Let’s do all we can to be the difference for every child and young person who chooses to journey with us.
You can tell a lot about a place by the way that they greet someone, and that is especially true about how they greet a child or young person with additional needs.
As the writer Cynthia Ozick says, “Two things remain irretrievable: time and a first impression.” Or, if you prefer Will Rogers, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
I’ve visited lots of children’s and youth groups over the years, and one thing I’ve always looked for is the response of the leaders when a child or young person with additional needs arrives… their reaction typically falls into one of two, very different, categories:
1. Something between dejection and horror… leaders will see the child arrive and will look at each other, their expression communicating how disappointed they are that the child is there.
They tend not to approach the child or welcome them, leaving them ignored. There may even be audible comments that reinforce this sense of regret that the child is there.
2. Something between encouragement and delight… leaders will see the child arrive and will immediately smile and head towards them to say “Hello!”, to greet and welcome them, referring to them by name, asking how they are, saying how pleased they are to see them.
They will guide the child to somewhere where they can join in with an activity, or to a designated leader that will support them.
And, of course, the child in question usually fully understands which of these responses they are receiving as they arrive, and it goes some way to determining how they will respond to the leaders for the rest of the session.
We all want to feel welcomed, to be accepted, to believe that we ‘belong’, and the attitudes of other people, particularly leaders, goes a long way towards whether that is achieved or not.
There will often be reasons why leaders fall into one of the two categories outlined above, here are a few suggestions:
1. The negative response often comes from a lack of understanding of, or fear of, additional needs, scant or no training, not enough team members to cope, and an inflexibility to change.
Fixing this is the responsibility of church leaders and the church community as a whole. If the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society are unwelcomed, then there are deeper issues for a church to grapple with.
Frazzled children’s or youth workers might be the ones who come out of this looking bad, but often they have been thrown under a bus by church leaders who won’t invest in children’s and youth work adequately.
2. The positive response often comes from well supported and equipped teams, who have been appropriately trained and have enough team to provide the level of support needed by a child with additional needs.
Behind these teams there is usually a supportive church leader or leadership team, who see the value in children’s and youth work and invest in it appropriately, including financially, with people, and in prayer.
It’s hard to read the Gospel’s and not see that this is what Jesus had in mind.
In this short video clip, Philippa, who was born blind, shares some of her experiences in church, both the positives from the church she grew up in, and the negatives from when she and her family have visited other churches.
She shares that the one thing everyone can do is to say “Hello!” (and to mean it positively!)
As Philippa says, “It’s just those tiny, tiny little adaptations and changes, the little efforts that people can make, that make the most difference…”
Which of the two scenarios outlined in this blog post resonates most closely with the reality of your church?
If it is the negative one, don’t leave it like that but choose to bring about positive change so that every child and young person is welcomed and fully included; I can help you with that if you contact me.
If it is the positive scenario that represents your church better, how can you reach out to other struggling churches in your area to help them?
Maybe meeting up for a chat to explore ways to work together to ensure that children and young people with additional needs belong in both settings? Or signpost them to the work I do so that I can help them?
As the two quotes at the beginning remind us, we only get one shot at this, one opportunity to show a child or young person with additional needs how valued, loved and cared for they are.
Let’s not blow our big chance, but let’s do all we can to be the difference for every child and young person who chooses to journey with us.
Let’s have them at “Hello!”
Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.