As a pastor who is learning to navigate life with my own autism diagnosis as well as lead a church, I am often asked by special-needs families how to find a church that can help meet their spiritual needs. What are some of the ways that families can determine if the environment is right for the development of a healthy, Christ-centered ministry to the special-needs/disability community?
Creating the right environment and culture for disability inclusion will be challenging, but I have found there are four top characteristics of churches that are already headed in the right direction.
People over programs.
Churches that value people over programs have an environment that is conducive to creating a great special-needs ministry. More often than not, churches in the beginning stages may be unable to provide the required resources for a complete special-needs ministry. However, a church that prioritizes people over programming normally has the proper attitude, even if they currently lack the proper accommodations. I learned this valuable lesson a few years ago when a church I pastored adjusted an entire summer program to ensure that it met the needs of one family with special- needs children.
Celebrated not tolerated.
A church that has the right environment for a Christ-centered ministry to those with special needs has an environment where difference is celebrated and not merely tolerated. Churches that value ethnic and racial diversity normally already have a great culture for creating ministry for special-needs families. Ethnic and racial diversity in the membership is important, but in addition, look for diversity in the leadership, economic standing, and political views. Also, look for a church that values all generations from youth to the elderly.
Churches that value the voices of all types of people tend to have a strong value for acknowledging and celebrating the image of God seen in all people.
Circles over rows.
The Sunday morning worship experience is the gateway for most families into the life of the church, but churches that have a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships most often have a strong sense of community. These churches often promote some form of small group involvement as the primary vehicle for relationship building and discipleship.
Churches that focus on getting people into circles instead of merely settling for sitting in rows can be the type of church that has the right environment for creating a great special needs ministry. When relationships, friendships, and discipleship are a larger focus than Sunday worship, churches tend to be more open to developing a ministry that includes special-needs families in their overall vision for creating Christ-centered community.
Pastor approval versus pastor apathy.
Anything important that happens at a church normally happens because it is important to the pastor and leaders. As a pastor, I can say that most pastors are extremely busy people with extremely unpredictable lives and schedules. On the other hand, as a pastor I can say that, like most people, pastors make time for what’s important to them.
They are mission and vision-driven. Churches that have a great environment for building a ministry for special-needs families are churches that have the pastor’s public approval and not just the pastor’s private acknowledgment of the need to care for the spiritual needs of the disability community. While the pastor doesn’t have to be the direct leader or overseer of the ministry, he or she should be a leading voice in highlighting the need to serve special-needs families in the congregation. This can be done in a variety of ways, but as the primary communicator to the congregation, the pastor must lead the charge.
Adapted from Disability and the Church by Lamar Hardwick. Copyright © 2021 by Lamar Hardwick. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com