“If a special needs family is to feel part of a church family, then it will require asking difficult questions, being prepared to think differently about structures, liturgy and practice…but it should also not be centred around one family or one child…We gather to worship God and to grow as disciples through the Word and sacraments. So there is a balance in figuring that out.” This is what a parent of a child with special needs has told me.
Most congregations will have a family that includes a child with special additional needs. In school and at times from a medical standpoint, these children and their families receive additional support.
Some churches have excellent provision for children who need extra help, of whatever kind, in the Sunday service and in children’s ministry. Many churches are made up of individuals who either have specialist knowledge and skills to help or who are naturally very good at welcoming anyone.
These congregations are accepting of behaviour, which is not typical, and do not bat an eyelid when a child with special additional needs is in the service. However, more often we are part of congregations that include families dealing with special additional needs and, although we want to know how to include these children and make the families feel welcome, we are not sure how to.
Sometimes this can lead to awkwardness, sometimes to misunderstandings and sometimes, unfortunately, it can lead to the children and families going elsewhere, or nowhere.
In 1 Corinthians 12:22, the Apostle Paul writes, “The parts of the body which seem to be weaker are all the more necessary.” With this in mind, it is so important that we strike the balance between helping families who are dealing with extra issues and needs to feel included in the service on Sunday morning and in the children’s ministry, and to not change everything so much that other children and families feel that they are being excluded. We want everyone to have the opportunity to experience being part of a worshipping church family and to grow into fully devoted followers of Jesus.
To help congregations think a little more about how to do this, the Council for Congregational Life and Witness have been running evenings called 'My Place'. In the two that we have had so far in Muckamore Presbyterian this week (pictured above) and at First Holywood in December, ministers, children’s ministry leaders and all members of congregations have come along to explore ways of including children with special additional needs in worship and children’s ministry with the help of some experts from the field of special needs education.
The evenings have included Bible teaching, insights from parents and the opportunity to listen to expert advice. Our next My Place evening is on Wednesday, 2nd May 2018 at Ballygawley Presbyterian Church.
A time of fellowship
Over 200 people have attended our first two evenings and they have been great times of fellowship and of coming together to think about how we can truly grow as disciples together in our congregations and help children to find their place in our church families.
At our last meeting in Muckamore Presbyterian, we were given some top tips to help with welcoming children and families, starting with the simplicity of saying hello and asking what the family need to feel included. Our speaker, Sarah Hill, who is a special needs school teacher, reminded us that many children with special needs have special interests and amazing abilities to remember and learn about particular topics. She also challenged us to remember that God does not stop revealing Himself at a certain IQ, so we need to bring children to Jesus and let Him meet with them.
Ruth Bromley is PCI’s Children’s Development Officer.
To find out more about the next My Place event on Wednesday 2nd May 2018 visit our events page here. To find out more about our youth and children's ministry here.