church and our kids – 2

[a follow-up to yesterday’s post, by Sandra Wood Peoples]

I sat in the waiting room while James was in the back for his speech therapy. Most weeks, the other moms, siblings, and I all stay busy with the variety of electronic devices we bring. That day, however, I decided to be brave and start some discussions. We talked schools, doctors, and finally, church.

“I’ve read 90% of families with special needs kids don’t go to church. Do you guys think that’s true?” I asked.

The others moms nodded their heads. They all talked about how hard it is to go to church. One tries to have her son sit with her in the service, but he makes lots of noise and she’s afraid of disrupting others. Another mom said her church has a very loud children’s service and her girls can’t handle all that sensory input. Every one of the moms in the room had reasons not to go.

Let’s be honest—it’s not easy for families like ours to go to church. Most families have a list of excuses why they can’t make it to a worship service, but special needs families have legitimate reasons. But the New Testament talks about the importance of meeting together. The book of Acts gives stories of early churches, the Epistles are written to churches, and even the book of Revelation has praise and warnings for churches. The Christian life is to be lived in community. If we stay home, we are not only hurting ourselves and our families, but we’re also hurting the church, who needs families like ours to be complete.

When we first got James’s autism diagnosis, he was the only special needs child at our church. Because my husband is a pastor, we couldn’t just stay home each Sunday. We also couldn’t shop around for a megachurch that already had an established special needs ministry. We knew God had us at our church for a reason, and that reason included introducing them to the world of special needs.

Now, over two years after his diagnosis, we have a strong special needs ministry. Our church has an occupational therapist and a special ed teacher who stepped up to head the ministry. We offer respite nights every two months for kids with special needs and their siblings. We integrate kids with special needs into our Sunday school classes, Awana program, and Vacation Bible School. We continue to train volunteers to ask about food allergies, know the signs of a seizure, and modify lessons so every child can participate.

It hasn’t been an easy two years. It took a lot of patience on our part. It took a lot of prayer. As James grows, I know we will face more challenges. But I also know God wants us at church, so He will continue to help us find ways to make it happen.

Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to three boys (one with autism and one they are in the process of adopting from Ethiopia). She is the author of Speechless: Finding God’s Grace in My Son’s Autism (available on Amazon). You can connect with her at sandrapeoples.com

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church and our kids – 1

We walked up to the registration area for the children’s classes last Sunday at the church we were visiting with our boys. The woman there asked questions to figure out where the boys should go and typed the answers into her computer.

“What are their names? When are their birthdays? Do they have any allergies?”

The questions were easy to answer for our oldest son, but our younger son took more explanation. His birthday does not represent his developmental stage. The computer doesn’t take into account all the variables that would tell the woman where he should go. “Can I type in that he was born in a different year? Would that work?” she asked.

I’ve read that based on the 2000 census, two out of every seven families in the US have a family member with special needs (ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s). I’ve also read that 90% of families with a member with special needs do not attend church. That is a huge “people group” who aren’t being reached.Churches must be able to meet the special needs these families have before they will be able to address the spiritual needs. From what I’m seeing and hearing in the special needs community, churches are working hard to make sure people with special needs are comfortable and safe. I’m thankful for websites like The Works of God Displayed  and The Inclusive Church that are equipping churches of all sizes to be more inclusive.

Churches have a responsibility to meet the special needs of families, and these families also need to take steps to let churches know how they can help.

Here are a few steps we take when visiting a new church so it’s easy for everyone:

  • Call or email the church ahead of time to find out who is in charge of children’s ministry. I use language like, “We will be visiting your church Sunday and have a child with special needs. Who can we contact to make sure our visit is as comfortable as possible for him?”
  • Contact that person directly to let him/her know your family is coming and what your needs are. It allows that person to contact the teachers or volunteers who will be with your child so they can prepare. For example, if your child has an wheat allergy, they can get the pretzel snacks out of the room before you arrive. Also, if your child is older, he may not want to hear his special needs explained in front of him to multiple people. Doing this ahead of time will save him embarrassment.
  • Get to church early enough to know where to go and meet with the person you contacted, if necessary.
  • Bring anything your child will need, including special snacks or sensory toys. I packed James’s back-pack with diapers, extra clothes, and his chewy-tubes.
  • Be honest. Don’t let embarrassment or nervousness keep you from telling those who will be caring for your children what they need to know.

The church we visited did a wonderful job making us feel comfortable and taking care of James. When I picked him up after the service, the teacher in his class asked, “He loves to be tickled, doesn’t he?” I appreciated that they got to know him and weren’t afraid of his lack of communication or special needs!

Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to three boys (one with autism and one they are in the process of adopting from Ethiopia). She is the author of Speechless: Finding God’s Grace in My Son’s Autism (available on Amazon). You can connect with her at sandrapeoples.com