LifeWay conference highlights special needs ministry

Special needs ministry a growing emphasis in churches

Ridgecrest, N.C. 7/24/2009 03:14 AM GMT (TransWorldNews)

"Go, Bobby! Go!"


A broad grin spread across Bobby Shifflett’s face below the blindfold covering his eyes. His classmates laughed and cheered as 44-year-old Shifflett, who has Down syndrome, tried to spoon cotton balls into a bowl without being able to see what he was doing.


The unreserved enthusiasm continued as class members answered Bible lesson questions during Special Friends Vacation Bible School, part of the special needs ministry track offered at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center during LifeWay’s The Power of the Connected Sunday School Conference (aka Sunday School Week) July 10-13.


"Have any of you ever shared Jesus with anyone?" asked teacher Jo Ann Banks.


"Yes!" replied adult learners who had disabilities ranging from intellectual disabilities to autism to genetic disorders.


"He died on the cross for our sins – so we could have eternal life," said Rob Powell in his strong, outgoing, matter-of-fact voice. Powell, 39, has Williams syndrome.


Across the hall, parents, advocates, church members and Sunday school teachers learned key elements of establishing and improving special needs ministries. The information included tips regarding ideal space needs, teaching tools and outreach methods.


For some, the lively VBS was their first opportunity to get hands-on experience in a class full of special needs students.


Dianne Reynolds of Gainesville, Fla., was drawn to the LifeWay conference as the leader of a task force to form a special needs ministry at Northwest Baptist Church in Gainesville.


Reynolds’ son Jason, 13, has multiple diagnoses, including Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a degenerative nerve disease. "Jason was born into the church, and he’s always been served by our church," Reynolds said. "God is calling us to a ministry to reach out to this community."


Ronda Bradley of Belmont, N.C., whose daughter has special needs, said she attended the conference to learn more about how churches can reach, "the most unreached population in our country."


"Nobody thinks they get it," she said.


"Oh, they get it," said Banks, who started a Special Blessings adult Sunday school class nine years ago at Woodland Hills Baptist Church, Asheville, N.C.


"We apply it to their everyday lives – and we make it fun," Banks said.


Throughout more than 25 years in special education, 10 years leading a troop of Girl Scouts with special needs, building her A.D.A.M. (Adult Disability Activities Ministry), and raising her daughter Kelley, 30, who has special needs, Banks has learned that individuals with developmental delays are capable of more than coloring or being read to during Sunday school. She said purpose emerges as churches learn from them.


"They can have that childlike acceptance we’re all supposed to have," observed Ellen Beene, a special needs resources editor at LifeWay. "If you want someone to pray for you without ceasing, tell the special needs class. They also laugh and have fun with a joy that a lot of our adult classes have forgotten.


"They are totally uninhibited when they worship," Beene said. "It doesn’t matter if someone is off key. No one’s judging them. Their’s is the most sincere worship I’ve experienced."


As conference instructor Susan Foster, writer for LifeWay’s Special Buddies curriculum, put it: "We’re continuing the ministry that Jesus started," explaining that Jesus spent a lot of time among people overlooked by mainstream society.


Volunteer Scott Hurdt, 22, often helps Banks with special needs retreats. He is an elementary education major, with minors in special education and theater, at Western Carolina University (Cullowhee, N.C.). Through volunteering, Hurdt learned how much he enjoys working with people with autism. "If you do it once, you’re hooked," he said.


Jon Ponder agreed. He volunteers, along with his wife, Darlene, in Banks’ Asheville class.


"What cool people," Ponder said. "We had a girl in our class in a wheelchair, and she would pray for Jesus to make her be able to walk, but then she would say it’s OK if that wasn’t until she was in heaven.


"You just can’t hear that enough," he said.


During a break after an outdoor game with a parachute and some balls, group home resident, Ralph Moore, 53, who has developmental delays, turned to Banks and thanked her, carefully reaching for the right words.


"You are just a fabulous, sincere person," Moore said to Banks. "You’ve got a much more good way of teaching – that I can understand."


For more information about special needs ministry resources and events, visit


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