Sunday, September 18, 2011

Churches must welcome special-needs children

After my most recent column, “Teaching children to behave in church,” a mother of an autistic child emailed me saying, “I certainly do not want to intrude on the worship of others who come to church for peace and spiritual replenishment. ... However, noise is often just a part of having such wonderful and special people in our lives.”

She went on to ask, “Do we deprive ourselves and our children of worship and settle for a lifetime of sporadic church attendance?”

Let me first clarify: My column was not directed at parents with special-needs children; their behavior during worship is not a result of bad parenting.

One of the issues that sparked the Christianity Today article referenced in my piece was the removal of a boy with cerebral palsy from a service in a church in North Carolina. It was apparent from this action and the comments that followed that many churches are not prepared to accommodate special-needs children and their families. Consequently, their parents often opt to stay home. This is unfortunate because worship services can provide spiritual guidance needed to cope with challenging family situations.

The dilemma can be circular: Special-needs families may not attend church because they do not feel welcome. The church does nothing to accommodate them because they have no members in that category.

In the Bible, God said “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Thus, it is the church’s responsibility to ensure all people are truly welcome.

Cry rooms provide one solution for families wishing to participate in worship but leery of being disruptive. But inclusion goes far beyond architectural offerings.

Ministry workers should be trained to handle children with disabilities. Many Christian publishing companies provide materials for special-needs children. Parents would be much more comfortable entrusting their children to teachers who are willing and prepared for the challenge.

Parishioners must also be educated. Sometimes congregants may not be aware that a child has a disability. There are times, however, when well-meaning worshippers may not know what to do. Simple actions such as inviting a special-needs child to a birthday party, offering to help a parent, or extending a personal invitation to a church event, may go a long way toward making families feel welcome.

Churches have a lot to learn about accommodating special-needs children and their families. Physical barriers can be eliminated and staff and congregants can be trained. But it also may require the commitment of families with special-needs children to help create an atmosphere that is truly inclusive.

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