Serving the “least of these” requires each of us to “see disability” in our church and community. Laney Wootten, the mother of a special needs child, shares her heart regarding this important need. With years of experience in church leadership, loving on the needy, and parenting an autistic child, Laney brings much wisdom in teaching us, the church, how to best minister to special needs families. — Cristy Whitlock
I’ve heard differing statistics on the percentage of how many special needs families do not attend church. It’s not good. Those percentages range anywhere from 90-98%. While the percentage may be an estimate, I am sure of this: it takes an unbelievable amount of courage, determination and humility to bring your special needs child to church gathering. How do I know? Because I am a mother of a five-year-old with autism. His name is Jude.
My husband and I grew up in church and have a growing, intimate relationship with the Lord, so staying home on the weekends with our family never once crossed our minds; it never once crossed our minds until our son’s autism took center stage. That’s when I realized the odds that special needs families will darken the doors of a church are slim to none — even if they are growing and dedicated followers of Jesus.
The sad reality is that even if a family is courageous enough to present their disabled child to a children’s ministry, most churches will not know what to do with them and in some cases even turn them away. Is that acceptable or even biblical?
Jesus identified Himself with the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). These precious children definitely fall into that category. I think I can be as bold to say that if we are not giving special needs children an honorable place at our table, we are rejecting Christ Himself. I would go even further and say that if you want to know the biblical health of a church, ask to see their special needs ministry.
Does it have to be crawling with happy and helpful volunteers? Should there be a sensory room filled with state-of-the-art occupational therapy equipment? No, but that would be nice! I look for a spirit of “welcome.” Ask yourself:
Is the children’s ministry moving in a direction to accommodate special needs children?
Are special needs kids on their radar?
Would a disabled child feel like a celebrity when they come into the children’s area or would they be received with hesitation?
Families like mine will be gracious. A church has to start somewhere. Even my precious church body can’t provide consistent workers for my son during the Sunday School hour. My husband and I spend many Sundays teaching him ourselves in a separate classroom because he is just too physically aggressive to go into a class with his peers. Am I bitter about that? No. Because every single Wednesday, Sunday night and Sunday morning during worship, Jude has an adult (buddy) volunteering their time so he can be a part of our children’s ministry and we can receive a moment of respite.
Our childcare workers have been bitten, scratched, kicked, changed “big kid” diapers and never once complained about it. They have taken my Jude on countless buggy rides to calm meltdowns, risked the life of their digits prying Playdoh out of his mouth, and most importantly, they’ve shared the gospel with my non-responsive son week after week. How could I be bitter? Deep within the veins of my church pumps great passion for the “least of these” and it is blatantly evident in our children’s special needs ministry.
I pass on the challenge to you that John Piper passed on to me in his message on John 9 — see disability. Don’t turn your eyes away from it. Run to it and trust that God will provide everything you need to minister to these little Jesus’ in disguise. See them as gifts and not burdens. Touch them, accommodate them and welcome them. In doing so, you will touch, accommodate and welcome the King of Kings.
Laney Wootten is a stay-at-home wife and mother of three beautiful children, Jude — 5, Hazel — 2 and Titus — due May 17. Her passion is to love her family deeply and raise her children to walk with God and know the joy of serving Him. She and her husband frequently lead worship and write and record music. They are currently working on a musical project that will reflect their autism journey and how God sustains them. They pray it infuses hope and purpose into all the souls who feel the daily weight autism imposes.