Special Needs and the Church

Special Needs and the Church

This Friday, the church I serve cohosted Memphis’s Night to Shine, a prom-like event for people with special needs. A few weekends ago we hosted a Pop-Up Shop where participants could come pick up a donated dress for the big night. We got a card in the mail afterwards from one excited young woman: “Dear Highland Church of Christ, thank you for the Prom Dress. It is Red. I can’t wait.”

Ministry to those with special needs is something our church is growing into. I’ve heard that 90% of families with special needs do not attend church, due to various difficulties. Thanks to the efforts of some of our church’s leaders, we are hoping to change that statistic in Memphis.

Personally, I am more and more convinced that how we think about our brothers and sisters in Christ with special needs reflects what we believe makes a person a person. Underlying those beliefs is a worldview we often fail to identify.

Consider Luke 18:15-17, a brief scene that, at first glance, does not appear to be about special needs.

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

No one expects this. In Jesus’s world, because of high child mortality rates and poverty, the value of a child was proven when they survived, grew up, and began to work. Children became valuable once they contributed to the family’s bottom line.

What is he saying about children here and how does it inform our thinking about those with (or without) special needs?

Well, notice the children have to be allowed to come to Jesus: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (18:16, emphasis added). Then notice that they don’t make the kingdom of God, or choose the kingdom of God; they receive it: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (18:17, emphasis added).

The point: children aren’t in control. They are dependent. Others make their decisions. They can only go where they are allowed, and they can only receive what comes to them.

We know this. Those are the very things that make a child a child. But Jesus is not simply describing children. He is claiming that those who will receive the kingdom of God must be like children, a disarming statement about what it means to be human. The implication is subtle, but it has profound meaning. Jesus is claiming that to be a child of God—to be human—is to not be in control or independent. It is to be dependent, just like a child.

We often, even subconsciously, buy into the belief (worldview) that to be human is to be increasingly independent. As you grow, you should become increasingly capable, and because of that, you become increasingly independent. The more independent you are, the more valuable you are to the world. The more fully human you are. You are a contributor, not a taker or a dependent. We are talking about that moment when you move from being on someone else’s tax return, as their dependent, to having your own tax return, with several depending on you. We buy into this idea that this is what it means to be fully human. To be valuable. To be strong.

Of course, that is not the trajectory of life for many people with special needs. Yes, many grow, learn, and become more self-reliant. But many will never be independent. We want the fullest life for all people, and it is hard for us to dissociate that word full from the word independent.

Yet, Jesus says the very opposite. Jesus says that the fullest life—life in his kingdom—is not about becoming more independent, but less. It is not about becoming more grown-up, but more like a child. Not stronger, but arguably weaker. The fullest life anyone could possibly have is when their life is fully dependent on the author of all life.

So, those with special needs remind us of what is most true of all of us, and what is most false about our worldview. The sooner we realize we are not independent, the better. God is not only the author of our lives, but the author and perfecter of our faith. As such, we are all—with special needs of one kind or another—characters in the much larger story of God’s glory on earth. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has shown a fierce commitment to God’s glory. God would not allow sin and death to tarnish God’s creation or creatures, or to stand in the way of God’s glory. And in this, we see the immeasurable strength of God, the author of every story and the ultimate story. Jesus is still the one who draws us close to his chest, as children, allowing us to receive his kingdom.

Each of us are but characters. Dependent on the author. And by the author’s will, dependent on one another. We need each other, as we need Christ.

To some that seems weak. But it is when we are weak, that God is strong.

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