A place at the Table: Youth Ministry and Disabilities

Youth Specialties
July 29th, 2016

Mike’s post below is a great reminder of all we can learn from each other when we gather together. Join us at the National Youth Workers Convention this fall in Cincinnati, OH to connect with and learn from the full family of youth workers.


Special needs.


At risk.

However it has been phrased, the last week has brought a daily interaction from students seeking to work with this population. In the last months, I have run into several pastors and leaders seeking to launch or enhance ministries with people in these populations. The growing awareness is fantastic. However, the reality is that 15% to 20% of Americans have a diagnosable disability. One fifth of the church. Catastrophically, research indicates that those with exceptionalities and their families rarely attend church. The church has not yet found a place for them at the table.

God has regularly brought me into contact with Asperger’s and other social disabilities in my youth ministry. One time I had three middle school boys with Asperger’s Disorder in a room of 20 teens. My first thought was “how is this statistically possible?” We went from surprise, to surviving the night and finally to thinking how we can help them grow. It changed the way we worked and the priorities we had in the program. Everything from our meeting room, song selection and activities had to be reworked.  I dug up some research and identified some common misconceptions we had and ideas to use.

Any church can minister to and with kids and teens with disabilities.

The fact is that most churches of any size do not have a specialized ministry to this population. This includes the big churches. It is not the size of the church that makes the difference, but often the vision of the leaders, the presence of a disabled child or teen, or someone trained in special education. Many small churches have successfully integrated special needs students into the life of the church.

We assume we don’t have anyone that needs special assistance or has a disability.

One my best friends is a high level interpreter for the deaf. She told me that most organizations don’t offer interpretation because they assume there is no need. People who need to hear life giving teaching and have community with the church will show up where they can be understood and understand. It is the same principle with teens and pizza, they need food and they tend to show up when we offer it to them.

Contemporary models of programming may make integration difficult.

It came from this great Blog.

The following chart is a very helpful consideration of how the style of programming may actually make spiritual growth or integration into church life MORE difficult.

If we don’t have the participation of disabled or at risk populations, we should ask ourselves, “why not?”

It may be that you don’t need a service in German in your location. This is probably true because no one speaks that language in your community. I doubt you can say the same for students with disabilities and at risk populations. Statistics are readily available for your community and location. Every school district has classrooms and often entire schools dedicated to students with social disabilities. The good news is that many churches are access friendly because of the elderly saints that attend. Could we take this same initiative and go over our programs, our facilities, our policies, and our training to make sure that we are not automatically excluding entire populations from inclusion?

One local congregation does not have to reach every group.

The church is bigger than your building. But each church, as a portion of the body of God, must fulfill its function. Identify the needs within your congregation and the passions in this area among your workers. Empower. Give physical space and a budget line item. Send people to a conference to ignite and form a core team. Put books and resources in the library and recommend them. Then focus and impact one area for the kingdom.

The reality is that the church cannot be the church without adolescents and families affected by disability. Jesus tells the parable of the banquet in Luke 14. The master implores his servants to bring in the crippled, the deaf, and the poor. He has prepared the banquet, so we know there is a place at the table.

MIKE SEVERE is the Associate Professor and Program Director of Christian Educational Ministries at Taylor University. Mike is also one of our YSASN professors, leading youth ministry majors and other college students through the NYWC experience. If you’re a professor, check out all the YSASN benefits at NYWC.COM/YSASN.

Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.