Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Church. Part 3: "The Church that Had a Plan."

(This is part 3 of a series of posts on church with a child that has special needs. Part 1 is about how Lilli was born into a church, but grew out of the nursery and had no place to go. Part 2 is about what we experienced when we moved and visited churches, and discovered how hard it is to find a church that had a place for Lilli. This continues the story of church visiting...)

In the Bible, there are tons of stories about people with special needs. Jesus paid particular attention to them. He spent time with them, healed them, and loved them. I love these stories. Jesus heals people who cannot speak. He heals people who have seizures. He heals children. I love these stories the most, because I have a little daughter who has seizures and cannot speak. I love these stories because they show how He cares about people with special needs. Those stories were important enough to be written in the Bible. That is very significant to me. I always imagine how Jesus looked at these people in their eyes. He did not look away and act like He did not see them. How He did not feel awkward or uncomfortable, he just loved them. He touched people that no one else wanted to touch. He spoke to people that no one else felt comfortable speaking to. I love that so much about Jesus.

People with special needs matter to God. They need extra help. A lot of extra help. In the Church, they belong to part of the church family. If they are missing from the church family when we gather together on Sunday mornings, it might be because we are not making it possible for them to get there. If the building is handicapped accessible, (which of course it should be), the family might get inside and find that there is no place for their child. Who wants to go to a church where they feel like there is no place for one of their children?

When my niece told me about a church nearby that had a class for children with special needs, we made plans to visit it right away. We looked at the website and decided it looked like a great place to try.

On Sunday, we packed up the girls and diaper bags, followed our directions and drove a half hour away to visit this church. On our way, we passed the small church we had first visited, two minutes away from our house. I looked at it out the window as we drove by, thinking about our awkward visit there. I hoped that this visit would finally be the church that had a place for Lilli.

It was a huge church. When we arrived, parking attendants waved us way to the back of a packed parking lot. A golf cart driver from the church picked us up and drove us up to the door. Never did I dream that we would visit a church like this. It was big, and not at all traditional.

We found our way to the “First Time Visitors” station to check in our kids. Yes, they had a special class just for Lilli. The volunteers escorted us to Lilli and Chloe’s classrooms, and this is the moment I remember vividly. A young, smiling teacher came out of Lilli’s classroom and got down on the floor in front of Lilli. She smiled big, right at Lilli, and looked in her little face and said excitedly, “Hi Lilli!!! My name is Morgan! We’re so glad you’re here!”

Lilli instantly wrapped her arms around Morgan’s neck, and hugged and kissed her. “She just kissed me!” Morgan said, and looked at us like her heart was melting.

I could have cried. We felt relieved and welcomed. Even now I am feeling teary just remembering it. They were not afraid of Lilli. They were happy to just meet her! They looked right at her and talked to her instead of asking us about her special needs first. That made the difference for both Lilli and us. When we began to explain about her seizures and special needs, Morgan and the other volunteers listened intently with confidence. They were fine with all of it. It was no problem. There was a medical team that could be called if necessary. They would put our name up on the screen in the service if they needed us. They had toys and fun things for the kids. Most of all, they were excited to play with her. There was not one hint of awkwardness or discomfort. They encouraged us to go and enjoy the service.

We walked away, child-less, and a little stunned.

During the worship songs, we both got emotional. I could not believe that we had just dropped our kids off and went to the service, together. It felt so…normal. Jasen took my hand and squeezed it. We looked at each other, knowing that we were both overwhelmed with the simple fact that we had not been able to go to a church service and sit together in a long time. The service was dark while the worship band played, and I was glad. I had tears of thankfulness streaming down my cheeks while we stood and sang. When we sat down together to listen to the message, I felt rest in my soul, the rest that I had been yearning for.

Some parents have never experienced that.

I do not have any hard feelings about our experiences with any of these churches. Instead, I have a passion for change, because I realize that our story is common.  I think that before change can happen, there needs to be awareness. This is taking me down a new path as I serve in our church, seeking to serve families like ours and help them to be able to experience what we ourselves experience every Sunday.

