In chapter 6 of Acts, the church was growing, but one group was feeling neglected—the Hellenistic widows. The apostles weren’t doing it with malicious intent. They were simply so busy with the growth of the church they didn’t notice. The issue was brought to the attention of the apostles, and they responded by appointing men to meet the need. The result—”And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7).
Families impacted by disability often feel like the neglected Hellenistic widows. We want to fully participate in church life, but we can’t because there are barriers to our inclusion. Sadly, some churches have done this on purpose, telling special needs families they aren’t welcome. But like the apostles and the Hellenistic widows, most church leadership is simply unaware of the needs of special needs families.
One reason for the neglect is that pastors are unaware of the number of special needs families in their communities and may not fully understand what can keep them from being able to attend church. According to the last census, one in five families in the U.S. has a member with a disability. That’s 20 percent of the population. If you look around your church and don’t see that number reflected, you, like the apostles in Acts, may be ready to make a plan to meet the need now that God has opened your eyes to it.
Here are three steps to take to start a special needs ministry in your church and work toward inclusion for all families:
First, form a theology of disability based on Scripture. The Bible has lots to say about disabilities and God’s purpose through them. Consider the following passages:
Psalm 139–We are all fearfully and wonderfully made.
Exodus 4:11–God allows disabilities for his purpose.
John 9–Jesus himself said that disabilities exist so “that the works of God might be displayed.”
For many, it just hasn’t occurred to them to form a theology of disability. It hasn’t impacted them personally, so they’ve focused on all the other issues they are faced with and experience. To continue to learn more, pastors can meet with families and ask what God has taught them through their special needs journey. Pastors can reflect on their experiences with people with disabilities and ask God to remind them that every person they meet reflects the Creator and is made with a purpose—to glorify him.
Second, understand that people with disabilities are a vital part of the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12 teaches us the church is made of many parts, and some of those parts are weaker than others but are still worthy of honor: “But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (vv. 24-26). This isn’t to imply people with disabilities are “less than” people without disabilities. But speaking from my experience of having a sister with Down syndrome and a son with level three autism, many have limitations that keep them from doing some things in the church but not everything. Truly inclusive churches not only serve people with disabilities but also give them opportunities to serve the church body with their gifts.
Third, pray for people to step up and serve who already have the calling and skills to work with people with disabilities. As we read in 1 Corinthians 12, a church is made of many parts. I truly believe God has already placed people in our churches who can meet the needs of the church members he calls there. Adults with disabilities should guide and lead the ministry when possible. Others with experience as family members, teachers, or therapists may offer their skills. And those who have a passion for the ministry can be trained to provide support and encouragement. If you need help identifying and training special needs ministry volunteers, contact the SBTC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These three steps—building a theology of disability, realizing the importance of inclusion, and being able to meet needs to support inclusion—will help you lay the proper foundation for a thriving special needs ministry that will bless the families in your church and can bless your entire community. Every family deserves to have access to the gospel and a church home.