How a church engages with special needs families
“We’ve been a part of Easter egg hunts where thousands of kids would show up and special needs kids would be on the sidelines because it wouldn’t work for them,” said Pastor Paul.
The Vulnerable—a CityServe Compassion Initiative, is about inspiring, resourcing, and mobilizing the local church to engage with the vulnerable in their communities. This includes special needs families.
Over 13,800,000 children in the U.S. have special needs, which is almost 20% of the children population in the United States. (National Survey of Children’s Health) Special needs families face many challenges, oftentimes alone. With a substantial population of special needs children watching from the sidelines, The Neighborhood Church unearthed a calling. Their story demonstrates a posture of servanthood for engagement, shares how the church is a place of refuge, and testifies of creative ways to help special needs children recapture their joy and play.
Posture of Servanthood
In a little pocket of the countryside stands The Neighborhood Church. It opened its doors ninety years ago, on Stafford Road, a 30-acre campus located approximately ten minutes south of Portland, Oregon. “We just thought, what can we do to connect with the world around us and build goodwill for the church in our community?” said Pastor Paul Owen, Lead Pastor of The Neighborhood Church.
Five years ago, Pastor Paul heard of a church in Washington that hosted a Christmas party for special needs families. He reached out to them, was inspired, and felt the desire to host an Easter egg hunt event for special needs families on Easter.
He nervously brought his church team of six together to share his desire to host this event and said, “I don’t know how you guys will respond, but I just want to put this out there.”
It turned out that God was already working on the hearts of his team before this idea was presented. The whole group came back and unanimously shared that they had a calling for special needs families. “I felt like I was going to take a risk with my team, [but] the Spirit was already leading my team ahead of us,” said Pastor Paul.
Refuge for the Vulnerable
Psalm 9:9 reminds us that “The LORD is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.” This translates to God’s Church; we’ve been called to be like Jesus. The church body is a refuge.
God’s promise encompasses special needs children and their families. How can His Church be a sanctuary for these families and rise to the occasion, regardless of church size or resources?
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” Zechariah 4:10
Neighborhood Church started with what they had in ideas and resources and witnessed how God orchestrated the rest.
Recapturing Joy and Play
The Neighborhood Church decided to assess the needs of every registrant and customized an egg hunt for each child. “When you’re serving families of kids with different needs, they have all kinds of skill levels, allergies, mobility…we created a long-form so we had a clear picture of what type of event that child needed,” shared Pastor Paul.
The event was about three hours long. “We had just shy of 50 families with special needs,” said Pastor Paul. “If they had mobility issues, were in a wheelchair, or used a walker, we arranged each one [egg hunt] differently. We had crafts, snacks, and activities that were learning and skill level appropriate.”
Their first event turned out to be a success. To this day, The Neighborhood Church has continued to host events for special needs families and minister to them, while building trust along the way. “Each year we’ve done somewhere between three and five events. All the events have a similarity to them—their seasonal flair is just a little bit different,” said Pastor Paul.
“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities.” Matthew 25:23
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, God began to work in Pastor Paul’s heart. “Lord, we know this world is going to change; it’s going to be different. We want to do ministry with special needs kids,” Pastor Paul recalls praying.
“During these events, our church had a playground, but it was not accessible,” said Pastor Paul. “Then we thought, why wouldn’t we build a playground for children where all skill levels could use it at the same time?”
Pastor Paul and his team began to pray about it. “I thought it was going to cost us $100,000, but the project turned out to be a quarter of a million dollars,” said Pastor Paul. They decided to present their vision at the Love Your Neighbor Sunday event at church.
On that very Sunday, Portland experienced a once-in-a-generation ice storm—everyone in their region was out of power.
When this happened, Pastor Paul was at the church lobby, preparing for the service. “I sat in the lobby with a couple of people from my church. We got a generator up, got WiFi from our phone, and we broadcast,” he said.
“As a pastor, you think there’s no way you’re going to get the money when you present your vision and nobody shows up at church. It’s a year later— we have raised more than $170,000 dollars,” said Pastor Paul.
The Neighborhood Church’s goal is to fundraise the remaining funds needed for the installation of the equipment and safety surface and complete it by May 2022.
“God’s done some great things. We had a long way to go, but the Lord’s met us all the way through it,” says Pastor Paul, in faith.
To learn more about The Neighborhood Church and support their ministry, please visit http://www.theneighborhoodchurch.org.
Special needs families, who are in every community, will come to a church that makes efforts for accommodations and creates ways for them to engage. The most fascinating thing about The Neighborhood Church is the number of families they’ve been able to meet and know because they hosted seasonal events created just for them. They took small steps and God delivered in big ways. When the local church cares for special needs families, they can ditch the sidelines and engage with the church in ways that bring them closer to Jesus.