CDG11 Breakout: Disability, Autism, and the Tender Mercy of God

UncategorizedJared Kennedy4 Comments

Saturday was World Autism Awareness Day. 1 in 110 children (1 in 70 boys) are affected. I know this has a number of folks in children's ministry thinking about special needs ministry. One champion in this area is Brenda Fischer, the Disability Ministry Director for Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.  The following are notes from a breakout session that she led at CDG11 entitled, "Disability, Autism, and the Tender Mercy of God." I enjoyed attending the session, and I've included my notes below as well as links to some resources that she sent me after the fact:

God in His tender mercy brings heart challenges to our ministries. Disability has a way of stirring things up, in the heart and in the classroom.  Brenda outlined three major heart challenges that take place when God brings a child with a disability into your class.

1. Ministering to the Child with a Disability.

  • Ask God to put His hand on your ministry and help you to bless this child.
  • Remember to ask God for wisdom.
  • Ask the parents for advice on caring for their child.  They may provide lots of advice.  They may say, "I don't know."  You may even want to ask the parents to model for children's ministry volunteers how to work with their child.  Here is a copy of their intake form that provides great questions to ask.
  • NEVER try to guess or assume a diagnosis.
  • Learn what you can about the child's disability.  You don't have to learn everything, but you can learn something.
  • Be willing to try out proven tools like picture schedules or headphones to help with sensory difficulties.  Try pencil spinners or "pokey" stress balls to help with focussing attention.  Bethlehem uses the Boardmaker software program to make picture schedules as well as visuals to help with Scripture memory.
  • Children with special needs at Bethlehem are all included in regular children's ministry classrooms, but parents decide which age group class their child will attend.  Bethlehem has found that it is often helpful to recruit a helper to work with a child one on one.
  • Like all people, those with disabilities are sinners and in need of a Savior.  Children's workers should use discernment about behaviors that are the result of a disability and those that simply flow from a sinful heart.  Many times, this is not clear cut. Sometimes kids need to be led to adapt.  Other times, they need to be led to repent through prayer or asking another child for forgiveness.
  • Here is the copy of the Bethlehem handbook for their disability ministry team.

2. Ministering to the Family of the Child

  • Disability is both a part of the curse and within God's control and plan (Exodus 4:11). Parents of disabled children are blessed when the body of Christ reaches out and loves and accepts them and their child.
  • Take time to ask parents about their life and how you can pray for them.
  • Don't give advice to families about caring for their child.  NEVER say, "Have you tried..."  This can sound like a personal attack.  Parents of special needs children today go to workshops and doctors.  They read blogs, and most have tried just about everything.
  • Families living with a disability often struggle a great deal with intense day to day challenges.  People who are hurting have a tendency to draw inward.  True ministry draws the hurting outward and toward Christ.
  • Disability can become all-consuming in a family.  Helping people see life from an eternal perspective is a critical role of the church.
  • Seek to get to know families and pray for them.  Also meet some practical needs so that they are able to be a part of the body of Christ.
  • It is important of parents of a child with disabilities to be able to go to church gatherings and be filled so that they can return home refreshed.

3. God's Work in the Hearts of the Team and the Typical Children in the Classroom

  • This child is with you for a God-ordained purpose. God allows tough situations in life and ministry, because of his mercy toward us.
  • God wants you to find out what pleases him and do it.
  • God works in the hearts and attitudes of volunteers through disability.
  • Some are not called to work directly with a child with disabilities.
  • God works in the hearts of typical children as they see others model love for people with disabilities

Our role in ministry is to help people grow a tender, unshakable love for Christ.  God gives us tough situations that seem hard, but in fact, they are merciful.

Other Resources recommended by Brenda:

Books about God, Suffering, and Disability

A Lifetime of Wisdom--Embracing the Way God Heals You by Joni Eareckson Tada

Wrestling with an Angel--A Story of Love, Disability and the Lessons of Grace by Greg Lucas

Disability Ministry Resources

Exceptional Teaching--A Comprehensive Guide for Including Students with Disabilities by Jim Pierson

Same Lake, Different Boat--Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability by Stephanie O. Hubach

Resources Specifically About Autism

Autism and Your Church--Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Barbara J. Newman

Finding Your Child's Way on the Autism Spectrum--Discovering Unique Strengths, Measuring Behavior Challenges by Dr. Laura Hendrickson

Too Wise to Be Mistaken, Too Good to Be Unkind by Cathy Steere

The Unexpected Gift by Michelle Schreder

For more information about special needs ministry, check out The Inclusive Church.



