Making a Good First Impression on Special Needs Families

March and April are often when church attendance increases, especially as we approach Passion Week and Easter Sunday worship services. It is the most important time of the Christian year as we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection and its meaning for everyone. This reality naturally brings people together into the shared sacred gathering of worship. As a result, churches will do all they can to be as welcoming and hospitable to people as a witness of Christ.

The concept of extending acts of welcome and love truly goes beyond the holy seasons of the church. Each week, churches express acts of love, grace, and kindness to people from all walks of life in hopes that they may feel welcomed by the congregation. Making a good first impression is critical in helping others feel like a particular church community is good for them.

So, what about special needs families? How can a church make a good first impression on families with various special needs? 

As always, I write as both a pastor of a small church and a father of a special needs child. With that in mind, I want to offer three good tips that will help a congregation make a good impact on special needs families.

First, welcome them with open arms full of grace and love. For a special needs family to come to your church, a congregation must consider how this is a vulnerable act for a special needs family. It likely means stepping out of their comfort zone and potentially uneasy about doing so. Even as a pastor, I get nervous about bringing my autistic son to church. While he loves going to church, the sensory overload that comes with it typically takes him an entire day to recover. It is a challenge to enter a large group setting where you have no control over sound levels, people, and other sensory outputs. A family, as well, might feel nervous about potential reactions to their family from people who do not know them or fully understand what they experience daily. If they are a family that has experience exclusion from the church, they might be more guarded in their interactions and connections with others.

I believe Christ calls the church to extend acts of welcome to all and to treat others with kindness and grace. The church can do this by making a family feel loved and welcomed. You do not need to have every member running to a family to extend words of welcome (sometimes that gets a little overwhelming). All it takes is a few people going to the family and saying, “We are so glad you are with us today. We hope you will feel loved and welcomed here.” The best thing a church can do is to share love and words of grace with a family or individual, regardless of who they are or anything about them.

Second, do not get stressed over the family being there. A church can often stress itself when a special needs family arrives for the first time. They begin to fear what to do, what not to do, and several other reactions. These reactions make it harder to connect with the family and to meet them where they are in their moment of faith and life. It does not help anyone. Even more, a church’s stress over a special needs family’s presence can make them feel like their presence is a burden to the church. That is not a message a church wants to send.

The easiest way to lessen the stress is to talk with the family. Engage the family like you would any other family. Ask questions like what interests them, what intrigued them about coming to a particular church, and how best to connect with their child or adult. Let the family and individual drive the conversation about connection, because each child or adult is unique with their gifts and challenges. Do not presume to know what to do or what not to do. Let the family help you make a good connection. When that happens, the church can listen, learn, and connect with the family and individual.

Finally, do not ignore the family. If the best thing a church can do is to share words of welcome and love, then the worst thing a church can do is to ignore the family. This is a painful reality of exclusion that families, including my family, have experienced from a church. They come with a desire to worship God with the community of believers and then feel less than human by the church when it ignores them or makes them feel as if they are odd or different because of their needs. It is a horrible experience to see people welcome and embrace seemingly neurologically typical children and individuals while ignoring those with divergent needs and challenges. You do not want to come back to that experience.

A church cannot make a good first impression if it is not willing to try to engage a family. As a parent, I would rather see a church bumble and make a mistake in trying to connect with my son than outright ignore him when he is in the congregation. Making an effort is a foundational principle that will enable inclusion and embrace to happen, regardless of the size of a congregation.

These are three simple words of guidance. They will not make your church a fully-inclusive community, but they will help to establish trust for deeper conversations that can help a family feel included within the body of Christ. 


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