Many families with special needs children do not feel
comfortable in church. WHY?
What a wonderful blessing to find a group of sincere, Bible believing folks, that accept each other's oddities and are ready to overlook faults. We know of churches that are really making an effort to reach out to families with special needs children. They have taken extra care to provide a special section or worker just so parents can participate in the service. They are ready to comfort and support during the hard times and to treat families normally, even when the children do not look normal. Ironically, most of these churches have many older folks. Perhaps the Lord has fine-tuned them to a point where they are comfortable with the "different." They have seen it all!
Unfortunately a comfortable church situation is not the case for most Christian families with special needs children. This article is to encourage those who are on the edge of "churchdom" looking in and those who wish these folks cautiously peering would just step in.
It is interesting to note that literally thousands of homeschooling families (not just those with special needs) have chosen not to attend a "church." Reasons? Some are tired of explaining over and over why their child behaves the way he/she does. Some have health restrictions and cannot afford regular public contact. Then there are those families just plain tired of shielding their family each week from immodesty, worldly attitudes or children out of control. Some have personal convictions against age segregated Sunday school, youth groups, women's and men's gatherings or any other organized get-together that takes away from the family at home. Tired of struggling all week to repair bad attitudes or hurt feelings picked up on Sunday, families are choosing to stay at home.
Here is a quote from a newsletter called No Greater Joy, a newsletter of THE CHURCH AT CANE CREEK, a ministry of the local church, March 1996.
"Daily I receive scores of letters, many telling of great victories in the home. God does indeed have His remnant. The scales of blindness are falling away and old fashioned holiness is making a comeback. This is not a movement under one ministry or one denomination. In fact, I know of few churches that are even able to comprehend this phenomena. We receive many letters from parents who are concerned because their church is the only remaining corrupting influence on their family. God is doing a work from the heart out, instead of from the pulpit.
I encourage Bible believing pastors to wake up and clean out a corner in the church to contain this movement of God. It will not go away; but many families are leaving structured Christianity to gather in a protected environment with like-minded families. Our larger cities are dotted with hundreds of home churches. If the cream leaves our churches, pastors will be missionaries to what is left of their congregations."
Perhaps by looking at a few ideas, we can see just where we might fit in the church scene.
First and foremost:
Whether a family chooses a home fellowship or attends a church, the Bible commands fathers and husbands to be the leaders. As parents, we cannot rely on Sunday school teachers, AWANA, or youth pastors to do the bulk of the Bible teaching in our children's (or wives') lives. Ultimately it is the father's responsibility. Whether he realizes it or not, he is filtering what he feels is best. (Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 14:35, 1 Timothy 3:4, Deuteronomy 6:6,7 Ephesians 6:4.) Proverbs is chock-full of scriptures to parents, especially fathers, admonishing them to train, care for, and nurture their children in the Lord.
As parents, we should choose our family's social situations carefully, simultaneously screening potentially harmful situations and trying to be aware of what the Lord may be doing through us. We must fight the urge to become exclusive and seclusive. What good is hidden salt?
Here may lie the answer to our troubles regarding church and other social events.
Are we setting ourselves up for hurt when we go onto a fellowship situation looking for OUR needs to be met?
If God is closing the door to a social situation, who are we to argue? When a Sunday school teacher or AWANA leader is not so welcoming, can it be that the Lord is using another to protect our children from unwanted, or harmful circumstances? Is God sovereign in your family’s life? Do you truly want Him in control of every part?
Here are some interesting questions: Do we pray before we leave to attend church, "Lord, show us who our family can encourage today?"
Is this chosen day centered on honoring the Lord, or are we foolishly centering on ourselves? The Bible says to prefer others to ourselves. (Philippians 2:3-4)
How wonderfully sweet to see a family giving of themselves for each other and those the Lord brings into their path on Sundays.
