It is sad to hear about a church that has closed its doors for the last time, which seems to be happening quite often with the number of professing Christians in the United States continuing to decline, a trend reported by the Pew Research Center in 2019. Plus, the emergence of the global coronavirus pandemic that forced churches to cancel in-house worship services only contributed to that decline, or perhaps, even accelerated it. Even sadder is when you see what used to be a house of prayer and worship become some local fast food place or commercial business.
Why do I bring this subject to your attention? Good question. The answer is because a church that I once attended recently faded into the pages of history. That church had a remarkably rich history that dated back to 1889. It began with a handful of people who had the vision to build a church. They held a desire to penetrate their community with the gospel “so that Tidewater and the world may know God.” They desired to lead others into a relationship with Jesus Christ, do His kingdom work, and build His church. In reading the carefully recorded events of the church’s past, the words scribed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Roman church came to mind. Paul wrote:
“Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news of good things!”
Why would that particular passage come to mind? It is because the church appears to have kept Paul’s words at the forefront of its vision for the future of more than a century. The church kept in tune with the community’s needs and met those needs decade after decade. Today, there is a critical need within the church, meaning the entire body of Christ. It concerns our failing to reach out and minister to people who have special needs. That begs the question, what are we going to do about it? The church should do more than just set up a special needs ministry with this program and that program.
People with special needs are not looking for programs; instead, they seek places of worship where they can give praise and adoration to God freely, without the fear of being judged or rejected. Churches can learn from people with special needs, especially in the area of faith and a willingness to serve the Lord. Churches today need to be inclusive, not exclusive.
The small church started with a membership of 29 people. From its beginning, the church always held a strong vision for the future. For example, in just three years, through much prayer and faithfulness, the first building was built in 1892. The education wing was added in 1948 because the church recognized the need to teach God’s word to a growing membership. The fellowship hall was added in 1974 to accommodate ministry and social gatherings. The tremendous growth in the 1990s prompted the church to build an education building, but the most significant undertaking was yet to come.
The one-time landscape of farms and crops gave way to new subdivisions, paved roads, utilities, schools, and commerce. Knowing God would increase their numbers, the church added a preschool, an administrative wing, a new worship center, and a new family life center. The church then picked up the torch, keeping its heritage moving forward by answering the call to build a special needs ministry.
Did you know that many people with special needs have no access to biblical teachings and teachings suited to their learning ability at most churches? Did you know several families must take their special needs child to their adult Sunday school class where the learning is above their comprehension? Did you know many families that visit a church opt to go elsewhere because they find no place for their special needs child? Did you know we are equally responsible for sharing the gospel with people with special needs as with those who do not? We must enable the church to reach everyone lost in darkness with the gospel and make disciples of all who come forward to accept Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Is this not what Jesus commanded of His followers, to go and make disciples of all nations, of all people? Yes, it is!
In the Bible, Jesus commands us to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Many Christians see this as a charge to go out and seek the lost, share with them the gospel, and lead them into a relationship with Christ. Indeed that is part of it, but there is much more. To make a disciple involves more than simply sharing the gospel, leading a prayer, and giving away a bible only to say, “See you in heaven.” We know this because the Lord gave further instruction when he said, “teach them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
The process of making disciples is a life-long commitment to learn from and teach one another that we might grow closer to God. Our teaching is not to be centered on doctrine or study but instead on simple obedience to Christ (Allen 252). If we fail to reach and teach those who have special needs and fail to prepare for the future as those before us, are we not being disobedient to the scriptures we claim to hold so dear? In being obedient to God’s word and building a ministry to reach and teach people with special needs, the church will receive the blessings the Lord promises. One such blessing comes from the Book of Proverbs, where Solomon wrote, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Pro. 27:17).
We can learn from those who have special needs, and the disciples understood this when walking with Jesus, they see a blind man and ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2) It is necessary to point out that it was viewed that suffering was a direct result of sin in their time. They believed a child could sin while in the mother’s womb and punished accordingly, or the child was being punished for the sins committed by the parents. This belief is what prompted the disciples to ask, “Who sinned….” Holding such views, the people paid little to no attention to such people, for example, the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda who tells Jesus there is no one to help him get in the pool (John 5:7).
