Despite our best efforts to welcome all into our churches, for many families impacted by disabilities, church is an uncomfortable place. In fact, some avoid it altogether. But, at St. Andrew’s in Little Rock, young people with special needs have a place where they belong in a community created just for them.
Church member Kay Michael knows the struggle and the blessing. Her daughter Sarah was diagnosed with autism at age 8, and since then she’s seen God at work in new and wondrous ways. “God provided so much all along the way,” she recalls, expressing her gratitude for the community of friends He has given their family.
However, as her daughter grew older, Kay noticed a gap. “One thing that was always missing was a spiritual community. There was nothing geared toward her.”
When Sarah was 19, Kay and her family began going to St Andrew’s Church in Little Rock, where they met other young people who also lived with special needs. Kay began to consider what benefits her daughter and others like her could enjoy from a group just for them, one that included a version of the sermon presented in a way they could understand.
In a 2014 church newsletter, Kay shared her vision for a new ministry:
What if we become a congregation that doesn’t just provide a “venue,” but welcomes those with disabilities of all ages and their families and invites them to serve and worship alongside us? What if we are a church that celebrates God’s people with disabilities for their uniqueness and as the individuals that God has created them to be, and invite them to live in community with us at St. Andrew’s?”
Since then, she’s seen these “what ifs” become reality. Each Sunday, a small group of students and young adults leaves the service during the sermon to participate in Extraordinary Lives, a time of teaching and community building. Known as “XL” for short, the name of this ministry is a reference both to the young people who participate and to loving God in a big way.
A rotation of volunteers prepares and teaches each week’s lesson based on the Scripture for the week’s sermon, giving members of Extraordinary Lives the opportunity to learn from God’s Word and develop a relationship with the Lord. These young people also find a place where they fit, not only in XL, but in the church as a whole. “The body has been really great at accepting them,” shares Kay. “They know St. Andrew’s is their church.”
Opportunities to serve play a role in creating this sense of belonging. Members are involved in worship, for example taking part in Advent services. One member, who is nonverbal, likes to greet others, and those in the church have come to know him and his unique way of welcoming them. Looking ahead, Kay would love to see members become more involved, whether serving within the church or reaching out to the community, so they can further bond as a group and become a stronger part of the body.
Some families have begun attending St. Andrew’s because the church offers a place for young adults living with disabilities. And Extraordinary Lives provides a way to reach out to entire families, even if those families aren’t part of the church. Recently, when an XL member’s mother passed away, people of the church surrounded and supported him, “just as they would anyone else,” shares Kay. At his father’s request, the funeral service was held at St. Andrew’s—the church where this young man found a place to belong—even though the father doesn’t attend the church.
The outreach to special needs adults has begun to broaden. In addition to Extraordinary Lives, St. Andrew’s has partnered with Young Life Capernaum in Little Rock, hosting this ministry for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities every other week. This relationship has served as a springboard for even more families to learn about the church.
Kay has been blessed by those in her congregation who’ve made an effort to reach out to members of Extraordinary Lives, even if they are fearful or don’t know anything about ministry among those with special needs. She is also grateful for the opportunity to watch Sarah grow spiritually and thrive in community. “She looks forward to coming to church. She knows it’s her church.” Kay shares that because of XL, Sarah has a relationship with the Lord and was baptized in front of friends and families who love her. “That was such a special time for us,” Kay recalls.
Those who volunteer at XL are blessed as well. “Several would rather be with XL than somewhere else,” acknowledges Kay. She mentions one friend who’s been encouraged by the honestly of Extraordinary Lives members. “They don’t have a filter. … It’s refreshing.”
When asked what she would want others who are considering starting similar ministries to know, Kay emphasizes the importance of starting with the needs of those in the church. “It’s easy to create and then have people come,” she says. But to build a ministry that blesses families impacted by disability, it’s crucial to begin by looking at their needs. “Listening to families is key.”