Many churches may find inclusion a challenge and may not fully understand what it involves. Lynn McCann has 12 tips on how your church can include people with Additional Needs into your services.
1. Make it clear that you welcome people with Additional Needs on your website
Give a list of the access arrangements you have, from large print or Braille song sheets, notices, to ramps and hearing loops, and who is available to speak to if a person or child in the family has additional needs.
2. Appoint a Designated Person
Have a designated person that oversees and coordinates the support and overall vision of the church for inclusion, as well as the practical implementation of support for people with additional needs.
3. Understand what families are going through
It is 24/7. Every day is full on and no day is the same, as parents and carers never switch off. They often don’t look after themselves too well (they don’t have time) and often give more of themselves to help others who are carers too. Sometimes they feel grumpy and can be short of patience with small minded things. Often they are sleep deprived and coming to church (for them) is not a time for a break or a rest.
4. Listen to parents and carers
They know their child best. They may not be experts on the child’s condition, but they are always learning. It’s also important to listen to the child or adult with additional needs because they know themselves best and they know what they like and don’t like. If they cannot speak, spend time observing them and learning how they communicate. Think highly of what they can understand and achieve because they have gifts that the church can be blessed with. Jesus has a place in his body for them too, and it cannot function fully without them.
5. Don’t let your congregation judge
Encourage the congregation to be accepting and try to make it clear that even a tut or disapproving look can be off pointing and judgemental. Parents and carers of people with additional needs get plenty of that outside of the church doors. This kind of response has no place in Jesus’ church.
6. Ask practical and patient questions
What works for you? What works at their school or daycare centre? Is there any of these things that we could do to make church better and easier? Then do the things you can from the answers above. One small thing can make a huge difference. When you’ve done one thing, don’t think you have done it and can ignore them from then on…do another thing…and another.
7. Get church leaders trained
Everyone who leads or volunteers for anything are involved as well. Arrange for speakers with additional needs to take training sessions and keep talking about diversity and learn together. Look up the Churches for All website and the organisations listed will provide or find training for you. The local special school may have some Christian staff who would be willing to help or do some training for you.
8. Set up special activities
The child/adult may have a preferred activity that they enjoy doing. You could arrange for other children or adults to come alongside them in their comfort zone. So whether it be a child who loves Lego, (have a Sunday School session based on Lego once a month) or an adult who uses Makaton (let them sign the Lord’s Prayer in the service). All in all this brings their interests and strengths into how you and the congregation do church.
9. Teach the congregation about Jesus’ love for all people
Send them out to serve in daycare centres, do assemblies in special schools, visit people with additional needs in their homes or talk to families with additional needs in supermarkets. Bring children up in the church to stand up for those who have additional needs at school. Show them how to approach and be friendly, make sure they know the names of any children with additional needs who come to church, however infrequently. Tell them to smile and say hello when they see them, and not to stare when they make noises or behave unexpectedly.
10. Have high expectations of God and his word
Find ways to open up the wonderful treasures of the Bible. It may mean you do your weekly services a bit different and it may mean your preaching takes on a different style completely. Also consider using different forms of communication in your services, including digital media.
11. Celebrate the diversity of God’s family
Watch and listen to people with additional needs and let them show us how they connect with God. Keep in mind that it is God’s work to save.
12. And finally
Remember that you don’t need any qualifications or even experience with additional needs to be a church that makes people feel welcome and a part of their congregation. All Jesus asks us is to follow him and do the things he did. I don’t remember him ever “tutting” at someone trying to come to him….do you?
Lynn McCann is a wife and mum to two young adults. She runs an autism consultancy and training business.