“Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending reckless love of God. Oh, it chases me down fights til I’m found leaves the ninety-nine.” These are lyrics from a worship song “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury we sang at Church this past weekend. The song references the parable told by Jesus in Luke chapter 15. In the parable, a shepherd has 100 sheep and one gets lost. The shepherd leaves the other 99 sheep in search of the one that is lost. The lesson Jesus was teaching is that heaven rejoices over one lost person who returns to God. God’s love is so great for us that he will leave 99 righteous to seek out the one who is lost and hurting.
A Common Problem With Special Needs and the Church
While my husband and I were in the sanctuary singing this song, a song about not leaving even one lost person behind, our daughter who has special needs was next door being removed from children’s ministry.
Instead of searching for a way to keep her with the “99” she was the one cast out. Quite the opposite of what we were singing about. I wish I could say it was the first time this happened, I wish I could say it’ll be the last. But I can tell you I am heartbroken for my daughter. Not only am I heartbroken for our daughter, but for every individual with a disability who tries to attend church but finds the church isn’t exactly welcoming them with open arms.
My Goal With This Post
We have been attending our church for about 7 years now. I am not going to spend a lot of time on our experiences and share every story with you because that is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to speak to the church and the Christian community as a whole. I also have no desire to paint our church in a bad light as they are doing some amazing things. However, I feel some background is needed to demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about.
To be honest, I’ve been wanting to write this post as long as I’ve been blogging but I’ve been too chicken. I’ve been afraid of offending individuals in our church and making them feel I’m just using to my blog to complain when I don’t get my way. However, after a lot of prayer and consideration for the sake of the church as a whole, and the sake of the special needs community, it’s time for this to be said.
When we began attending our church, Ladybug was a toddler. Children’s ministry consisted of adults supervising the children while they played. She could do that, no big deal. As she grew older though things changed. Now she fell into age groups where children’s ministry consisted of worship, lessons, structured activities, and crafts. At this point, I started to voice my concerns with our pastors over the lack of accommodations. Sometimes they would come up with an idea to help, but it was never consistent would only last a couple weeks.
I expressed my concerns over her mental health and how it must be making her feel always sitting on the sidelines watching as others played games. I explained that if she’s going to participate in a craft or game she needs one on one help. While I was listened to, nothing lasting was done to change the situations.
There have been several occasions where Ladybug had been removed from the group because of her behaviors made it difficult for the lesson to be taught. While I understand the difficulty that this brings up, is it really ok that Ladybug doesn’t get to hear the lesson? If she needs to be pulled from the larger group why can’t she still be taught the lesson with a small handful of kids (so she’s not singled out)? Why is it the answer is always to remove and ignore the problem rather than addressing the fact that there is a precious little girl who has just as much need to learn about Jesus than the others remaining in the room full of kids?
When The Special Needs Community Is Cast Aside at Church
I will be the first to admit that when an individual with special needs is added to a group it can be difficult to accommodate them. Especially when things like children’s programs are primarily run by volunteers.
Is it hard? Yes.
Can it be inconvenient? Yes.
Is it ok to just brush them aside and let them observe from the sidelines? No, absolutely not.
Let’s think this through for a moment. When we are sending those who are different than the room full of typical kids away from the group what message are we sending? First, we’re telling that individual with special needs that they don’t matter. We’re telling them that their lives/souls/hearts are not worth the hassle of ministering to.
We’re also sending a message to all the other kids that it’s ok to cast these individuals out. Our leadership needs to be willing to make an effort to educate themselves on special needs and implement strategies to make church accommodating. If they don’t, how do we expect the children watching to act any different?
The example they’re seeing is that it’s ok to exclude those who are different than you. Although unintentional, while teaching our children about Jesus’ love we are showing them it’s ok not to show love to those with disabilities. Worse yet, because it’s happening in a church setting they assume that this is ok.
