Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be writing on this topic.
My whole life, I never had difficulty finding a church where I felt loved, accepted, and welcomed.
We attended the same church for 16 years as a married couple, the same church where my husband was baptized at age 13. When our children were born, we brought them to church there and assumed we would be there forever.
Things changed, though, when autism entered our family.
We ended up having to leave.
You may have faced such a choice as well. It was one of the most heart-wrenching choices we’ve ever made as a family. And yet it was the right one.
But finding a new church, well, that’s a whole different ball of wax.
In our case, we didn’t have to try hard, since our new church found us.
I accepted a position as church pianist, and after about eight months, we transferred membership and the whole family moved to the church where I am serving.
It was a long eight months, because we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do.
During that time, we visited a few other churches so we could get a feel of what our options were. It was weird, trying different churches after being a member of the same congregation for so long.
But in the end we learned some things, and that’s what I’m sharing with you today.
7 Tips for Finding the Right Church When Your Child Has Special Needs
1. Take your time.
Visiting churches is emotionally (and physically) stressful, especially when you’re dealing with a special needs kid. An unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people will likely be a big stressor for that child. . . and therefore for you. So don’t be afraid to slow way down.
In the meantime, take advantage of online offerings such as Front Door Church, or have family devotional time.
Don’t try to rush anything.
You are NOT disappointing God if you aren’t trying out a new church every single week. You are NOT losing points in the Good Christian race, I promise.
God is patient with you and understands your circumstances.
2. Call before going.
Look up some churches in your area, visit their websites (such a valuable resource), drive by and decide if the location is convenient.
Ask specifically if they are open to including people with special needs and if so, how? Is there a program in place for children? If not, are they still open to including a child who might need extra help?
Don’t be afraid to speak up about your child’s specific difficulties and challenges. You will probably be told no a few times. Be ready for it.
And please trust me when I say, it will be much easier to deal with this rejection over the phone that it would be in person. No one ever needs to see your face, and you can move on.
If you are in a more remote area, this might be a difficult process since you won’t have many churches to choose from. Don’t give up. I have some ideas for you as well.
3. Pray and be willing to listen.
It seems like a no-brainer, but often our human problem-solving skills tend to take precedence over God’s plans.
It’s our nature to want to fix things. But God is better at it than we are, even though sometimes His plans seem crazy to us.
Spend lots of time in prayer and know this going in: God wants you connected with a fellowship of other believers. It is part of His plan for you.
He doesn’t want you to feel alone with the weight of your burden. He designed the church to help carry that burden. Sadly, the church sometimes fails. But God will not fail.
There is a place for you. Trust Him to lead you to it in His timing.
4. Be flexible.
Yikes, was this ever hard for me.
I’ve been Baptist all my life, born and raised. My Daddy is a Baptist preacher. I know everything there is to know about being a good Baptist. all the hymns, the lingo, you name it.
And yet I no longer attend a Baptist church. I changed denominations. And I did it at age 45.
It has been a learning curve.
I’m now in a denomination where I know very little about how things are done. I don’t know the songs or the history and it’s all so different.
But God is there. And I believe He has my family where He wants us.
We all had to be flexible about following where He was leading us.
You’ll need to be flexible, too. Church doesn’t have to look or feel the way it did when you were growing up.
You might need to consider going big.
I’m not a fan of huge churches, but I live in an area where there are several to choose from. Some of these are churches with dedicated ministries and staff for special needs ministries. These churches are popping up more and more and this might be a wonderful option for your family. Yes, the churches are big, but they typically have lots of small group opportunites where you would be able to make connections and friends, and yet still know that your special needs child was in the best of hands.
Also consider going small.
The church my family attends now is much smaller than our previous church. This has worked out well for us in several ways.
Smaller churches will likely be more laid-back. Worship is usually more interactive, and people know each other better so they tend to be more inclusive and friendly. It also might be a little less overwhelming to your special needs child to be in a smaller building with fewer people.
Even though the church we attend does not have a designated special needs ministry, we’ve found that since we know more of the people personally, the majority of them respond well to my son as well. There is more of an attitude of community and of all being on the same team, so people are willing to work with us toward inclusion.
5. Carefully consider worship styles.
There’s always lots of debate over worship styles, with some younger families expecting something contemporary, while others desire to return to a more traditional style.
There is no right or wrong way, but you need to find the style that best fits your family.
We’ve always preferred a more traditional style of worship, but just for kicks we visited a contemporary church a while back, in an auditorium style venue with lights, a band, and a hip coffee bar. My husband and my son thought it was great and I hated it. But what it boiled down to is this: my family is gifted musically and we would never feel fulfilled at a church where we were unable to partipate in music ministry. So a church like that wasn’t an option for us.
Pay particular attention to the sensory needs of your special needs child. Some worship styles may be better or worse, depending on your child’s preferences.
Even though it seems like a small thing, worship style needs to be something the whole family can agree upon.
6. Pay attention to your instincts and intuition.
If you go to a church and you feel invisible, pay attention. If you feel unwelcome, pay attention.
If there are red flags flying up over what you hear from the pulpit, acknowledge those.
I spent a lot of my life ignoring my gut instincts.
I convinced myself through education and lots of common sense that my instincts were usually wrong. And sometimes they are.
But eventually I realized that instincts exist for a reason. They are warnings hard-wired into our brain that we don’t even consciously recognize.
If you have a bad feeling about a church, even if you can’t put your finger on it, acknowledge it and then move forward carefully. It might turn out to be nothing, but don’t sell yourself short. I believe the Holy Spirit guides us in just this way.
Sometimes He may not have a good reason other than Him wanting you somewhere else.
7. Acknowledge your emotional state after visiting a church.
Is your first thought, “Thank God! I couldn’t wait to get out of there!”
Or is it
- “Well, that was different.”
- “Everyone seemed nice.”
- “I liked the sermon”
- “What was that song we sang?”
Do you feel excited, anxious, nervous, happy, hopeful, shamed, encouraged, angry?
Try to label your feelings and don’t be afraid to acknowledge both the negative and positive ones.
Emotions are a big part of the equation, because nobody wants to go to a church every week where they feel worse leaving than when they went in.
As I said before, I believe with all my heart that there is a place for you and your family. It may not be easy to find, but it’s worth it.
If all else fails, or if you live in a remote area, consider thinking outside the box.
- Try attending online church. Front Door Church sponsored by Key Ministry is a great resource.
- Or get involved in some online communities where you can form new friendships.
- Even better, find some like-minded friends and invite them over for a meal and some good conversations.
- Perhaps try starting your own home church, with just your family and some friends. It doesn’t have to be formal. It can be reading scripture together, praying for each other, and maybe sharing a meal.
There are options out there, and I firmly believe that God will show you which one to choose.
Also, don’t forget to check out my Special Needs Resources page for more ideas!