All children can have additional needs at some time in their lives. These needs might arise as a result of family circumstances, changes to living situations, cultural differences, health and medical concerns, disability, loss or bereavement. Challenges such as these can have an impact on children’s care, learning, physical development, communication, social and emotional development and behaviour, meaning they need additional help and support.
Special educational needs and/or disability (SEND) is the term given when a child has a learning difficulty or disability that makes it significantly more difficult to learn compared to the majority of children of the same age. Many learning difficulties such as dyslexia or dyspraxia fall into this category as do all neuro-developmental disorders such as Autism, ADHD and Tourette Syndrome. These circumstances and needs can prove to be a significant challenge for children and their families but are never outside of God’s ability to care, and he longs to help equip us to be part of how he provides that care.
Sometimes we can think of additional needs, SEND or disability, as unusual or a disorder in an otherwise ordered world. However, they are both normal and expected outcomes of living in a disordered and broken world. How then do we view SEND and disability in our church? Here are a few thoughts that might help us understand God’s purpose in ministering to children with needs.
God is at work
All of us are made in the image of God and have the opportunity to reflect much of his character. However, all of us are embodied, and our bodies are more or less broken, this side of resurrection in Christ. Wonderfully, all that is broken comes under God’s sovereign care and, through Christ, will be ultimately restored and redeemed. There is much hope! In the midst of present brokenness, we also see God’s grace and glory richly and beautifully displayed in our earthly lives.
John chapter 9:1-3 gives us some understanding of this.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
These verses help us see that disability, is a place where we can see God’s work, and his glory displayed. This is not always in the form of healing now, as is the case in John 9. Often disability can present real and ongoing challenges, but God’s grace still flows. It may be tempting for us to focus on all that is difficult, rather than looking for the places where God is clearly at work and displaying his glory. Do we intentionally look for where God is at work in a child and help them to see this too? The Lord may not remove someone’s blindness or disability in this life, but it might be that he is going to remove our blindness and enable us to see more clearly his work in and through the life of another person.
Diversity across the spectrum is important for unity within the church
We have one Saviour, yet each of our journeys of Christian faith and our resultant relationship with God will look different. Ephesians 3:18 indicates that receiving God’s power together as a varied and different people enables us to better understand the infinite, varied and interconnecting love of God as we witness him at work in others. This encourages us to ask ‘what can I learn from another person and their relationship with God, and how can I relate and grow together with them?’ What can a child with special needs bring to church life, that we need in order to flourish together? Every child as God’s image bearer has particular value and worth and something to teach us. It is no coincidence that God sometimes chooses to reveal his truth through children, and Jesus uses them as a model of how to enter the kingdom. Do we wonder what it is that they are teaching us?
Difference and diversity are also emphasised in the ‘body of Christ’ passages as necessary ways to grow as a healthy, unified, functioning body (Eph 4, 1 Cor 12:12-30, Rom 12:3-8). Christ’s one body has many different parts. People have different gifts (and needs), different abilities (and inabilities), different interests (and perspectives), different backgrounds (and horizons), yet we are to be increasingly unified in our growing diversity and interdependence. 1 Corinthians 12:15-20, teaches us that God made every part essential. Everyone is made by him to contribute uniquely to the body but, according to Paul, not everyone’s place in the body is set by the things they can do. There are some with SEND or disabilities who participate in different ways. If we say that everyone in the church has to do something, we are left wondering whether some are really in the church.
The ones with special honour
Instead, what we see is that God has made some parts of the body with special needs for special care (1 Cor 12:21-26). Even more, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). In God’s ordering of things, it turns out that the parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable. To our shame, we tend to treat such parts with less honour, but we are encouraged here to treat them with special honour. In this way we demonstrate what Christ-like love looks like, both to ourselves and before God, and to a watching world. We reflect the beauty of his character as we care for and learn from those he has singled out as having more needs.
An identity shaped by Christ
Additional needs, SEND or other diagnoses are just a few pieces of a child’s rich kaleidoscope of growth and being: they can help us to understand some of their behaviour, but these are not defining pieces. No matter how much a child might push to allow a diagnosis or SEND to define how they view themselves, others and the world – or how much we might be tempted to view them in this way – we ultimately know that their identity is shaped by their relationship with God, their creator, and is shaped in relation to us within the church. God created them, gave them particular strengths, weaknesses, and knows them intimately: he calls them by name, knows their heart, thoughts, their ways and their experiences. It is in relationship with God – and together with all the saints, and among the love of those saints – that their lives will ultimately have meaning and purpose. Ministry to children with additional needs is an area where we are called to show this kind of love, and we are both blessed and are a blessing as we do so.