4 ways the church can support families with special needs

November 29, 2021

Steve and Martha have been attending Peace Church for 15 years. Their children are young adults and work. Their family is active in the church and the small groups ministry. Seth and Sharon are in the same small group. They have three children. Their two daughters are in the honors tracks at school, and they have an 8-year-old son with disabilities. He is presently labeled with developmental disabilities but will go through evaluation for one of the high-incidence disabilities. 

Both couples seem to bond. Steve and Martha want to be helpful to Seth and Sharon, but they find themselves asking questions like, “What can we do to be a support and listen to them? Where do we even start when our lives seem so different? Is there any way we could help bear their burdens and show the love of Christ?”

As the above example shows, parents of kids with disabilities have both similar and unique needs in comparison to other parents. Brothers and sisters in Christ want to help each other but may struggle to know the best path. Researchers have shows that families with disabilities need emotional support, navigational support, and informational support. Most importantly, they desire spiritual support. They need to be reminded of God’s love and his good purpose for them in this season of their life. As their friends and church members, we can be an asset to them and help bring them hope. But how can we do that wisely and not be harmful in how we help? 

Emotional support 

All parents need emotional support and understanding from their friends and church family. The Bible tells us that we are members of one body (Rom. 12). That means that when one part of the body is suffering, the whole body is suffering. And when one member is rejoicing, the whole body is rejoicing. As these families look to us, we might point them to scriptures that emphasize the promises of God, give wisdom, and bring hope. We can also acknowledge their suffering and challenges while listening and not giving advice. We shouldn’t immediately share our experiences, but instead demonstrate empathy. Looking at the Gospels, we see Jesus doing this again and again. He listened to those who came to him.  

Emotional support might also come by setting up peer-to-peer support groups through the church or offering respite nights for families such as the model seen in Jill’s House. Just as it is challenging for parents of any child to have time alone and ensure that their marriage is healthy and strong, it can be even more so for parents of children with special needs. As their brothers and sisters in Christ, we should be proactive in seeking out ways to provide that emotional support. And for parents who are just beginning to navigate life with disabilities, a “small cup of cold water” in the midst of much confusion will go a long way. 

Navigational support

Parents need help to know how and where to get the information, support, and therapies they require. In the story above, Seth and Sharon are going to be part of an “evaluation for disability,” and they may be intimidated or unclear about what that means. This is where the church can step in with practical assistance. We can help take some of the burden off of them by investigating different options. Or, we might listen and ask helpful questions as they talk about what they are learning. 

Another way that churches can assist is by seeking to know what tools are available in their area. Are there ministries in your city that help? What about health services? Having answers to these types of questions, or even thinking through what the questions might be, can help parents who are unsure of what comes next or where to turn. For parents who are on a steep learning curve, any assistance that the church can provide to help orient them and provide grounding is helpful. It can often feel as if there’s no time to learn or even reflect on what has happened, especially right after a diagnosis or during major changes in the life of their child, whether emotional, physical, or spiritual.

Informational support 

For parents and families, the first people they often go to for understanding and support are their close friends and church family. That means you. They may ask if you know anything about the websites and suggestions that are constantly being thrown at them. Do you know teachers, specialists, doctors, or nurses? While you don’t have to (and won’t) have all the answers, you can be a willing resource and connector as they are trying to find those answers. 

The internet has provided a plethora of information for parents of children with special needs. Though it should always be checked to ensure it is reputable, organizations and support groups online offer parents answers to questions that they either have now or likely will in the future. While each child and situation is unique, these can be good places for parents, and churches seeking to minister to parents, to start. Engaging Disabilities with the Gospel is an organization that exists to equip churches and families to serve members and friends. Similarly, Joni Eareckson Tada and her ministry, Joni and Friends, has done excellent work in this area. 

Additionally, books such as Stephanie Hubach’s Same Lake, Different Boat or Greg Lucas’ Wrestling an Angel can be helpful tools. 

Finally, realize that parents of children with special needs will have two types of questions: micro and macro levels. At the micro level, they may wonder what to do for a specific situation: How do I navigate the dentist? How do I handle discipline? What if he doesn’t play well with others? At the macro level, they are likely to face questions that tap into those deeper concerns and worries of being a parent: How can I trust God in this? What does God’s sovereignty mean in my situation? Depending on your specific context or experience, you may be able to answer some of these questions or know where your friends can turn. 

Spiritual support

The most important thing that churches can do is provide spiritual support to parents of children with special needs. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, and these parents will need assistance for the long haul. Child rearing is tough in the best of circumstances because every child and situation is different. But parents of children with special needs face additional struggles whether of inadequacy, stress, anxiety, or even just wondering what life will be like for their child. 

The church is uniquely equipped to answer those questions because we have a God who has spoken through his living and active Word. And he sent his Son, who is familiar with our sufferings and gives us his Spirit to guide us into all truth. God is faithful and provides grace and strength for each moment, even when we don’t know what to do. And we serve a God who has, in his wisdom, seen fit to bring together different members of the body to serve and care for one another. 

Getting back to our example at the beginning, Steve and Martha can listen and provide spiritual support to Seth and Sharon. As older parents, they will have important insights to share of the faithfulness of God. They can tell about how they have seen the Lord work through prayer, the Word, and faithful training in the lives of their children. Fundamentally, they can come alongside them as friends and provide a listening ear. They can pray for and with their friends and seek to encourage them with scriptures that God has used in their own lives.

We, as fellow believers in Christ Jesus, have a unique and wonderful opportunity to listen and support families who have children with disabilities in our churches. We can create a welcoming community where, if they are weary and confused, we can bring hope — a place where we are not trying to fix things but listen, empathize, support, and speak the truth in love as brothers and sisters in Christ.  As we “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Gal. 6) we can help families with disabilities truly flourish as they are figuring out how to be faithful in the midst of God’s work in their lives. 

Stephen Byrd

Stephen Byrd is an associate professor of education at Elon University. He serves as a pastor at Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Mebane, NC. For 10 years, he was an elementary and special education teacher in Virginia. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24