Anvil journal of theology and mission
Mission with children and young people with additional needs and their families
by Mark Arnold
One in five of the 13 million children and young people in the UK have additional needs of some kind.1
That’s approximately 2.5 million children/young people, yet even before the COVID-19 pandemic at best only 10 per cent of them had any kind of contact with church. More recently, the #LeftInLockdown research carried out in 2021 by the Disabled Children’s Partnership highlighted that over 90 per cent of disabled children still found themselves socially isolated despite lockdown easing.2 That includes isolation from church.
Many children and young people with additional needs, and their families, have found the last couple of years overwhelmingly difficult, as much of the vital support that they had relied on has been cut back or stopped altogether. I’m co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance and over the course of the pandemic we asked families to tell us how it had been going for them. Words like “horrendous”, “exhausting”, “anxious” and “lonely” were common.
Practical and missional
So, what does being missional, reaching out to children and young people with additional needs and their families, look like for us as church in 2022? How can we respond to the needs of these struggling families? Before we can even think about supporting them spiritually, we need to be thinking about how we can support them practically – we need to show them the gospel before we can tell them the gospel.
We could offer to do some shopping for them or pick up a prescription. We could arrange to deliver a meal, or take a cake around as a welcome treat. We could create a small team to provide occasional respite support for a family, or accompany them to some of the many, often intimidating, meetings that they attend. Perhaps transport is an issue; we could help there too. Most of all, we need to keep in contact, making sure that no family feels forgotten. As a parent who responded to the Additional Needs Alliance survey put it:
Notice us. We will always cope and be “OK” because we don’t have any other choice. See beyond the bravado and offer us something to make sure we know you’re taking us with you.
And as we think about those practical ways to provide support, we need to be aware that many families will have had years of rejection, exclusion, discrimination and negativity, and that might have been from the church, too. I’ve heard too many stories of children and their families being told that they are no longer welcome as their child might be “a health and safety risk”, or that “this isn’t a special needs church”, or even a disabled child, a child for goodness’ sake, who was told by their Sunday school teacher, “Don’t come back.”
As always, we can learn from the examples that Jesus gave us: how through his encounters with people he showed us how to be loving and inclusive of all, creating belonging and community for everyone, leaving no one out. Children and young people mattered to Jesus during his ministry on earth; he healed them, he raised them from the dead, he rebuked anyone who turned them away and he didn’t discriminate against any of them. Neither should we.
Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46–52)
A favourite Bible story of mine is when Jesus met Bartimaeus, a man who was blind and who begged on the road near Jericho. Jesus had been going around teaching, preaching and healing people, and a large crowd was travelling with him. As he passed by where Bartimaeus was begging, Bartimaeus heard the commotion and asked what was going on. Someone told him that it was Jesus and his followers, and so Bartimaeus shouted out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”3 What happened to Bartimaeus next is what can commonly happen to children, young people or adults with additional needs; Bartimaeus was told to be quiet, to keep out of the way, to not be a bother. But the more they tried to stop him, the more Bartimaeus kept crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus heard him and asked Bartimaeus to come to him.
You can imagine the scene: Bartimaeus is in front of Jesus; a large crowd is gathered around jostling for position to see what happens. The expectation is reaching fever pitch among the people who have heard about the miracles that Jesus has been performing. Then Jesus does something unexpected, something that takes the crowd by surprise, something that teaches us about how we should be with someone who has additional needs. Jesus asks Bartimaeus a question, “What would you have me do for you?”4
The crowd must have been incredulous; it’s Bartimaeus, he’s blind – you’ve been going around healing people, so what do you think he wants from you?! Now I’m sure that Jesus, as a human being, knew that Bartimaeus was blind; and I’m sure that as God made flesh, he knew what Bartimaeus wanted from him, but Jesus didn’t assume. Jesus didn’t decide on Bartimaeus’ behalf; he gave Bartimaeus the dignity and respect to allow him to ask for himself, for his own voice to be heard. Bartimaeus said, “I want to see,” and so Jesus restored his sight; but in Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus – the way he was with him, the question he asked him – he teaches us some very valuable lessons, 2,000 years later.