We have noticed a theme in most of the heart-breaking stories we have heard. A common thread seems to be LACK OF COMMUNICATION. Many times, out of ignorance, fellow Christians do or say hurtful things because they do not understand.
The church's perspective:
The church has a definite disadvantage. There are as many different ways to approach special-needs children as there are parents! What pleases one mother of a child with Down syndrome, may offend another mother of a child with the same disability!
Let’s take the example of Sunday school. Mother number one prefers her son with Down syndrome to be in an age-appropriate class and included in all activities. If there is a problem with behavior, she prefers the leader to come get her and let her take care of the situation.
Mother number two prefers her son (the same age and disability as mother number one’s child) to be in a developmentally appropriate classroom and wants the Sunday school teacher to discipline her son if he misbehaves just like the teacher would if her son was not mentally challenged.
Add to this problem personal stigmas in regards to specific disabilities (or handicaps in general) and we can easily see how church workers might feel defensive.
Scenario number one:
After a hurried breakfast of cereal on Sunday morning, Mother grabs a rag to wipe the dribbles of milk off of her 8 year old son with Down syndrome (one of 4 children).
With the family jostling for favorite seats, Dad backs out of the driveway, lips tight in frustration.
Arriving at church 10 minutes late, Mother hurriedly ushers her son into his Sunday school class with a kiss and disappears. The teacher looks up with a tired, Sunday-morning smile and points to an open seat. Junior just stands and stares, trying to overcome his shyness and make sense out of the last few hurried minutes of running around. Finally getting his bearings, he ambles to the front of the room by the teacher and says, "Hi." The interrupted teacher stops his lesson and smilingly points for Junior to take his seat. The confused student turns around, looking to see who his teacher is pointing at. Junior points too, for good measure. The children are now laughing at the situation and the good merits of the teacher's planned lesson are totally lost. Teacher ends up leading Junior to his seat.
Unsure whether this child understands the concepts he is trying to present, with a stroke of inspiration and in an effort to regain his class’s attention, he tries a new angle. Teacher motions his class to gather around him at the front of the room. To demonstrate the concept of faith, he pulls his chair to the middle of the circle. Holding his hands out straight, he falls into his seat, applying "faith" that the chair would hold him.
Junior, thinking this is great fun, stands on his
chair and starts imitating his teacher with much facial expression and gestures. The class once again dissolves into giggles because this funny boy is acting strange. Teacher, now quite frustrated, makes a mental note to talk to his supervisor about his problem. Teacher does not want to hurt the boy or his family’s feelings, yet he feels at a loss about how to communicate the concepts to his handicapped pupil.
After things are settled down and going more smoothly, he allows groups of two or three to take a potty break. He sends Junior with two of the more responsible boys. They come back with a bad report; in fact, without Junior at all. Junior left the rest room after they entered their stalls and was nowhere in sight.
White-faced in panic, Teacher leaves his class and runs for his worse fear, the parking lot. After 10 minutes of worried searching, in the kitchen, Junior is found happily munching the crackers that were going to be used for communion at the 10:00 am worship service.
Teacher, relived and more than slightly irritated, leads Junior back to the classroom just as the first parents are arriving to reclaim their children.
Teacher, now red faced, without explaining the details because he is embarrassed, tells Junior’s mother that her son is not welcome in his class until he has words with his supervisor. Mother is hurt and surmises Teacher is prejudiced against her son because of his disability.
Scenario number two:
The night before Sunday School, Mother and Father sit down and talk about Junior’s class participation. They can guess where some of the problem areas will be.
They get out a sheet of paper and write down in a logical fashion what Teacher will need to be aware about their son.
Sunday morning dawns. Mother, although tired from being up half the night with the baby, is prepared. She has clothes laid out and breakfast is a breeze because muffins made earlier in the week are waiting.
Arriving at church 10 minutes early, Father escorts his son to his classroom. Father hands Teacher the sheet of paper he and Mother filled out the night before.
