Who's missing from your children and student ministries?

Church staff and volunteers across the country are finalizing preparations for the start of a new ministry year as kids return for the start of school. If you're lending a hand with children's worship, volunteering in Awana, or serving as a small group leader in your high school ministry, have you considered who is likely to be missing this fall from your ministries?

landmark study published by Dr. Andrew Whitehead of Clemson University in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion suggests that the presence of specific mental health, developmental, and physical disabilities significantly increases the likelihood that children with those disabilities will never attend church.

Dr. Whitehead's study examined the impact of a variety of physical, developmental, and mental health disabilities upon church attendance using data generated from the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). The study accessed data from three waves of the NSCH (2003, 2007, 2010-11) and compared the reported rates of children never having attended a religious service in the past year among kids with no identified disability to rates among children with 20 different chronic health conditions included in the survey. The large sample size of the survey—95,677 phone interviews were conducted for the 2010-11 wave—allowed for meaningful statistical comparisons. The findings challenge many assumptions leaders have made regarding disabilities that affect church attendance and ministry participation.

The study found that the children most likely to be excluded from church are those with autism spectrum disorders and common mental health conditions—anxiety, depression, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and ADHD. Specifically, 

The study also noted the presence of a number of other chronic health conditions, including Tourette Syndrome, epilepsy, hearing problems, vision problems, intellectual disability, and cerebral palsy, did not appear to impact church attendance.

Good mental health ministry represents a mindset for including children and youth in the activities you already offer to help kids and families grow spiritually.

One in 59 school-age children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with autismOne in every five youth meet criteria for a mental health disorder associated with severe role impairment and/or distress, including 11 percent with mood disorders, 8 percent with anxiety disorders, and 10 percent with behavior disorders. If the number of children with those conditions in your ministries falls significantly below those thresholds, you've just identified your missing kids—along with their missing siblings and parents who are missing from your church's worship services and adult ministry activities.

If your church is interested in reaching and welcoming the families of the missing kids in your community, here are four ideas to help you get started. 

Identify training and resources. These will enable you to make your ministry programming more welcoming to children and youth with common mental health conditions or developmental disabilities. Key Ministry developed a model for starting a mental health inclusion ministry and provides free video training and consultation to churches seeking to include kids with disabilities and their families. CLC Network offers outstanding training and support to churches and Christian schools seeking to include persons of all abilities. 

Start a respite outreach. Having a child with a developmental disability or a mental health condition imposes a significant burden upon marriages. Many of our "missing" children are being raised by single parents lacking the support or financial resources to access high quality child care. Launching a respite outreach for kids with disabilities and their siblings is a great way to develop relationships with families in your community altered by disability. By serving typical siblings, you decrease the resistance among kids with common mental health conditions and more subtle presentations of autism who would otherwise flee programming designed for kids with "special needs." Nathaniel's Hope and 99 Balloons are excellent nationwide ministries offering training and ongoing support to churches interested in providing respite care.

Talk about mental illness. Consider hosting a speaker to talk about the challenges in parenting children with common mental health conditions or developmental disabilities. Speak about mental illness from the pulpit. According to a study from LifeWay Research, families affected by mental illness want their pastors to address the topic in their preaching and teaching. Use your social media platforms to educate attendees about mental illness and autism and make it easy for them to share resources with their friends and neighbors. A key finding from the LifeWay study is that a majority of unchurched adults believe churches won't welcome persons with mental illness. Communicating a sense of welcome is essential to overcoming misperceptions regarding church among families of your "missing" children and youth.

Launch a group for teens with mental illness. The team at Mental Health Grace Alliance has developed a wonderful new curriculum designed to help young people examine unhealthy patterns of thinking that contribute to anxiety, insecurity, and despair and to reconsider their assumptions in the context of Scripture. Fresh Hope for Teens is another small group model offered by a reputable ministry with a nationwide network of Christian-based support groups for adults with mental illness.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Anything your church does intentionally to welcome "missing" kids is a start. You don't need to start another "program." Good mental health ministry represents a mindset for including children and youth in the activities you already offer to help kids and families grow spiritually. Your church has already been positioned to share the love of Christ with families in your community touched by "hidden disabilities," such as mental illness or autism. You simply need to take the first step.