Everyone, Including Those with Special Needs, Need to Know The Love of Jesus
Special needs or not, our children are just that, children. They are God’s child just like all the other children. They still need Jesus, still need to be loved, still need to know that they are an indispensable part of the body of Christ.#Specialneeds or not, our children are just that, children. They are God's child just like all the other children. They still need Jesus, still need to be loved, still need to know that they are an indispensable part of the… Click To Tweet
I hope every Christian reading this article is nodding their head in agreement. I wonder, however, how many of those agreeing with me (other than parents of special needs children) have done anything about it? Have those in leadership listened to the parent’s concerns? Have they even asked parents the best way to care for their child? Is the church willing to do the hard things in order to include everyone who walks through their doors?
I can tell you that from both my own experiences and experiences shared with me by others across the nation, the answer is no. The church as a whole needs to take action on this issue.
The Church Needs to See Those with Disabilities As A Child of God
No matter how our bodies and brains have been created, we all have one thing in common. We were all created by God. We are all His children. Some of us may have brains that process information differently than a typical person. Some of us may have limbs that don’t work the same as most. Does this mean they are not created by God as one of His children? No. So why does the church treat those created differently different?
“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mohter’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous – how well I know it. As I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered!” – Psalm 139:13-17
Does this passage speak only to those whose bodies are “normal”? No, God sees us all as precious, He formed us all in our mother’s womb. Some of us were just created a little differently, but his thoughts are precious for all of us. It’s time the church sees this as well. It’s time we treat every individual who walks through the doors of a church with the same love, respect, and dignity.
Advocating for Inclusion at Church Shouldn’t Be So Hard
I have spent the last 9 years advocating for our children with special needs. I have fought with the county, insurance companies, and school district. Many of these battles have been hard. For example, when our daughter who cannot walk was seven, our insurance company told us that a wheelchair wasn’t medically necessary!
Through all of these fights, none have been as difficult as fighting for inclusivity at church. Why? Why is it so hard for the church? After all, this is where we should experience the most love. This is where we should feel the hands and feet of Jesus ministering to our family. Our WHOLE family.
Let’s Be The Hands and Feet of Jesus
So why is this area so hard for the church?
Often the argument is that the church is operating with volunteers and they just don’t have the manpower. Today, I’m going to call you out. This is ridiculous. It’s not a matter of not having enough volunteers, it’s a matter of not wanting to make this a priority.
If lack of volunteers is really an issue, reorganize how you’re using volunteers. Is serving coffee to everyone who comes in the door more important than actually ministering to the special needs community? If you answered yes, we have bigger problems here. But if you answered no, then stop serving coffee. Move the volunteers who were serving coffee to other areas so you do have the manpower to minister into the lives of those who are so loved by God.
Will you have some upset people about the missing coffee? Sure, but you can turn it into a teachable moment for everyone in the congregation. And, I’m willing to bet that if the coffee disappeared you would suddenly find yourself with more volunteers to bring the coffee back.
If pastors and leaders were to choose to make special needs ministry a priority for the church, it would be done. It shouldn’t be a matter of will we, it should be a matter of how we will. If church leaders were to stand up and say this is important, these are individuals created by God, these are people who deserve better, these are people who need Jesus just as much as the person sitting next to you, then we will see a revolution within the church. Then we will see a community of people who have been cast aside and looked over become a community being loved and cherished. No longer seen as different but as equals in the body of Christ.
What Does Jesus Say?
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
Then the king will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prision, and you didn’t visit me.’
Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirst or a stranger or naked or sick or in prision, and not help you?’ And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’” – Matthew 25:40-45
Ministering to those with special needs is not a matter of being “called to special needs ministry”. Jesus commands us all to serve the least of these.
Our Lives Will Be Enriched From Learning From Those with Special Needs
I don’t know of a single person who has been actively involved in the life of an individual with special needs whos life wasn’t enriched for having that relationship. People with special needs will teach you so many lessons and open your eyes to a whole other world. If you let Him, God will teach you so much through these amazing people.
Much of Jesus’ ministry during his time on earth was ministering to the sick, poor, lame, blind….in other words. Jesus was intentional about ministering to individuals who had special needs. Why isn’t the church following Jesus’ example? Why is it that instead of meeting the needs of the special needs community they are being cast aside because they don’t fit into the comfortable little box we’ve created.
We would all be better off if we started looking at individuals with special needs through the eyes of Jesus rather than seeing an inconvenience. It’s time for the church to stand up and stop turning a blind eye to this community loved and created by God.