10 Things You Should Know About Discipling People With Special Needs

Adults and children with special needs are an essential part of the church. Here are things to keep in mind when discipling a special needs person.

1. God Has Called Us to Make Disciples of All People No Matter Their Intellectual Capabilities.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” —Matthew 28:19

It’s imperative that people with special needs don’t fall through the cracks. As a mom to a daughter with developmental disabilities, I have experienced first-hand the challenge of teaching her about spiritual things and the lack of opportunities and resources available to help me do that.

2. The Gospel Is One-Size-Fits-All, But How to Teach the Gospel Is Not.

As with any group of people, those with special needs aren’t all the same. There is a huge spectrum of abilities. In any discipleship scenario, it’s the teacher’s job to pray for wisdom and revelation (Eph. 1:17), and then seek out teaching methods and resources that fit.

3. Even Someone Who Struggles With Language and Learning Can Know God.

Understanding dispensationalism or eschatology is not necessary to be a Christian; the only requirement is knowing who God is and how he’s made a way for salvation through Jesus. The gospel is simple enough for a child to understand when someone takes the time to explain it to them. Use familiar vocabulary, avoid confusing figures of speech and always review, repeat and use real-life examples.

4. It’s Easy to Inadvertently Put a Cultural Lens on the Bible.

Not only can vocabulary and figures of speech complicate the message of the gospel, so can one’s country of origin. My daughter was born in China and adopted into my family at the age of six. American history, traditions, and holidays are foreign to her, so using culture-centric examples or references only adds to her confusion. When teaching the Bible, it’s not only possible but preferable to stick to what’s actually in the Bible.

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5. Not Everyone Has a Background Knowledge of Church or the Bible.

Many books and resources assume that everyone has attended Sunday school since birth, which, of course, is simply not true. When teaching anyone, with or without special needs, avoiding unnecessary references to church traditions or Bible stories will aid understanding.

6. God Uses the Weak and the Foolish to Confound the Strong and the Learned (1 Cor. 1:27).

It isn’t unusual for a person with special needs to have a beautiful, child-like faith. In their mind, if God said it, they believe it, and that’s the end of story. Also, many people with special needs aren’t embarrassed to express their love for God in joyful, exuberant praise. The rest of us would do well to imitate their ways.

7. Discipling Others Prompts Growth in Your Own Understanding of God.

Although I’ve known and believed the gospel my whole life, as I disciple my daughter I’m astonished anew with the wonder of it: Holy God wants to have a good relationship with me and he’s made a way for that to happen through Jesus.

8. There’s a Huge Need for Adaptive Theology Teaching for People With Special Needs.

Jesus died on the cross to bring salvation to anyone who believes, including people with physical and developmental disabilities. Yet people with special needs are believed to be the largest unreached people group in the world. While many churches are accessible to people with physical disabilities, they often don’t have Bible teaching that is accessible to those with intellectual disabilities. God made us all unique, and we all have unique ways of learning. But the number one criteria for learning is being taught.

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9. In Church, Including Children and Adults With Special Needs Should Not Be Solely a Ministry Opportunity.

People with special needs have much to share and should have opportunities to serve in the church.

“… God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. As it is, there are many parts, but one body.…those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” —1 Corinthians 12:18, 22

10. Whom God Calls, He Equips, But It Requires Time and Effort.

All Christians must take seriously the call to discipleship. We’ve got to study and understand theology for ourselves before we can rightly handle the word of truth for others. We live in an age of unprecedented resources for discipleship; there’s no excuse. God will bless the time and energy invested in both preparing and proclaiming the gospel. May we not disdain this as a duty but prize it as a privilege.

Content adapted from Special God by Julie Melilli. The article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.