Going to church can be a challenge for busy families. Sports, band trips, even parties and sleepovers can make it hard to get your crew to worship God together in your local church. For some families, it’s more complicated. For example, I know a woman named Paula who was asked to leave her church. 11 times. From 11 different churches. Why? Heresy? Stealing? Hurting others? Actually, it was because her son, who is autistic and doesn’t communicate much verbally, was “too much” for the children’s workers to handle, and “too distracting” to stay in the regular church service.
And Paula was even volunteering in the children’s room to help train the leaders on how to work with her son. Can you imagine having the grit to try out another church after being asked to leave your first one? Maybe. But after 11? No way. I’d have thrown in the towel.
But not Paula! She eventually found a church home that does whatever it takes to allow not only her but also her son to take their God-appointed place in the Body of Christ. (Seriously—if you’ve heard the term “Body of Christ” but haven’t really read about the scriptural reasons we call the Church that—then catch up by reading this passage. God’s not joking that He wants all His kids in His house!)
So, I learned some things from Paula. I’ve learned some things from friends who manage to go to church regularly even with the differences and disabilities their families live with. Some things from my own experience. And, some things I’ve learned from my church and other churches who are actively trying to make their churches places where anyone who wants to attend will feel cared for, regardless of how much care they need. Try these six steps to help your family start going to church and fulfill your place in the Body of Christ.
A Guide for Going to Church as a Special Needs Family
1. Decide. Make a before-and-after moment in your family’s life. No going back. You might have been feeling like church was just one more outing you don’t want to stress your kiddo or your family with each week. But, what if it’s the one outing each week that actually gave you and your family a lift? What if you find your place in the family of God? What if God wants you—and your whole family—to pour into the people in your church? What if He has others who are ready to use their gifts to serve you and your family? Draw a line in the sand. Dare to say, “We are going to find a church family, and we’re going to attend together as much as possible.” (Joshua 24:15, Hebrews 10:25)
2. Ask for help. Don’t be shy! Be open about the needs your family has so that your church family can better support you. (Galatians 6:2)
- Contact the church you’re thinking of attending, and ask some questions. Do they have a website? If yes, poke around a bit and see if you can find any information on care or programming for special needs. My church has a parenting resources page with a form you can fill out to contact the pastoral staff at your local campus.
- Once you’re talking with the staff, let them know about your child and see if there might be anyone who would be willing to volunteer to work with them so you can attend church. Advocacy is a lifestyle, right? You’ll need to be as honest and open as you can be with what supports your child might need so the church can help meet those needs.
- Maybe your church is willing, but they could use some help with training. If your church is in need of training for how to work with special kiddos, sign up to use free (yes, free—always!) training and resources from Open Network like LifeKids Buddies training. Or, check out online leader training strategies for working with kids who need extra support or working with teens who need extra support.
3. Offer your expertise. Years ago, there wasn’t as much help at my church as there is today. I volunteered as a leader in my son’s room until there was a one-on-one helper who felt comfortable enough to work with him that I could attend service. You might want to ask to serve for a while with your child and the people who are going to partner with your family so they can learn from you how to help your child stay calm and regulated, how to communicate with your child, and how to reach your child. This way, you can also ensure your child is comfortable with them.
4. Plan ahead. It’s probably not the best idea to just show up unannounced with your family—especially if you know this experience will be overwhelming to those in your family who are living with sensory, social, emotional, or other differences. As much as possible, break down what going to church will be like for your family. If your child and family know what to expect, everyone can have a better experience.
- Ask if you can stop by your church to meet the staff who will be there. Take a lot of pictures, and look through them every day until you return for church. Say things like, “This is where we will go this weekend. We will walk through these doors. You will go to this room for class. You will play with these toys. You will see Pastor ______.”
- Ask if your child may see and even enter the room where they’ll be on the weekend.
- If your church has a one-on-one who will work with your child, see if you can meet them at the church, too.
- See if your church has any of their programming available to watch online. If they do, let your child get a taste of what the programming for their age will be like.
- Check out the types of sensory toys or comfort items your church has on hand. Let the staff know which ones your child especially loves.
- Ask if you can bring some comfort items from home.
- Ask what the schedule is like for the room where your child will attend, or what the experience is like for where your family will attend.
- Ask if you will need to contact someone when your family isn’t able to come. (Perhaps to let your family’s support helpers know you won’t be there.)
5. Go when you can, but no shame when you can’t. Got it? I mean, I know we did the whole “draw a line in the sand” thing, but please do leave plenty of room for grace all around that line! It can feel bad to have to miss church, but your family’s needs vary greatly from day to day. Your child might have a seizure just when you were about to leave. It can be frustrating when you’ve put so much effort into making a way for your family to get to church, only to be met by challenging needs that make it impossible to attend as regularly as you want. Make sure to let any support volunteers know you won’t be able to make it whenever the need to stay home arises. And, ask your church if they have any alternative ways to access their weekend content from home, such as an online church experience, a podcast, a video recording, etc.
6. Don’t give up. Okay, we’re back to Paula. When Paula called her 12th church, she found her home. Her church is my church. She plainly said, “Please don’t say we can go to your church if you don’t think you can handle us.” And she was met with open arms and a church body who was ready to embrace her and her son. She was baptized, and she’s found her family’s place in the Body of Christ. Be like Paula. Draw the line, and decide you’re not going to let fear, life, fatigue, or anything else keep your family from taking their rightful place in the Church, too. (Galatians 6:9)
Paula’s example of perseverance and guts has set an example for each and every one of us to follow. Going to church is an important part of the Christian life. If you’re a special needs family, the reasons for staying home are numerous. But with a little planning and a little help, I pray your family will be able to take their place in the Body that Christ is creating out of us, His followers.