By Aaron Wilson
Steven Watson believes there’s a very practical reason many people don’t go to church—one that has nothing to do with their beliefs.
“If we pulled back the doors in our communities, I think we’d be shocked at how many people aren’t going to church because there’s no place for their special needs loved ones to go,” he says.
Attending church services can be difficult for individuals with special needs and their caregivers. In 2017, the U.S. Census reported that 14.2 million people age 18 and older had difficulty doing errands alone, such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping, due to a physical, mental, or emotional condition.
It’s for this reason that Watson has dedicated the last 28 years of his life to teaching the Joy Class—a discipleship class for adults with special needs—at First Baptist Church in Asheboro, North Carolina. Founded in 1968, the Joy Class celebrated its golden anniversary this past year, making it the longest-standing special needs class in the North Carolina Baptist State Convention.
An elementary physical education teacher, Watson says he’s never had any formal training in special needs care. While he believes such training is valuable, he says churches that are waiting on expert volunteers to appear before starting a special needs ministry are missing out.
“I’ve never had formal training in special needs studies, and yet I’ve done this for 28 years.” he says. “You just get in there and do it. I never walk out of the Joy Class feeling like I gave more than I got.”
Typical Sunday mornings for the Joy Class begin with a van ministry that picks up individuals with special needs from their homes which includes group homes. Other members of the class are dropped off by families who either attend First Baptist or go to other local churches that don’t offer special needs ministries.
“We begin with a time of fellowship, just seeing how everyone is doing and catching up on the week,” Watson says. He notes that in a special needs context, this time usually consists of more than just chitchat and pleasantries.
“If you ask me how I’m doing, I’ll say my life is fine and move on,” Watson says. “But if you ask a person with special needs how they’re doing on a day they’re upset, you better be ready to hear about it. That kind of honesty is what Christianity is all about.”
After fellowship, the class has a snack and moves into Bible study. For more than two decades, the Joy Class has used Lifeway’s Access curriculum for adults with special needs.
“We love the practical stories the curriculum provides our students—stories that are based off modern, real-life situations,” Watson says. “Our class members love learning how to bring the lesson home by drawing examples from their own lives and from the teachers’ lives.”
After a time of prayer, the class attends the church’s 11 a.m. worship service. Joy Class members are then picked up by their caregivers or are driven back to their homes by church volunteers.
Watson hopes other churches will be inspired to start their own ministries to serve people with special needs and their caregivers. To that end, he offers the following tips he’s learned from almost three decades of special needs ministry.
1. Teach to empower.
The Joy Class makes a point of encouraging adults with special needs to be actively involved in serving others in the church and local community. Some of the classes’ activities include preparing back-to-school supplies for local students, packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, and offering goodie bags to college students who attend an annual leadership conference held in town.
The class also provides restaurant gift cards for military families and gives money to the church for van upkeep.
“One of the main things I try to teach the class is that they can be leaders and that they can do for others,” Watson says. “Often times, individuals with special needs are given things and helped.
“We all like to be helped,” he says, “but we’re trying to empower them to do, to lead, and to know how good it feels to help others.”
2. Lean on a special needs curriculum.
Watson emphasizes the value of having a curriculum geared to teach individuals with special needs.
“What I really like about the curriculum we use is that it’s not overly scholarly given the audience it’s written for,” Watson says, “but it’s scholarly enough that I—as a student of the Bible for 45 years—always learn something each time I teach it.”
Lifeway has produced ongoing resources for adults with special needs since 1986 says Dwayne McCrary, team leader for ongoing adult group resources. Access, the curriculum Watson’s class uses, follows a five-year plan through the Bible using a story-telling model.
“We follow the flow of biblical history from Genesis to Revelation so adults with special needs can get a clear picture of how the books of the Bible work together and why it was necessary for God to send Jesus to be our Savior,” McCrary says.
3. Treat individuals with special needs as essential to the church.
Individuals with special needs should be seen as a vital part of the church instead of merely a project of the church. As such, churches can glean from Watson’s practice of providing a class specifically tailored for adults with special needs while still letting them attend regular services.
This allows individuals with special needs to receive custom-tailored discipleship training in a small group setting while also letting them partake in fellowship and corporate worship as members of the larger church body.
“We even have a class member who assists with taking up the offering in the worship service as an usher,” Watson says, “and our class participates each year in missions offerings including the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.”
4. Finally, don’t wait for the perfect time to start.
For Watson, there’s nothing special about Christians reaching out to individuals with special needs. Rather, he sees it as a simple outworking of the Great Commission.
“Our true calling is to go out into all of the world making disciples,” Watson says. “And there’s a special needs community in every community.
“There’s never a perfect time to start a special needs ministry,” he says. “You just have to do it.”
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor for Facts & Trends.