“The King will answer and say to them, ‘I assure you and most solemnly say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it for Me.’” – Matthew 25:40 (AMP)
Oftentimes when we think of this verse, our thoughts are drawn to the homeless, the helpless, the sick or the poor. We think of third-world countries, people without food or clean drinking water, and children who are growing up without opportunity. During the last five years, our church expanded our definition of “the least of these” to include the special needs population. What started with one child has grown into a multi-department ministry seeking to welcome a marginalized people-group into the family of God with love, compassion, acceptance, awareness and education. Through the use of Orange’s 252 Kids and First Look, we’ve sought to instill God’s immeasurable love and acceptance into the hearts of both children with special needs and their families.
For many people, the thought of serving the special needs population can be very overwhelming. Four questions immediately come to mind:
Where do we start?
Who is going to do this?
How do we teach them?
And what happens if we fail?
We faced these very same questions when we decided to take the first step to create a special needs ministry within our elementary kid’s ministry. My prayer is that God uses this article to speak to your heart. To encourage you. To speak life into your ministry and to show you a small glimpse of how the heart of the Father has changed the very trajectory of ministry and service for us and hopefully for you.
Where Do We Start?
You start by having the conversation. You start by entertaining the thought that this population of people is highly marginalized within the church community. You start by recognizing that statistics show that 80 percent of families with someone with special needs do not attend church because they can’t. The resources aren’t there, and they are often turned away due to the lack of acceptance and support. You start by making the decision to make a space for them. Those words go a long way.
Who is Going to Do This?
In church world, we have this phrase: “God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.” Our special needs ministry started with two people; two educators who have a heart for children and a heart for Jesus. From there we’ve built a team of special needs buddies to serve alongside us each week. These volunteers serve as one-to-one buddies who assist each child in navigating through their environment safely and in a way that allows them to access the curriculum to best suits their individual needs. What’s the common trait in each of these volunteers? A heart to see the world experience the powerful love of Jesus Christ. We believe that is all you need.
How Do We Teach Them?
As our vision for the ministry began to grow beyond providing special needs buddies, we wanted our children with special needs to be able to access the curriculum in a way that best suited their individual needs. At first this meant becoming more intentional with our processes. We created special needs intake forms to gather important information about each child before they even set foot into the ministry space. We began having parent meetings and discussing each child’s diagnosis and what that meant for both that individual and their family. We sat with parents and shared our heart to welcome them and to seek to pour out the love of Jesus on their child week in and week out. We allowed parents the opportunity to express their hurt, their pains and their struggles, and we sat with them in that. Empathy is a powerful thing. Sit with them. Be slow to speak. Hear their heart, allow God to move in their vulnerability with healing and grace, and see the beauty that unfolds.
From there, we sought to modify the curriculum. Each child with special needs presents different capabilities, processing levels, modes of communication and behavioral needs. We began creating visuals to pair with the 252 Kids curriculum. We created visual schedules that broke the programming down into small pieces to relieve anxiety and fear of unknown expectations. We created small communicative symbols for our non-vocal children so that they had the opportunity to express their wants and needs in a different way. We provided sensory fidgets to help ground our kids that needed to keep their hands busy during our Large Group setting. We then began utilizing Orange’s Pre-K Curriculum, First Look, for our kids who needed a more tactile and fine-motor approach to participate. We wanted to maintain the goal of creating an inclusive environment so we made it a point to talk to the various small groups about special needs and how much God loves each one of them the same as the other. When that happened, the very culture of our ministry changed. The acceptance and love that was poured out BETWEEN CHILDREN was unreal. It became apparent that the heart of a child is something we can all use a bit more of.
What If We Fail?
You won’t. You can’t. If you walk this journey seeking to reflect God’s heart, wanting to serve these beautiful children and welcome these families into the family of God, you won’t fail. I believe that God will honor your pursuit. I believe that just by saying yes to one child, you’ve changed the very nature and course of not only the life of that child, but of their family. Partner with families. Take feedback. Be willing to take small steps and not feel the pressure to jump in all at once. Seek out advice. Partner with other churches. Share resources. John 17:20-23 says that Jesus prayed for His people to be united together as one so that the world would recognize and be convinced that the Father sent Him for they will see His love. “Churches should be places where everyone feels welcome, regardless of disability.” (Brotherhood Mutual)
“Then the godly will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty and give you food and something to drink? When did we see you with no place to stay and invite you in? When did we see you poorly clothed and cover you? When did we see you sick and tenderly care for you, or in prison and visit you?’ “And the King will answer them, ‘Don’t you know? When you cared for one of the least important of these my little ones, my true brothers and sisters, you demonstrated love for me.’” – Matthew 25:37-40 (TPT)