Visiting a new church is hard. Going to church with young children is even more difficult. But going to church with a child that has special needs, seems almost impossible for many families. But it doesn't have to be. I think about our personal experience, and wonder what would have happened if we'd given up. I think about the hundreds, well, thousands of other families just like us.

And I just want the Church to know:

It wasn’t the size of the church. It wasn’t the music. It wasn’t the color of the walls, or the graphics or the videos. It wasn’t any of that. We mattered. We were not invisible. We were not made to feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, or ignored. Our child was welcome, and there was already a place for her when we arrived. A fun place! They were not afraid of her. They were not intimidated by her needs. There was no scrambling or awkwardness when we checked her in. It seemed like the easiest, most natural thing to just find her class and drop her off. This church had thought about the fact that families might come and have children with special needs, and those children would need a place to go. And it already existed.

I know what some of you skeptic-types are thinking. Well, you can have a program like that in a big church. You have more people to help. You can’t do that in a small church.

Maybe that’s true. But maybe…it’s only partly true. I wonder how we might have felt if we had visited any of the other churches, and had the greeters or the childcare check in people treat us a little differently. I wonder what it would have been like if they had not seemed so instantly uncomfortable and unsure of what to do with us. Their awkwardness made us feel awkward and unwelcome. I wonder if we would have felt a little better if the church staff had prepped their teachers to make a plan for what to do if they ever had a child with special needs come to visit their church. What if there was something on their website that said, “If you have a child with special needs, we would love for you to bring your child, please contact us before you come so we can make arrangements for our wonderful volunteers to be ready to care for your child….” What if the last church had simply called us back? They obviously did not have a plan.

This is the difference: “Hi, we don’t know what to do with your child!”

Or: “Hi! We are glad you are here! And we are glad you brought your child with special needs with you too! We were thinking of you, and we have a place for her!”

I said this in a post a few weeks ago: if you look around your church, and you do not see any children with special needs, ask yourself why. Is it that there just aren't any children with special needs in your community? I doubt that. Where we live, there are hundreds of families. Hundreds. But I see them all the time, while you might not know about them. I see them because there are special needs classes in the schools. We see them when we go to the clinic for therapy. We see them at our church. The therapists and teachers that work with our kids see other children with special needs all day long. All you have to do is look at your local school or hospital. Do you know a nurse, teacher, doctor, or a therapist? Ask. You will find these families. Look up the local therapy clinics nearby. They are going there for appointments every week. I know that I am leaving out the fact that if there are children, they grow up to become adults. If you do not have any adults in your church with special needs, that is yet another problem.

But when you think about these families, would you feel comfortable inviting them to your church? Would there be a place for their child?

Back when we first started going, for a few months, there were Sundays that Lilli was one of just a handful of children in that class. Some Sundays, she was the only one there. It did not matter. They treated her like gold. They prayed for us, sent us cards of encouragement.  Lilli loved going to church. They had a ton of great toys, music, and a fun tent for her to crawl in. I was worried that the church might decide that it was not worth it to have a whole room with volunteers for just one or two kids.

I was wrong to worry.

Because now, there are new families with children with special needs that have found out about our church. The word has spread, and it will continue to spread and grow. This is my new passion, to spread this word to families in our community. I want other churches to take a good look at this need.

If you create a place for these children, and you invite a few families, the word will spread. These families have nowhere to go to church! Some of them have actually been made to feel bad about their childrens’ autistic behavior and disruptions by ignorant members of their church family. This ministry is sorely overlooked in many churches.

I recently asked a friend about her church. I have known this family for over a year, and they go to a different church than we go to. They have two boys with autism. A few weeks ago, I asked her, “What do you guys do when you take the boys to church? Is there a class for them?”

Want to guess her answer?

“We take turns.”

She and her husband take turns sitting with the boys while the other parent goes to the service. They have done this for years.

