I recently met with a children’s minister to help them consider if their ministry was welcoming and effective for all the children who attend, including those who have special needs.
I started by asking them to reflect on how they felt about being a leader to children with special needs. I was so encouraged as they shared that while it was a challenge, and they often felt inadequate, they also felt that is was a joy and a privilege to minister to these children. All of this is true of ministry to almost anyone!
There are many reasons to work hard at making sure our youth and children’s ministries are inclusive of those with special needs, but I want to highlight just two.
God created each one of us
Psalm 139:13-18 says,
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
These words are a beautiful reminder that God is not distant, watching us from afar, waiting to see how our lives will turn out. Rather, he is intimately involved from the first moment we exist (actually, even before that!). He is at work in the small details, knitting together each aspect of what makes us who we are, stitch by stitch. We praise him, our creator, because we are wonderfully made!
This is no less true of a child with Autism spectrum disorder. This is no less true of the teenager dealing with the repercussions of a traumatic childhood or the leader with a physical disability. Each one of us was fearfully and wonderfully made by a creator who was there at work from the beginning.
Our world is broken
Romans 8:18-25 says,
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Just as we are all wonderfully made, we are all living in a broken world. The consequences of sin in the world means that things are not as they should be. Each one of us is living with present sufferings. To be clear, I think it’s unbiblical to say that anyone’s disability or suffering is a result of their own personal sin. Jesus makes this clear in John 9. Rather, I want to say that we all live in a world that is broken by sin, and the hope of redemption from that brokenness is for all of us. Our ministry would be deficient if we are not holding that hope out to everyone.
We need to acknowledge that creating an inclusive ministry can be challenging, and it probably won’t happen overnight, or by accident! No matter how much you love young people with disabilities, unless you make intentional changes it will likely be hard for them to feel included.
There’s no one size fits all approach to inclusive ministry, but here are two things that will be a starting point for you and your leaders.
Know the young person and their family
No young person is the same as another, regardless of their abilities. So, we need to get to know each one as an individual. As you get to know them here are some questions you can use to guide you:
What are they good at? This will help you to know the ways you can encourage them.
What do they find challenging? This will help you avoid putting them in situations that are overwhelming for them.
What does a good day look like? This will help you recognise when they are struggling and allow you to give them space when it’s needed.
You should also get to know their family. This will not only help you understand the young person even more; it will also help you know how to love and pray for their family.
Ministry to young people, and especially children, is always a partnership with parents so ask parents about the best ways to include their children.
Challenge and change your expectations
Be prepared to change your expectations. If you have a young person in your ministry who you know finds it hard to sit and listen to a 10 minute youth talk, instead of struggling and fighting with them to get them to change, try changing what you expect of them instead.
For some young people giving them something to fidget with is enough of a change (I suggest something quiet. Pipe cleaners make great fidget toys!). For others you could have them draw the story while they are listening. Some might enjoy a worksheet that challenges them; others might prefer to sit and read from the Bible with a leader rather than listen to a talk.
Use your knowledge of that child (what they are good at and what they find challenging) to change your expectations of them. This allows them to engage and grow, rather than being discouraged every week.
Unmet expectations are what most leaders find hard in youth and children’s ministry. Getting to know the young person should help you to understand why those expectations are not being met. It might be that you haven’t communicated them well enough or it might be that those expectations need to be adjusted.
The more you get to know the young people in your ministry, the more equipped you will be to love and teach them effectively.
So, why not start this week by asking yourself what your young people are good at, and how you can use that knowledge to encourage them?