A few years ago, my wife Jennifer and I were asked to organize and lead a one-day children’s and youth ministry training for churches in our state that were part of our denomination. We invited a few speakers to lead different seminars throughout the day for both volunteers and staff members from local churches. My wife-who has a degree in human development and extensive experience working with kids and adults with developmental disabilities-led a seminar at the end of the day on how to minister to kids with special needs. During the break before that last seminar, a group from a church that had traveled a few hours for the training packed up to get a jump on their trip home. They explained that they didn’t need to attend the last seminar anyway, because they didn’t have any kids in their church who were developmentally disabled.
My wife handled the conversation very graciously, even though she can be quite passionate about caring for people with special needs. On the inside, however, she was thinking, maybe there’s a REASON you don’t have any kids with special needs! It’s very possible that a family may have visited their church, but left after one Sunday (or even before church was over!) because it was very clear that church would not be a good environment for their autistic or developmentally disabled child or teenager. In fact, it may be that a family has visited your church, but did not stay because they didn’t feel like it wouldn’t be a good place for their special needs teenager.
Not every church or youth ministry of any size is able to perfectly accommodate and minister to any special need teenager that walks through their doors. However, there are a few things every church can-and should-do to be ready to love and serve students with special needs. Here’s a quick list:
Be ready to serve.
A teenager with special needs and her family will be able to tell right off the bat if your church and youth ministry is willing to serve them or not. While you and I both know that a teenager with special needs matters just as much to God as anyone else, most special needs kids are treated as an outcast in one or more areas of their lives. And what did Jesus do with people that the world mistreated? He loved them with open arms. You may not be a doctor or have a degree in human development, but anyone can serve by welcoming someone with open arms.
Educate yourself about different kinds of disabilities.
Thankfully, my wife is a walking library of how to serve kids with autism, Down’s syndrome, and other special needs, and she answers a ton of my questions. Find a good book on the topic, or better yet, get to know a special education teacher in your church. You don’t have to be an expert, but a little understanding can help you be a better youth worker to kids with special needs.
Show a little grace to parents.
Before they found their way to your church, chances are that the parents of a special needs teenager have had less-than-ideal experiences in how schools, churches, or other organizations have treated their son or daughter. So, if a parent has a few more questions than you’re used to, or if they seem to be checking up on you a lot, that’s okay. They’re just trying to make sure their son or daughter is being taken care of.
Help them know Jesus.
If the Bible is to be believed, then God wants every human being to be reconciled to him through a relationship with Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4). The last time I checked, an IQ test was not a biblical requirement for learning about Jesus. If you take the extra time to help someone who might have a developmental delay or cognitive disability to know Jesus, you’re being faithful as a youth worker. One of the highlights of career as a youth pastor has been baptizing a special needs student who was more excited than anyone I’ve ever known to be baptized.
Integrate them into the ministry wherever possible.
The answer to helping a group of special needs teenagers is not to give them their own small group. Help them be a part of your family by actually making them a part of your family. Get them in a small group. Let them lead in some way. Pair them up with another student to help them have a great time during your large group gathering.
Be willing to go out of your way to help a special needs teenager attend a retreat or be a part of a small group. You might even need to make an exception to one of your rules. Parents of special needs kids are used to being told “no” when it comes to things their kids can do. Go out of your way to find a way to able to tell them “yes.”
Remember, you don’t have to be an expert on working with teenagers with special needs to be able to make your youth ministry a welcoming place for them. You just need to be willing to serve, and go the extra mile.