Some might think that was a long time ago, but oh, how common a thing it is in today’s culture to pay little to no attention to such people. In his response to the question, Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). God has a purpose for everyone, whom He knits while in their mother’s mother’s womb. When the church fails to embrace God’s plan, it will miss seeing his glory. Then it is the church that will find itself in dire need of instruction. Building a special needs ministry is part of God’s plan and purpose for this church, and indeed no one among us desires to miss out on seeing God’s sovereign glory. Yes, the church can learn much from those with special needs.
In Loving Samantha, Karen Jackson reflects on the lessons she has learned from her daughter over the years. Her daughter has Autism. The medical term is Autism Spectrum Disorder, and it refers to “a group of conditions that are characterized by varying levels of dysfunction in socialization and communication” (Engelke 1). Jackson wrote:
“As my faith began to grow and mature while raising our three children, I realized that I did not need to worry about how my “special needs” child would learn the faith. She had a lot to teach me about being a Christian and what it means to live like Christ. (45) When we pray together, she permanently recognizes that this is a particular time with God. Although Samantha cannot verbally add her words to the prayer, I am speaking out loud. I have a feeling she is sending her thoughts directly to him [God]. After all, our Lord indeed communicates with every one of his children. Often, when we pause after praying, Samantha adds a simple “Amen” to end the prayer without any prompting whatsoever. Her clear “Amen” to close our prayer is both powerful and deliberate. I humbly add my own “Amen,” awed by her example of pure and strong faith.” (134)
Samantha’s story is a powerful message that speaks to the limitless reach of God’s word. The voice of the Holy Spirit can breach any barrier of communication and reach the heart of people who calls upon the name of the Lord. The presence of a special needs ministry in the church will help many learn about and call upon the Lord’s name, causing all in heaven to rejoice.
At a church in a neighboring city before the coronavirus pandemic, a small life group met every other week for bible study for people with special needs. The man who taught the Bible lessons, Bob, has witnessed some fantastic works by God in his special needs ministry. One example comes from a young man named Kevin, who was usually quiet, recluse, and struggled with speech. One evening, during Bible study, Kevin stood, looked straight at Bob, and said in a clear voice, “I want Jesus!”
Another time, a young woman named Annie had confessed to the group about something she did wrong, a sin. She asked for prayer and the Lord’s forgiveness. She did this freely without fear of being judged or slandered by others, and the group responded in applause and lifted her in prayer. How wonderful it would be to have someone stand during a sermon and say, “I want Jesus,” or confess sin without fear of ridicule. Yes, we can learn from people with special needs.
Some churches express concern about not having any special training to work with children and adults with special needs. However, Mikal Keefer, editor of “Special Needs—Special Ministry,” shares that one does not need a degree in special education or a teaching certificate to work with people with special needs. Keefer wrote: “Don’t let the lack of a training program slow you down. If you are a typical church, nothing stops you from reaching out to special needs kids and their families. Nothing but a decision to do so.” (14)
It has even been suggested that churches will need medical people on standby should a medical emergency arise, such as an epileptic seizure. That prompts the question, what do churches do now in the event of a medical emergency? The answer is, they call 911. If a special needs individual has a medical emergency, our actions would be no different if one of our senior saints had a heart attack. Most local rescue squads are willing to teach a church staff basic life-saving measures to use in a medical emergency.
The importance of reaching the special needs community and the community at large with the gospel cannot be overstated. If we fail to do so, we neglect our responsibility to seek the lost and make disciples—we are neglecting our Lord. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Roman church, explained there is no difference between people in the eyes of God “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Paul explained the gospel in very basic terms to a church that had never heard apostolic teaching. He told them about God’s saving grace through the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross.
In the book of Romans, chapter 10, verses 13-15 (shown above), Paul presented the process of salvation in reverse order, which is a most fitting example for any church that does not have a special needs ministry. Indeed, how will those with special needs call upon the Lord of whom they have not believed, how will they believe in him whom they have not heard, and how will they hear without a preacher? In this context, the term preacher does not refer to the pastor though he is included, but rather it refers to everyone within the church.
Jesus commands each of us in saying, “go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Jesus is not calling everyone to be evangelists, but he does command his followers to evangelize. Are we not disciples of the risen Lord Jesus and His church? Are we to be the first generation in the history of the church who fails to consider the present and the future needs of those God will send? Jesus tells his disciples many times, “Do not be afraid,” and so, be encouraged and not afraid to vote in the affirmative for a special needs ministry at Wednesday’s business meeting. In doing so, prepare yourself to be amazed at how the Lord blesses your church through those with special needs.