Reaching an underserved population
Our marching order as Christians is to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel!” In fact, the very last words Jesus leaves us with as He ascends into heaven are, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He’s giving us a plan of where to “GO” and empowering us to get the job done!
For some people, “going” means traveling to foreign lands to the ends of the earth, eating exotic foods and leaving all that is familiar behind to bring the Gospel to those who have not yet heard. For others it means not “going” quite as far, but perhaps taking the Gospel on travels or business trips into the marketplaces of Judea and Samaria around the U.S.
But where does the children’s leader “go” to find their mission field?
It could be closer than you think. In fact, right in the back yard of your Jerusalem there is an underserved population that could be your mission field. Consider this: There are currently over 300 million people living in the U.S. today. Approximately 50 million of these people have disabilities. Of that number, over 20 million are kids and teens. The startling fact is that only 10 percent of those with disabilities attend church today.
Oftentimes, the church neglects kids with disabilities and their families. For some, the words “special needs” or “disability” make us feel fearful or uncomfortable. It’s time to get over our fears and inadequacies and get God’s heart on the matter so that we can get equipped to “go” to reach this mission field.
Many of these families are searching for a place of worship to call home, but are unable to find churches that will welcome their kids with disabilities. One young mom of three children tearfully explains, “How can I go to a church that won’t accept my daughter? If my church won’t accept her, who will?”
Disability impacts the entire family. When the child with special needs is not welcome to come, the entire family unit stays away. Sadly, parents of 2-year-old Sophie who has autism were told that because of Sophie’s behavioral challenges, she could not stay. There was no one who would care for her. In this case, not only was Sophie turned away but her older sister and parents were also. Jesus did not turn away the “least of these” but instead intentionally sought after those who were the weaker and sometimes neediest part of the body.
The master in Luke 14:21-23 tells his servant, “’Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame. … Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled.’”
The mission is to fill up His house with guests who might be overlooked, imperfect or at times even rejected. If we’re not careful, we can easily ignore this passage or other passages like Luke 14:13-14 where Jesus not only commands His people to reach out to those with special needs, but also establishes the priority of including them in our gatherings. “When you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; or you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Kids with special needs and their families are often isolated, stigmatized and rejected. They can be a misunderstood and neglected people group. Jesus calls us to care for those who are suffering.
Disability is on the rise and the church has an opportunity to care for those in need. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates:
- 1 of every 691 babies born in the United States each year is born with Down syndrome.
- 1 out of 50 kids are now identified with an autism spectrum disorder.
- 7 percent of children ages 3 to 17 have been identified with ADHD.
- 8 percent of children ages 3 to 17 have been identified with a learning disability.
How are these stats represented in your ministry?
Disability is not a respecter of age, culture or socio-economic class. Kids can be born with or acquire a disability which can be mild, moderate or severe. They can have disabilities that are physical, cognitive, medical, hidden or life threatening. In that moment when parents are confronted with shattered dreams and their new reality, it’s the perfect time for the church to bring hope and help.
Sometimes people are in tough spots in life because of bad decisions they’ve made. That’s not the case with families that have kids with special needs. In most cases, they’ve been put in a situation they did not choose. They love their kids, but the additional demands of their kids can make life tough at times.
Most of us don’t realize that many families are quietly overwhelmed, living in isolation and in many cases losing hope as day to day they are faced with caregiving responsibilities that consume their lives. They question “why” and live in a constant state of survival … exhausted. Families experience stress factors that are two to three times higher than for a typical family. Marriages are at higher risk as stress and time restraints steal away opportunities to nurture healthy relationships. Financial expenses for medical and therapeutic care are unreasonable and leave little resources for securing any type of assistance.
One of the ways a church can reach out in a practical way and offer a cup of cold water is to offer a free respite/parents’ day out program as a missions outreach.
It can be offered once a month for a few hours and provide care for kids with special needs and their siblings, so that parents can get a much needed break. It should be fun and inspiring as the Gospel is shared in a way that kids with special needs can best comprehend.
Offering a respite program lets the community know that your church cares. It’s a great way to build relationships with kids and families that may have otherwise been intimidating. A respite program gives volunteers an opportunity to address their fear of disability. When volunteers work with these kids, they receive hands-on training while building relationships with families. Respite care can help equip churches toward the ultimate goal of welcoming these families on Sunday mornings. Providing for the practical needs will open the door to meet the spiritual needs and is a great missions outreach!
- A Thai Buddhist family has been using a local respite program in Orlando for seven years. This church didn’t have to travel to Asia to do foreign missions. The family now attends special kids’ events and has even visited Sunday morning worship. Buddy volunteers have had the opportunity to pray with this family.
- A single parent mom who was attending a Jehovah’s Witness temple has been embraced by the love of God through a respite program. She can now often be found reading her Bible while her daughter is enjoying one-on-one ministry with a buddy at a respite care program.
- The mom and dad who have three daughters with disabilities have struggled for years to find a place they could worship. When the church welcomed them in by providing respite care, the volunteers were no longer intimidated by the disabilities and were now equipped to provide consistent ministry on Sunday mornings. This family just celebrated their 5-year anniversary where they found a church home that would finally embrace their family.
- Within the past six months several families have joined the Baptist church in town that reached out to them with that cup of cold water called respite. They discovered a place that could love and care for their special kiddos and families. Through the touch of His people on mission, these families have finally felt embraced by the love of God.
Though each of these churches are on mission and have been used to touch these special families, the surprise outcome in every one of these situations is the blessing that kids with special needs bring to the Body of Christ. Each child, with or without a special need, is created by God with value and purpose. Even as we reach out to minister, He uses these special children to teach us, bless us, and forever change our lives. They are on their own special mission to change the life of your church!
Our communities are filled with countess special kids and their families who need to experience the love of God. Offer them the cup of cold water. Give your congregation the chance to serve in this missions outreach! Kids’ pastors, kids’ leaders, and churches must be intentional about getting equipped to reach out to kids with special needs and their families. God has appointed us to be His hands and heart to bring the Gospel to all kids in order that we may fulfill the Great Commission. Our marching orders are to “GO!” Jesus is calling us to compel them to come. A mission field is waiting … ripe and white unto harvest.