There are a few factors in youth ministry that are “universals”. It does not matter what your context is in youth ministry, at some point you will have one or multiple students in your ministry with special needs. It may be mild, it may be severe, but it will happen. You may have a student with mild or severe special needs (or somewhere in between). It will happen. It is not doom. It is not the end of your ministry as you know it. It is a look into how God created us each as individuals.
Some students are going to need more help than others, but here are a few principles I have found that help in making youth ministry a great experience for special needs students:
1)Don’t be afraid to admit you need help. School Districts employ people with special training to help students with special needs. Small and Rural Churches have a lot less resources than even a small rural school district. It is wise to connect with parents and school personnel (if there can be a conversation there) to find out what works and what doesn’t in teaching a certain student. You may even have to involve the parents on a weekly basis. If you do, make sure the conversation comes from a heart of “I need your help” and “I want your student to have the best possible youth group experience”
2)Don’t be afraid to change how you teach. You may have students that need a lot of “hands on learning” activity to get the point and apply the lesson. Then do it. One of the things we have incorporated into our Wednesday nights is guided “Prayer Stations” that encourage the teenagers to pray for a specific need or a specific way to help them engage with God in prayer.
3)Make each lesson with two complementary points One of the things I have found that works with my special needs students is to gear each lesson with two points – a “simpler” and “more complex”. By doing so, there is a simpler point that any of the students can take home regardless of their learning needs. This kind of point may be along the lines of “God wants us to serve others before ourselves”. The more complex point is geared to get students that are digging into and understanding scripture on a deeper level. The complex point for that lesson my be along the lines of “Why is it important that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet?”.
Regardless of how you teach students with special needs, it is important above all else to remember that these are students that need Jesus. These students deserve the opportunity to interact with Him on a level that they can understand.
What are you doing in your ministry that works well with special needs students? Share in the comments below!