Unreached families: Three ways to serve individuals with special needs

April 7, 2017

On March 29, 2012, my life was changed. My wife gave birth to our fourth daughter, Eden, who was born with Down syndrome, unexpectedly. Through the initial pain of the diagnosis, coupled with a long road of medical complications, the Lord opened our eyes to the ugly idolatry in our hearts of a sanctified American dream for our children’s lives. But in doing so, he also opened our eyes to a whole new ministerial world by giving us new lenses through which to see—as parents of a child with special needs.

Prior to Eden being born, I had no idea that 85 percent of families who have a child with a special need are un-churched, rendering this beautiful group of families as an essentially unreached people group. When one pauses long enough to think about the reasons for this, it’s easy to understand. Parents want to ensure their child is going to be well cared for. As a first-time guest, it’s hard enough for a parent to leave a “typical” child in a stranger’s care, let alone a child who is medically or developmentally fragile and possibly non-verbal.

Another reason this group of families is an “unreached people group” is because many churches have never taken the time to think and pray about ministering to a child who has a special need of some sort. Thus, they’re unprepared. Other churches are just scared. Sadly, some even act annoyed or like these children and their families are not deserving of effort. I’ve actually heard stories of families being asked to not come back because their child was too disruptive, loud, messy, touchy, etc. So, families decide that attending a church gathering is too difficult, or worse, they conclude that while churches claim to be for the hurting, they’re only for a certain kind of hurting person—one who won’t take too much effort.

This is antithetical to the gospel and to King Jesus, who said, “Let the children come to me.” It’s antithetical to the imago Dei that God has imprinted on every human being regardless of stage of development in the womb, age, ethnicity, socio-economic status or special need. Ministering to individuals with special needs is a sanctity of life and gospel issue just as much as fighting for the unborn.

The question is: How do we do this? Here are three things that our church has found helpful in seeking to reach this unreached people group.

1. Learn the language

Like all faithful missionaries, you must understand the language, even basic verbiage.  For example, don’t refer to a child who doesn’t have special needs as “normal.”  Refer to them as “typical.” To refer to a child as “not-normal” plants a destructive seed in their heart and soul.  

Additionally, refrain from terms such as “special needs kids.” It’s more preferable to say “individuals” or “children with special needs.” You see, Eden is a not a Down syndrome kid, or Downs kid. She is just a kid who just happens to have Down syndrome. Down syndrome is not who she is—it doesn’t define her. Let’s beg Christ to define all of our kids and let that be the label that we attach to them. And obviously strike the “r” word from your vocabulary. It’s offensive in any and all settings, even when used in a self-deprecating fashion. These are small wording tweaks that will communicate to parents and guests that your church is attempting to learn the language.

2. Learn to listen

Parents are the experts on their children, so we should listen to and work with them to sketch out what would be best for their child. At our church, we have coopted the “IEP,” or Individual Education Program, of the public school system and turned it into an “ISP,” or Individual Spiritual Program. We emphasize the first two letters of the acronym in order to accomplish what’s optimal for each child:

Individual: because each child with a special need is unique, with different strengths and challenges. A one-size fits all approach will not prove helpful.

Spiritual: ministering to an individual with special needs is not babysitting time. It’s ministry. Teach the Word, and point them to Jesus.  

3. Develop a culture of inclusion

Every person wants to be included, and this is just as true of individuals with special needs. Including them in a community has been proven to be most effective for helping them reach their full educational and spiritual potential. Therefore, in consultation with parents through the ISP, our typical practice is to include all children of all abilities as much as possible in age-graded settings, pairing them with an adult or older teen buddy to help assist if needed.

If an individual with special needs or a family who has a child with special needs should feel welcome, wanted and included anywhere, it should be in the church. Keep this and these three preliminary steps in mind as we celebrate, believe and live like all people are made in the image of God and as we seek to build his kingdom here on earth through the church.

Joseph Stegall

Joseph Stegall is lead pastor of Providence Baptist Fellowship in Nolensville, Tenn. In May of 2008 he graduated from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with the Master of Divinity degree. Joseph's family includes his wife Sara and their four daughters Hayley, Claire, Keira , and Eden. 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