(A blank copy is on the next page.)
Teacher gets a grip on the situation immediately and learns he can expect good behavior from Junior. He sees that Junior is not potty trained yet, so he keeps him in the classroom with him. When Junior starts to play the ham, Teacher discourages the play acting. After sitting Junior back down, he explains to the class that Junior likes to copy him and he hopes Junior will learn valuable Biblical lessons while learning how to act appropriately in a classroom. With a smile, Teacher asks his class, "Will you show Junior how?"
When Sunday School is over, Father comes back to claim his son. Teacher and Father discuss any problems experienced or that may be seen on the horizon, such as the upcoming expedition into the woods next week for an object lesson. Father makes plans to join the class next week and work with Junior. Father hands Teacher a book he feels will answer further questions and spark an even greater interest in special needs Sunday School, called Unto The Least Of These, by Andrew H. Wood. (See review on page 11. This book is now offered through NATHHAN for $7.00 ). Happily, Teacher feels he is really ministering to Junior and Father is glad Junior is helping the other children in the classroom to become more comfortable with people who have handicaps. Mission accomplished!
Parent preparation for social situations helps all involved feel more like a team instead of lone rangers. No one likes to feel uneasy, especially where touchy subjects are concerned. Think about it. Would you like to ask a parent you did not know very well if their 10-year-old child was potty trained yet?
Effective communication begins with the parent. Making use of the "Things You May Like To Know About Me" sheets on the next page may be the beginning of some wonderful relationships.
Unto the Least of These: Special Education in the Church
Written by Andrew H. Wood
This is a great book to be able to hand to those you would like to "educate."
Dr. Wood, at the time of the book's publication in 1961, was the Executive Director of Shepherds Ministries. Shepherds is well known for their compassionate ministries to special needs people and their families. His writings also include articles in Child Evangelism Fellowship magazine, Faith for the Family, and the Sunday School Times\Gospel Herald.
He writes from a Christian perspective and is well aware that the history of the fundamental local church in America indicates a definite lack of programming for the handicapped, particularly the mentally retarded. Yet these precious ones, set aside through no fault of their own, present a real challenge to local churches seeking to reach their communities for Jesus Christ.
Mental Retardation—What is It all About?
Who are the Retarded?
Characteristics of the Mentally Retarded
Problems Caused by Mental Retardation
Our Responsibility to the Mentally Retarded
The Responsibility of the Church
The Responsibility of the Pastor
Organizing a Church Program for the Mentally Retarded
Meeting the Local Need
Launching a Ministry to the Retarded
Recruiting and Training Qualified Workers
Starting a Sunday School Program
Beginning a Worship Program
Initiating a Program in the Christian School
Expanding to Other Programs
Principles of Working With the Mentally Retarded
Curriculum Planning and Development
General Teaching Principles
Ministering through Music
Prayer and Scripture Memorization
Expression or Activity Time
Leading the Retarded to Christ
Effective Disciplinary Management
Recreation, Leisure Time, Games and
Sample Sunday School Program Schedule
The Shepherd Curriculum
Game Evaluation Guide
Individual Prescriptive Teaching Plan
The Story of Shepherds Ministry
Bibliography and Resources
Unto The Least Of These was written by Christians for Christians. This book was written in 1961. The terminology used is appropriate for the ’60s. These days, some parents take offense at the terms "retarded" or "handicap". We do not find it in any way offensive, but thought we’d let you know. They are very enthusiastic about including our special needs children in church activities and have some outstanding suggestions. The author had probably never heard of home schooling as we know it today. He does not mention home schooling and assumes a public or Christian school situation.
But we do know that Shepherd Ministries has been very enthusiastic about NATHHAN. Home schooling special needs children is quite the new frontier, even yet.
We recommend reading this book and then handing it, with a personal letter, to those in your congregation whom you love and want to effectively communicate about this very important subject.
This well written, paperback book is 143 pages.