Lisa Wilson said special needs families “are one of our most unreached people groups, because so many don’t feel like they have a place to go to church.”
That’s why 20 years ago her husband, Alan, started a special needs ministry at their church, Longview Heights Baptist Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
And that’s why the congregation recently sponsored its 19th special needs Vacation Bible School.
“It’s something we provide for the community because we know it’s something different that not all churches are able to provide,” said Wilson, Longview Heights’ special needs ministry director. “It’s one of the most enjoyable things that we do as outreach and in-reach throughout the year.”
The VBS is for children through adults and is held in the evenings to accommodate anyone who might go to a day program or extended school year program. Before COVID-19 the VBS drew right at 100 students with about 125 volunteers helping out. This year there were 50 students, as some families and group homes still aren’t comfortable returning to in-person gatherings because of medical vulnerability.
Wilson said they’ve tried different types of curriculum and formats over the years, and for now have landed on using the same curriculum their children’s ministry uses for VBS. They also use rotation-based programming.
“It works beautifully; they love it,” she said. “They come in and start out with the worship rally. They sit with their crew, and then we rotate through the stations.”
VBS volunteers help with accommodations for those who might be overstimulated by the noise in worship.
“We have buddies for them, and we have a quiet room if they need to step away,” Wilson explained.
Longview Heights also provides a parent café where they can hang out if they want to be nearby, or visit with other special needs parents.
All of this is part of a larger effort to let the community know there is a place at their church. The congregation also is involved in the Special Olympics and has a special needs ball field called Field of Dreams, and they do things throughout the year to encourage special needs teachers in local schools. On Sundays there are several classes for special needs adults, as well as a sensory needs class.
“We’re constantly reaching out, loving on people,” Wilson said. “We want to just be available and open; it lets the community know that we love them and we’re there.”
James Walker, discipleship pastor at Longview Heights, said the ministry is a haven for children and adults with special needs, as well as their parents who may not get a break from serving as caregiver any other time.
It’s been something the whole church has been able to get involved in, Walker said.
“It’s not a ministry that’s hidden away somewhere. Several of our special needs adults sing in our choir, and many of our college students love that ministry and sacrifice during the summer to serve with it. It encompasses the whole church.”
Wilson said when she talks with other church leaders interested in starting a special needs ministry she tells them not to be afraid to start small. That’s how Longview Heights started 20 years ago.
“Every church needs to have a place for people with special needs,” Wilson declared. “The numbers have increased in recent years, and every church will have families with special needs individuals. They don’t need to be turned away, and they don’t need to feel like they don’t belong there.
“Start small and go from there and see how God blesses.”
Wilson noted everyone needs some accommodation, and people with special needs are the same. She encouraged starting by pulling together people in the church who have family members with special needs or those who have a heart for special needs ministry and having a conversation with them.
“When you put that out in the church that you’re considering starting this kind of ministry, you’ll be amazed how many people will come, how many people’s hearts are turned toward you that you don’t even know about,” Wilson said.
With VBS specifically, a church can start by inviting people with special needs and offering accommodation for them as part of the regular program.
“That’s a way to start, and if it grows you can make it separate,” Wilson said.
Overall, from preschool to senior adults, the ministry has impacted many families in the community, she added.
“It’s a blessing; it’s a huge blessing.”