Sandra Peoples, a leading voice for the special-needs community, says the modifications churches have made to reach members during the COVID-19 crisis have made special-needs families more connected than ever. She believes new ways of reaching out to those in isolation could continue to bless these families long after the pandemic has passed.
For my family, social isolation isn’t much different from normal life. Because of my son’s social anxiety related to his autism, drive-throughs are our normal way of eating out. We rarely get invited to other people’s houses. And even though my church is one of the approximately 30 percent of churches in the country that offer sweeping accommodations for people with disabilities, there are many activities we still can’t be involved in. Some weeks, we have to stay home.
During this pandemic, many have felt isolated because of everything they’re unable to do. Recently, though, some special-needs families are actually feeling more connected to their church families. Recently, our churches have made accommodations for everyone.
Pastors and ministry leaders have moved quickly to meet the needs of their isolated congregants. In these last couple of months, churches have learned to make worship and discipleship accessible for the whole congregation. This is a remarkable achievement. It has required intentionality, flexibility, creativity, and compassion. For churches hoping to become more welcoming to people with special needs, it’s a huge step in the right direction. The modifications we have made for this crisis could continue to serve people who need them long after the pandemic has passed.
Even in the new normal, you may want to consider how these newly acquired tools could serve people with special needs in your congregation.
1. Livestreaming worship services.
Many big churches were streaming their services already, but now even smaller churches have learned to produce a live webcast. This is a huge blessing for those who can’t make it to the church building every week. My friend has a son with autism, is a caregiver for her father, and herself has multiple sclerosis. Any one of those factors can keep her home from church on a Sunday. Having the option to participate from home when she’s unable to attend in person allows her to continue to grow spiritually and remain engaged with her church family.
2. Livestreaming discipleship groups and facilitating online interaction.
Another friend has a teen with autism; for 10 years, she and her husband haven’t been able to attend a small group together. Then, her church went online — and her family is now able to participate just as often as any other family. One campus ministry group includes a student who uses an electronic device to communicate at their Bible studies. But now that the group has moved online, the student is able to use the chat feature on Zoom. His leader reports, “We all are learning so much from him!”
It also helps to strengthen existing groups when they can connect at times other than Sunday mornings. Facebook groups and group texts allow for easy communication between homebound members. Adult life groups at our church that had not used this option before are seeing its benefits. As we begin to meet again in person, churches may want to consider livestreaming a small group or taking some of their interaction online, so members with special needs can participate from home.
3. Providing lessons and activities parents can use at home.
Parents are our children’s primary spiritual teachers, and that role has become more pronounced during this time at home. Many churches are providing extra help to parents right now as they share lessons, videos, and activity pages. This is a huge benefit for kids who learn differently.
For example, the children’s ministry at Bay Presbyterian Church in Ohio has a resource page on their website for parents to download lessons and activity sheets. Their disability ministry director, Beth Golik, is modifying those lessons with the visual aids that her students with limited speech use in their class on Sundays.
Online resources are also helpful for kids and teens who aren’t able to participate with larger groups during regular church activities. Our church has students whose sensory issues keep them from music time. But during social isolation, our children’s minister is sharing videos of the songs they usually sing during our Wednesday night church activities. My son can watch the videos and learn the songs at home. As he gets more comfortable with it at home, he may eventually be able to join his peers at church.
In churches that have kids with special needs, children’s ministry workers may want to continue to provide more at-home resources for families, allowing parents to modify the curriculum for kids and support their spiritual lives, while allowing them to share the same discipleship experiences as their peers.
4. Communicating with homebound families about their needs.
Evana Sandusky has a daughter with Down syndrome and respiratory issues that have put her in the ICU eight times. She says, “There have been several times over the past few years when I have had to keep my daughter isolated from large groups of people,” including her church of 1,000. But, during this pandemic, she’s getting frequent texts from church members to ask how her family is doing and to see if they need anything. These days, people better understand the threat to her daughter’s health and are intentionally serving her family.
I hope this concern doesn’t end when most members are able to return to church. Those in high-risks groups won’t be able to resume normal life for months, or perhaps more than a year. For many families with special-needs members, isolation is a reality of life in every season. Church staff and compassionate members are important lifelines to keep these families connected to the church and provide them with practical help and support.
We serve a God who draws people to himself and into relationship with other believers. Jesus’ healing miracles didn’t merely restore people’s sight or mobility — he restored their place in the community. Our Lord noticed the outcasts, the ignored, and the suffering, and he welcomed them into fellowship with himself and others. God is still working in this way today. And our pandemic modifications may be his gracious tool to allow churches to minister more effectively to everyone.
This article originally appeared on TheGospelCoalition.org. Used by permission of the author.