asey* had just started attending kids’ church regularly. Her dad would usually bring her and stay beside her throughout the program. Casey’s favorite part of the activities was the praise sing-along. She’d stand with other kids as the lights were dimmed and the DVD screen showed the words and actions to the songs for everyone to follow. Sometimes before the next song cued up, Casey would run to the blank screen and make shadow puppets. She didn’t sing or mimic the actions like the other kids but would still be transfixed by the rhythm of the music. Her class leaders were pleased that her parents were actually bringing her to the weekly program and encouraging her to participate. With one of Casey’s parents with her, behavioral problems were never an issue.
Then one Sabbath, probably thinking that Casey was used to kids’ church enough to be left alone, her parents dropped her off and went into the regular service. They did, however, wisely make arrangements with an older child to serve as a “buddy” to Casey. Everything was fine at first. But the schedule for that day was different than previous Sabbaths and involved a special showing of a favorite Christian children’s video. As soon as the lights went out and the video hit the screen, something clicked in Casey. She refused to sit in her chair, and kept lunging for the DVD cases, sometimes tripping over other children. She kept trying to snatch more of the snacks that had been handed out, going so far as to try to take them from other kids. Her buddy, just a little bit bigger than Casey, tried to distract her and encouraged her to sit and watch the program. But it didn’t help. Casey continued to get more agitated, and soon class leaders had to hide the colorful DVD cases and extra snacks from her.
It finally got to the point that if something wasn’t done, the situation would escalate. Casey had been doing so well and her leaders didn’t want her to leave the program, but they didn’t know how to help her. As an autistic child Casey clearly communicated in a different way. A leader put her arm around her and talked in soothing tones, but she couldn’t get through to her. Finally, Casey’s dad was called. He calmed her down, and the program continued.
But the incident got the kids’ church leaders to thinking about how completely unprepared they were to help Casey, to effectively communicate with her, and, ultimately, make kids’ church a meaningful experience for her.
Casey’s story isn’t isolated. How many children’s ministries leaders—in Sabbath school, Vacation Bible School, kids’ church, etc.—have faced a similar dilemma? What can we as a church do to make our programs and congregation as a whole better able to minister to special-needs kids and their families? How do we make sure that the love and grace-filled message of Jesus Christ reaches everyone?
Casey’s Family Actually Came to Church
In Casey’s situation the fact that her parents actually make the effort to bring her to church is significant. Especially because they try not to be just fixtures in the back of the sanctuary or mother’s room, but strive to give their special-needs child an opportunity to interact and learn with other children. In our own churches how many families with special-needs children attempt to make it through a church service, nervously trying to control a child who reacts to sensory stimuli differently, who doesn’t process social and behavioral cues like everyone else, or who learns in an entirely different manner?
When a special-needs child doesn’t sit still in the service, or screams because the organ music is loud, or exhibits behaviors misunderstood by neurotypical children and families, how does that family relate to their church? Often, they soon figure out that if the Sabbath school and church services can’t reach their child, or if leaders don’t know how to effectively communicate and adapt lessons and activities accordingly, it isn’t worth it even to come. So they don’t. How then can the church touch these lives for Christ?
“Experts suggest that the religious community has a responsibility to children with disabilities and their families. Special-needs children must be taught strategies that will enable them to apply their religious practice into their daily lives, even if they fail to understand abstract concepts. Families of these children need more than our prayers. They need to see us embrace their children as we welcome them into Bible class. They need to know that their children will be safe and happy while they are there. Finally, these families need to know that we believe their children are deserving of the joy and hope that faithfulness brings.”1
Faith and Grace for Us All
Teaching the concepts of faith and grace to neurotypical children can be challenging enough. That is why children’s ministries leaders rely on a lot of imaginative devices such as vivid storytelling, interactive activities, and action songs to instill key concepts in the minds of their young students. But these devices aren’t always effective with special-needs kids, depending on their particular diagnosis.
Donnie* has Asperger’s disorder,2 which is a highly functional condition on the autism spectrum in which individuals are by all appearances just like their neurotypical counterparts. But their brains process the world around them in a totally different way. According to Donnie’s mother, Carolyn,* Aspergers kids don’t imagine things. Parables make very little sense because they process information in an extremely literal sense. Donnie has a very high verbal IQ, and being read to is one of his favorite activities. But you can’t hook Donnie on telling him a parable-like story that teaches a spiritual life lesson. Carolyn says Donnie actually enjoys being read to from Patriarchs and Prophets, but if you were to place him in a Sabbath school class and expect him to digest and internalize the lesson as it is presented to the entire class, he’d be lost.