A starting point for missionally reaching out to families with children and young people with additional needs is to work “with” them and not “to” them. So often, children and young people, and their families, can have inclusion “done unto” them poorly by well-meaning people who could have done things much better if only they had asked. By using the simple ASK approach below, the input of children and young people with additional needs, and their families, can help us know the best way to reach and support them. It recognises that helpful phrase, “Nothing about us without us.”
A. Ask – Simply ask. Get in touch with families of children and young people with additional needs and ask them to help you to get this right in your church. Tell them that you really value their input and that together you can make a difference. You might have to apologise if your church hasn’t sought their input before or has ignored their previous suggestions. Ask them what barriers they have experienced – there will probably be some you haven’t thought of – and agree to work on removing them together. Other adults with additional needs or disabilities in your church might provide useful pointers here too.
S. Seek – What solutions can they think of? Are there ideas that have been helpful for them/their child or young person in other settings, such as school, home or other clubs, that could be adapted to work in church? We don’t have to invent the wheel, there is likely to be a perfectly good one rolling along elsewhere in a child’s life!
K. Know – Learn from the families and from the children and young people themselves. They know most about their/ their child’s best ways of experiencing and navigating a safe and successful way through the world and will have a wealth of knowledge to share that can help us in our church context; let them be your guide!
The language we use when journeying with families or the young people themselves is vitally important too. Do we include a box on a form for something that asks, “Does your child have any special needs?” and then be surprised when that box is left blank and yet a child subsequently arrives who needs support? Think about those families that have been told that their child isn’t welcome at church anymore; how likely are they to declare their child’s additional needs again?
Ask families how their child best likes to be supported and helped, what they enjoy doing, what positive things people say about them; these are all questions that are much more likely to help us get to know a child or young person better, unlock useful and helpful information, and be great conversation starters. A useful tool to help with this is a “one-page profile” and sample templates for these can be found in the resources area of the Sheffkids website: www.sheffkids.co.uk. I suggest you try using these with all of the children and young people that you journey with; you will find out more about them than you might think!
So, as we reach out into our community, looking to minister and be missional with children and young people with additional needs and their families, practically showing them the gospel of love, let’s recognise how difficult the last couple of years in particular have been for them, let’s apologise for when we’ve got it wrong, let’s ask them how we can help, and let’s journey together with them to support them practically and spiritually in the future.
If you would like a study pack to help you as a church to journey with this some more, including video resources and 10 study questions to explore, to help you to create a church where everyone belongs, you’ll find everything you need here: https://theadditionalneedsblogfather.com/2019/07/18/10-ways-to-belong/
About the author
Mark Arnold is the additional needs ministry director at leading national Christian children’s and youth organisation Urban Saints and is co-founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, a vibrant and fast-growing online community. He is an enthusiastic national and international advocate and ally for children and young people with additional needs. Mark blogs as the national award-winning The Additional Needs Blogfather, and is father to James, who is autistic and also has learning difficulties and epilepsy. Mark is on Twitter at @Mark_J_Arnold
More from this issue
1 Department for Education, “Reforms for children with SEN and disabilities come into effect,” GOV.UK, 1 September 2014, accessed 4 October 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-for-children-with-sen-and-disabilities-come-into-effect.
2 Disabled Children’s Partnership, #LeftInLockdown – Parent carers’ experiences of lockdown,” 2021, accessed 4 October 2021, https://disabledchildrenspartnership.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/LeftInLockdown-Parent-carers’-experiences-of-lockdown-June-2020.pdf. Further information in https://disabledchildrenspartnership.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/The-Loneliest-Lockdown.pdf.
3 Mark 10:47 (NIV).
4 Mark 10:51 (RGT)