training for teachers and one-on-one aides to equip them to work with children with autism and other common needs.

6. Invite a deaf interpreter to be part of the worship service. 

7. Welcome the loudness that may come from a special needs person – yes even in the worship service. Celebrate their being part of the Body.

8. Offer support groups for parents of special needs people.

For more help getting started with a special needs ministry: 

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Peter Johnson

Senior Pastor at Hanoverdale Church
Peter has served as an associate pastor in NH and at Montvale Evangelical Free Church in Montvale, NJ. For nearly ten years he served as senior pastor of Northern Valley Evangelical Free Church in Cresskill, NJ before joining the Eastern District staff from 2007-2017. He is now Senior Pastor of Hanoverdale Church. Peter and Karen make their home in Hershey, PA, where Pete enjoys painting (art, not houses), gardening, and talking to his neighbors across the fence.

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