According to Erik Carter, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University who studies religion and disability, only 45% of Americans who identify as having a severe disability say they attend a place of worship each month. That’s 12% fewer attendees in this demographic than the 57% of all Americans that attend worship each month. Carter also tells us that churchgoers with a cognitive impairment are less likely by one third to participate in congregational activities outside of worship—activities such as a small group, a Bible study, or even a church fellowship.
A study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion finds that the statistics among children are more severe. Children with autism spectrum disorders are 1.84 times more likely to never attend church activities. Children with chronic depression are 1.71 times more likely to never attend.
The truth is that many churches are ill-equipped to welcome kids with unique needs. I’ve come to see this inequity as a justice issue. Recently I had the chance to join some friends—Elaine Moore, Todd and Kim Robertson, and Kelly Stivers—in telling the story of our personal journey as well as our local church’s journey with special needs ministry.
Here’s just a bit of that story…
My wife, Megan, and I are both type A. We religiously sit down every week to plan our finances and family calendar. We plan our vacations years in advance. But when our middle daughter, Lucy, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we were stopped in our tracks. Our life was suddenly more than we could plan and manage.
For years, Megan has taken Lucy to therapy appointments, cooked meals according to a strict diet, loved her stressed-out pastor husband, ministered to our church community herself, and worked through her own grief over Lucy’s disabilities—all while being mother to two other typically developing (but still sinful) young girls. By four o’clock in the afternoon nearly every day, we’re both exhausted. One of the great graces in our life is that for six years, a group of young Christian women from our church and a local Christian college came to our home to help care for Lucy in the afternoons. These amazing ladies conducted a behavioral therapy program, potty-trained, and even taught Lucy a simple catechism. Most of the time we were able to use Medicaid funds to pay them. But one of the women, Kelly Stivers, kept showing up for us in a season when we lost our funding. She had our back even when there was seemingly nothing in it for her.
In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 14, the evangelist relates the story of how Jesus was invited to the home of a prominent Pharisee. Jesus noticed how the guests at the table jockeyed for position—carefully picking the places with the greatest honor. Then he said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus instructed religious leaders to move toward the margins and welcome even those who are sometimes the most difficult to accommodate. This is one of the ways the church can do justice and embody the life of the gospel.
Want to learn more? Give the podcast a listen and check out the list of resources below:
Getting Started – Special Needs Ministry Resources from The Inclusive Church
The Ministry of the Disabled – Christianity Today
3 Barriers Keeping the Disabled from Church – Lifeway Facts & Trends
Special Needs, the Church and the Justice of God – Relevant Magazine
Louisville Regional Baptist Association website