It is a privilege to be asked for advice on what a church should do to include people with additional needs. To make them feel welcome, to make them be able to come along each week and it be a place of refuge and strength for them. The thing is, our church, like most others, are learners…we haven’t got all the answers or got everything right, so I turned to the lovely people of the Additonal Needs Alliance and asked them what advice they would give. This, along with a couple of blogs I have read recently, has helped me put together this post. So thanks to Beth, Mark, Ruth, Barbara-Anne, Anita, Fiona, Liz, Rachel and Bea!
- Have a designated person to oversee and coordinate the support and overall vision of the church for inclusion and practical implementation of support for people with additional needs. This is like a school has a SENCO. Mark Arnold from Urban Saints made this point. I agree, all churches should have a SENCO.
- Understand what having a child or adult with additional needs in your family is like. It is 24/7. It is an abundance of love for them standing alongside constant care, worry, sleepless nights and fear for their future. Every day is full on, no day is the same and parents and carers never switch off. They often don’t look after themselves too well (they don’t have time) and often give more of themselves to help others who are carers too. Sometimes they feel grumpy and can be short of patience with small minded things. Often they are sleep deprived and coming to church is not a break or a rest. It can be a minefield of fear, anxiety and stress.
- Listen to parents and carers. They know their child best. They may not yet be experts on the child’s condition, but they are learning. However, do not tell them what you know; as often what we know is a generalisation; but ask them if you can learn alongside them. Even though I am an autism specialist teacher, I will always ask a parent how autism looks in their child, because each autistic person is uniquely autistic.
- Listen to the child or adult with additional needs. They know themselves best. They know what they like and don’t like. If they cannot speak, spend time watching them and learning how they communicate. Think highly of what they can understand and achieve. They have gifts that the church can be blessed with. Jesus has a place in his body for them too and it cannot function well without them.
- Don’t let your congregation judge. Don’t even let one little “tut” come out of anyone’s mouth! Parents and carers of people with additional needs get plenty of that out there, in society. It has no place in Jesus’ church.
- When you have listened you can ask some practical and patient questions. What works for you? What works at their school or daycare centre? Is there any of these things that we could do to make church better and easier?
- Do….The things you can from the answers above. One small thing can make a huge difference to the child or adult with additional needs and to their family or carers. When you’ve done one thing, don’t think you have done it and can ignore them from then on…do another thing…and another.
- Consider getting good training for church leaders. (Everyone who leads or volunteers for anything!) Have speakers who have additional needs. Keep talking about diversity and learn together. Prospects, Through the Roof, Liveability, Torch Trust, and others can be found on the Churches for All website. Urban Saints do a great training course called All Inclusive and is highly recommended. All these will provide or find training for you. The local special school may have some Christian staff who would be willing to help or do some training for you.
- Keep reviewing how you are supporting the child/adult and their family or carer. Ask them how you are doing. Ask the people they talk to, just in case you get “I’m fine”. We all know “I’m fine” doesn’t mean everything is ok, it often means ” I don’t want to make a fuss”. Encourage them and a friend of theirs to be more honest.
- Set up some special activities that are preferred by the child / adult with additonal needs and for once in a while, get other children or adults to come alongside them in THEIR comfort zone. So whether it be a child who loves Lego, (have a Sunday School session based on Lego once a month) or an adult who uses Makaton (let them sigh the Lord’s Prayer in the service) bring their interests and strengths into how we do church.
- Teach the congregation about Jesus’ love for all people. Send them out to serve in daycare centres, do assemblies in special schools, visit people with additional needs in their homes or talk to families with additional needs in the supermarkets. Bring children up in the church to stand up for those who have additional needs at school. Show them how to approach and be friendly, make sure they know the names of any children with additional needs who come to church, however infrequently. Tell them to smile and say hello, when they see them, and not to stare when they make noises or behave unexpectedly.
- Have high expectations of God and his word. Find ways to open up the wonderful riches of the Bible. It may mean you do your weekly services a bit different. It may mean your preaching takes on a different style completely. You may need to use differnt forms of communication, like pictures, or signing rather than just talking for 20 minutes or more. Maybe all the church could learn some basic Makaton or BSL signs.
- Celebrate the diversity of God’s family. Watch and listen to people with additional needs and let them show us how they connect with God. I want to tell you about Becky who uses a special computer with eye-gaze technology to communicate. She drew this picture of the Easter story And another little girl who has autism, who danced around the cross on Easter Day, making people experience her joy and abandonment. I want to tell you about our adults with learning disabilities who pray for us, serve in the church and love Jesus.
- Know it is God’s work to save. Then pray, be mouldable and trust him. A willing heart can be used by God. He can change us to be his family together. Be willing.
- Finally (for now!) is to remember that you don’t need any qualifications or even experience with additional needs to be a church who makes people welcome and part of their congregation. All Jesus asks us is to follow him and do the things he did. I don’t remember him ever “tutting” at someone trying to come to him….do you?
This is just a guide and summary of all the great advice people who have additional needs or who have children with additional needs have given me over time. We have put as much as we can into practice in our church and are still very much a work in progress….like we all are. I hope you find this useful and encouraging….let’s all work together and let Jesus build his church for all.