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