So how do we teach grace and faith to a special-needs child who has literally to see the unseen? “Interestingly enough, I have done a number of Bible studies with Asperger kids,” said Ann Roda, associate pastor of Fulton, Maryland’s, New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church. “You use a lot of object lessons. You tell a lot of stories and act things out. And you really have to get parents engaged because they know their child. They know the developmental issues of their child, and they’re more of an expert than a teacher.”
“With the two Asperger kids with whom I did classes, they both had very different learning styles,” added Pastor Roda. “So you had to recognize them and approach them differently. With one child it was just all play.”
What Can We Do?
Because no church has a future without its children, we have to be very concerned with making kids’ programs meaningful for them—for all of them. So in ministering to special-needs children and their families, where do we start?
1. Awareness: All pastors and children’s ministries leaders (and volunteers who serve in that area) should make themselves aware of different conditions, learning disabilities, and strategies to adapt curriculum. The first place to go is the child’s parents. “It is always a good idea to sit down with the child’s parents and find out what the child can ?and cannot do, and how you can make things easier for the child. Most parents will appreciate the fact that you are sensitive to their child’s unique needs”3 (see sidebar 2). Also, if there are special training sessions or workshops offered at local community colleges or in churches of other denominations, try to attend. Talk to educators as well—especially those with specific experience with special-needs kids.
2. Find Ways: This involves some homework, but there are many resources out there in the larger Christian community to help you find ways to adapt programming to accommodate special-needs kids. A must-read book loaded with great information is Joni and Friends’ Special Needs Smart Pages: Advice, Answers & Articles About Ministering to Children With Special Needs (Gospel Light Ministries, 2008). Get this book for your church and make it required reading for children’s ministries leaders.
3. Educate, Empower, Encourage: If you are a pastor, do all three of these “E” things with and for your leaders. Make it possible for your children’s ministries leaders and volunteers to create sound programming and safe, loving, appropriate environments for special-needs kids to learn about Jesus and to feel His love from the church. Pastors also have tremendous opportunities to impact the lives of adult members who have special-needs children (or have special needs themselves). Visit with these families in their homes and probe them for ways the church can help them, and let them know that you are making every effort to reach their children. “I try to encourage parents to bring them here because many parents tend to shy away from bringing the kids because of the challenges they have,” said Franklin David, senior pastor of the Southern Asian Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I also ask them, ‘What can we do?’”
This type of approach is a strong starting point in reaching a family with special-needs kids and helping them feel accepted in our churches.
Attitude Is Key
But with all of the practical things we can do to improve our children’s programming and increase awareness of special-needs children in our churches, at the foundation of any change we try to make is a need for an attitude shift.
In order for us really to help special-needs children find their places in a church family, we truly have to make our congregations inclusive. That is not limited, of course, to just special-needs kids and their families. An attitude of inclusiveness applies to every last person who sets foot inside a Seventh-day Adventist place of worship. But it starts with a change of heart.
We must ask ourselves, “When Christ said to love our neighbor as ourselves, whom did He really mean?”
“This whole idea of inclusiveness—that has to be the foundation [of] a church’s [efforts]. Not just limited to those with special needs, but the whole spectrum. That needs to be a value from the pastoral and church leadership team,” said Pastor Roda.
“The starting point in what we do in ministry actually should be to ask ‘What is the environment we can create here that will allow kids to experience God? In this classroom, in this program, in this activity, how can kids experience God?’ All the training in the world will not help if you don’t have an attitude of inclusiveness and an attitude of ‘This is God’s ministry, this is His kingdom.’”
*Names have been changed.
1MaLesa Breeding, Dana Hood, Jerry Whitworth, Let All the Children Come to Me: A Practical Guide to Including Children With Disabilities in Your Church Ministries (Cook Communication Ministries, 2006), p. 13.
Wilona Karimabadi is marketing and editorial director for KidsView, Adventist Review’s magazine for kids ages 8 to 12. This article was published February 11, 2010.