After turning a couple pages to pass a few ads and the table of contents, I came across this issue’s Youth Ministry Minute in Group Magazine. This is a brief section where Rick Lawrence, editor of Group Magazine, dedicates a page to special topics in youth ministry. Working with students who have different abilities and having special needs myself, I was ecstatic to see a mention given to addressing the needs of this minority group of students. “And we discovered a sleeping giant in youth ministry-addressing the needs of special-needs kids is a much, much bigger issue than the public conversation in youth ministry would indicate.” (Lawrence, 2014 pg.8)
It’s been a long overdue conversation. In the 1950′s many mental health institutions were closed down in favor of more humane approaches. The buildings erected were originally in response to not really having any idea on how to help these people. Many horrid things had been tried from hydrotherapy where people would stand against a wall and sprayed with freezing water hoping it would stimulate them to electrical shock therapy and lobotomies. The failure of these attempts led to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach. Persons with special needs were considered a menace to society, a challenge we didn’t want to put forth the effort into and therefore in a sense we ended up telling an entire group of people ‘you just aren’t worth it’. The same thing happens today when youth are confined to padded rooms in alternative schools (yes, it is still happening) instead of someone taking the time to teach them new social skills.
Youth with developmental and physical disabilities deserve so much more than a ‘minute’ or a page in a magazine. Indeed, a conversation needs to begin. With 1 and 88 children being diagnosed with Autism and an increase of confirmed cases by 10 to 17 percent each year not due to better diagnosing practices, (autismspeaks.org, n.d) it is very likely that youth pastors will encounter a teenager on the ASD Spectrum. Sadly, many of us who have had little to no experience with these types of conditions will have no idea what to do. My undergraduate studies were in Youth Ministry and not once did the topic of ministering to youth with special needs surface.
Collaborative efforts among youth workers have taken place for many topics. Even this weekend some 2,000 youth workers will gather at Group’s Simply Youth Ministry Conference to discuss a wide variety of issues. The church has seen many things come up against Biblical lifestyle principals in our culture and has needed answers. At the forefront have been concerns over our societies changing definitions of sexuality and gender.
We are seeing an increase in youth who are confused and struggling as they are presented with a larger array of culturally acceptable options for who or what they are attracted to and therefore have an even more challenging time navigating through this period of life and the formation of a sexual identity. No longer are relationships simply heterosexual with clear definable boundaries. It is now acceptable for them to be homosexual or bisexual. In addition to sexual orientation, gender orientation is also becoming less definable. Instead of being male or female based on reproductive organs and genetic make-up, we are seeing the addition of how one feels about themselves as an acceptable way to define gender. Having a conversation with a young man who feels like he is actually a female and therefore wants to define himself as such is a real possibility.
It would have been so convenient to just ignore this topic. Many youth workers are afraid of even delving into this topic because of the potential dangers involved such as being accused of sexual harassment but we haven’t been silent on this issue. We have articles, blogs, and an array of curriculum covering these topics. Yet, when it comes to ministering youth with special needs we have been quiet. Too quiet.
Dare we break the silence and awake the sleeping giant? Without a conversation we don’t have a solution and without a solution we do the same thing institutions did, we pretend these youth doesn’t exist and simultaneously tell an entire sub-group in a generation that they don’t matter. Ministry to persons with special needs is worth it. Jesus thought so too. To the blind who couldn’t see, the lame who couldn’t walk and the mute who couldn’t speak, Jesus was love, compassion and hope. We can be the same for those students with special needs in our ministries but first we have to talk about how. Government and private mental health agencies have done extensive research into successfully helping people with disabilities live meaningful lives. Could you imagine if the church joined that same conversation, taking what has been discovered and infusing it with Jesus?
Autism Speaks (n.d.). What Is Autism? Retrieved March 6, 2014, from http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
Lawrence R., (2014, March/April). Special Needs. Group Magazine, vol. 40