You can make a church building handicap accessible. But once the person with the handicap gets inside the church building, will they have a place to go? Adults with special needs can sit in a service, if they are able. But what about the adults who are not able to sit through a service? What about the children with special needs? The teenagers with special needs? If the current CDC statistic for children diagnosed with autism is one in fifty five, where are all of these families going to go to church? Theoretically if you look at fifty five families in your church, one of those families will have a child with autism. But if there are no children with autism, or any special needs at all in your church, there is a problem.

I want churches to look at this issue. My heart yearns for families like ours to be able to simply go to church – for parents like Jasen and me to sit together in a service, and not worry about their child. I want to find other families like ours, and tell them about my church. I want them to come to visit our church with their children. I want other churches to have a place like this for children!  I desperately want families to come and experience what we experience, because it is so rare! Should it be this rare? I want them to feel like their children are loved, expected, and welcome. I want them to know that their children can come and squeal, crawl, jump, flap their arms, and run around in my church, and it will not be awkward. Their children will be shown the love of Jesus in my church by people who have a heart for serving children who have special needs.  I want them to know they there is a place for their child at our church. Wow, do I love our church. Big, and far away, and imperfect and all, I love it dearly. For so many, many reasons. But mostly, because of one simple reason:

We can go, because there is a place for Lilli. 

For the rest of the story, about our serving and small group experience, please click here


  1. Jennie - I can't tell you how grateful I am for these posts. I have just finished attending two conferences that address special needs ministry in churches. I am a Christian education volunteer - I do not have a child with special needs, no training in either special education or ministry...but I have been drawn to this issue. My heart aches for families that do not have the love of a Christian community to help them with their struggle. I would love to touch base with you in more detail about this issue - I am especially interested in equipping church educators to be able to welcome these families

    1. Hi Sue, I think it is wonderful that you are drawn to this issue and want to serve these families. Yes, please contact me anytime!

  2. Jennie, Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful post. My heart smiles to know Lilli loves church and that your family can worship together. By the way, she is adorable!

  3. I am a pastor at a church, who has asked the question over and over. And I have witnessed families leave because we don't have the right thing in place to meet their needs. What an honest eye opening post! Thank you. I am sharing this with my pastor friends that we can pray hard about how we can be the hands and feet to all of God's special creation!

    1. Hi Gina, I am so thankful that you will share this with your pastor friends. This was my desire in writing about this, that people from churches all over would be aware of this great need. Thank you!

  4. I am a mother of three older children and I have been a public school teacher for 25 years. I serve in the room with Lilli and all of the other precious children. I look forward to seeing the children every Sunday. They do love being there and I feel blessed to be a part of this uniquely designed program. I am so happy that I attend a church where "every" child is welcomed and their parents are able to attend church together. I hope that other churches will address this need as well.

    1. Amen! Thanks Glenda, for serving in that room. I am amazed at how it is growing! I love our church!

  5. Children with special needs are SPECIAL...I call them God's angels. I am so glad you shared this. I cried all the way through. Working with special needs in the schools, they are my angels and I thank God for them each day. Thank you for your post and for being a parent of one special, beautiful little girl! I do hope other churches realize that we are All God's children and nothing brings out the love in a person's heart like individuals like precious Lilli!

    1. Thank you for reading, that is my hope to, for all churches. Lilli has had a bigger influence on the world than any other nine year old I know. I love how God has used her in so many ways already, to touch the hearts and lives of others.

  6. I love "seeing" what God is doing and how he is leading you. I'm so grateful he put you in my path! And I'm excited to see where it leads. Good things are coming!

  7. I was a member of a church in my area, and i really wanted to feel like I was wanted there. I tried so hard to fit in, but every time I attended services there, I was always uncomfortable. I stopped going there,(thats where I got baptized as well as my daughters) and I never got a call from anybody wondering where I was or why I stopped attending. That hurts. Thank God, he gave me a new church to attend where the spirit of God moves and I feel like I belong.

  8. My church has created a special needs ministry for children and adults. See for more information. There is a link on the page on how to start a disability ministry. They also have a respite ministry, "Jill's House," for overnight stays. See I hope this is helpful.