FIRST-PERSON: 2 families came

SIMPSONVILLE, S.C. -- The day finally arrived to kick off our church's new special needs ministry through a community outreach event. Our church planned, prepared, promoted and prayed weeks in advance.

The weather was warm and sunny, and every volunteer came in matching T-shirts with smiles and hope for each family we would meet. Every booth and activity was strategically placed and staffed.

I stood at the welcome table waiting for a large group of guests but they never came.

Trying not to think about all the money spent preparing for this outreach, I felt the disappointment many church members feel when they work hard toward something that fails to bear the fruit they anticipated.

I reframed my thoughts to include the two families who attended, the 26 adults and youth who served, and the children who witnessed an example of their church coming together to show a community its compassion and care. I rested in knowing God has a divine purpose in those two families and intends to continue teaching all of us that special needs ministry has a different way of measuring success than any other ministry.

Rather than throwing in the towel at what looks like failure, church, be encouraged. This is the one ministry I know of where the struggle will teach us to more deeply identify with those we serve. Here are some thoughts that have strengthened my perspective:

1. Teaching someone with additional needs makes us more aware of the simplicity of the Gospel and the variety of ways we can communicate it.

Consider a typical Sunday School classroom with 8-10 children: Plan a story, craft, song, worksheet, maybe a reinforcing game almost entirely from the teacher's guide and VOILA! -- you have a one-size-fits-most ministry.

Special needs ministry is nothing like that. Individualizing reminds us ministry is personal. For us to serve well in this way, we must blaze new pathways to the heart, depending fully on the Holy Spirit to bring life from those seeds we plant. This is exciting work!

2. Failure is never failure, unless you fail to try.

Special needs ministry will often appear to be unsuccessful on paper if measured similarly to other ministries: budgets, attendance and input versus output. Better assessments may include quality, connection opportunities and community awareness.

More money and effort may be necessary for what seems like a "small yield," but to a family who feels loved, included and valued while finding meaningful community with other Christians -– it means the world to them, and how do you measure that? Take heart -- the only way to fail at this ministry is to never try!

3. Being a constant learner reminds us to remain humble.

We do not need to read every article out there on developmental delays or categories of special needs. We will never be fully informed about every therapy or educational method available. Although helpful, the greatest advice I have received on this subject (and any other subject for that matter) is to be a learner.

While parents do not have all the answers, they are the supreme example of creatively, resourcefully teaching their child, and they're usually available and willing to help us as well. Even parents who work tremendously hard to reach their children in a meaningful way will admit they are learning as they go. We will do well to embrace and cultivate this mindset alongside these experts.

The evening after the under-attended outreach, I looked at the list of 32 families who were connected through the Facebook event and I prayed they will see how God loves them through a church reaching out to them. On paper this would appear to be an unsuccessful attempt with only two families who attended.

I choose, however, to see the church that came together for the 32 families who now know we love them, ministry partners praying that these families will one day come, and the future families who will join with us so we can shake their hands or hug their necks and say, "We are so glad you are here."

This to me looks like very successful ministry!

DeAnna Gibson, online at www.deannagibsonwrites.com, is a mother of three boys and member of Holly Ridge Baptist Church in Simpsonville, S.C., where her husband Brett is the worship minister.
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