Parenting and Christian Freedom Revisited

UncategorizedJared Kennedy1 Comment

Focusing on disputable matters can distract us from the weightier matters in gospel ministry.

Last year, this blog posted an article entitled "Immunizations and Christian Freedom" as part of a Parenting and Christian Freedom series. Over the past year, I’ve come to see how our focus on the controversial issue distracted the conversation from weightier matters. That article has been removed from the site, and this one appears in its place. What follows here unpacks Paul’s teaching on Christian Freedom from Romans 14.  The “vaccinations” controversy is mentioned, but it is only mentioned incidentally.  With this issue like with all matters of parenting freedom, the call to love is the main thing.

The apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans as a missionary support letter.  In the letter, he unpacks the Gospel (Rom 1-11) as an encouragement for this church to pursue self-sacrifice (Romans 12), perseverance (Rom 13), unity (Rom 14), and partnership with him in his mission to Spain (Rom 15).  Paul’s emphasis on unity in controversial matters (14:1-15:13) is particularly instructive when we see it in light of the context of the whole book.  A lack of unity within the church over “eating meat” and “celebrating days” had become a roadblock to mission.  We should not allow our own disputable matters to do the same.  When we engage in conversations about disputable trends in parenting as a church, it is important for us not to let our strong opinions distract us from love and gospel ministry.

Vaccinations are controversial.  And because they are controversial, there are members of our church that have strong opinions about them—for and against.  I won’t rehearse the reasons here.  Some will vaccinate their children and some will not. Now, the analogy with the Roman church breaks down a bit here. Jesus declared all food to be clean (Mark 7:19).  He hasn’t done that for vaccinations.  But Paul’s principles for loving one another still apply. Paul focused less on the disputable matters in these chapters (15:1-3).  Rather, he focused on the way that the Romans Christians should love one another.   This is where I allowed our earlier conversations to go astray, and it is why this revision of the earlier post is necessary.  Controversial matters should not be avoided altogether, but advocating a position as a church where the Bible is silent and believers differ is unwise. I’m certain that having done so diluted our gospel influence.

Don’t weaken your gospel influence.  If you’ve done your homework about this issue and you have come to a decision as a family, you know how tempting it is to pass judgment, “I am doing this in a right way” and because you aren’t doing the same thing I am doing, you are wrong.” But Paul says clearly, “Accept… and do not judge” (Romans 14:1-13).

Here is what “not judging” means in this passage. God accepts parents who vaccinate and those who don’t as Christians.  And he calls both his friends (John 15:15).  Why are we afraid to do the same?  Choosing to vaccinate or to not vaccinate doesn’t make a parent a more or less mature Christian.  A better test of our maturity is whether or not we choose to “bear with one another” in love.  The one who is mature in love will not be found accusing his sisters and brothers of fear and arrogance about a matter that—in light of eternity—carries very little weight. Who are we to stand in judgment over another of God’s servants?  They answer to him—not to us (Romans 14:4).

Of course I have strong opinions, but (to paraphrase Amy Fenton Lee) my opinion on this matter is irrelevant to my calling as a Christian. I care more about families coming to Christ than I do about whether or not they vaccinate.


Christian Freedom & Parenting Series:

Jumping to Conclusions

UncategorizedJared Kennedy1 Comment

Our intuition is a marvelous thing.  It often tells us that there is something out of the ordinary--which warns us that there may be danger or peaks our compassion for someone who just doesn't seem to be right.  But intuition can be dangerous.  That sense that we get--when combined with a lack of experience or a quickness to judge--can lead us to jump to conclusions.   And false assumptions lead to actions that can hurt rather than help, that harm rather than protect.  Here is a great article by Amy Fenton Lee about misconceptions that volunteers in children's ministry can have about children who are having difficulty adjusting to a new environment.  The article compares the behaviors typical of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder to the responses typical of children from a bad parenting environment.  It illustrates why jumping to conclusions is so dangerous.  I hope to utilize this article in our children's ministry training in the future--to help orient our natural intuition away from judging and toward helping/caring for new families.  When a behavior dilemma occurs in our children's ministry, conversations between our team and parents are warranted and wise, but, as Lee states, "the dialogue can start much differently (and with a greater chance of generating a positive outcome) when the church considers the possibility that an undisclosed or undiscovered disability may be driving problematic behavior."