Originally published September 9, 2016
“I desperately want to go to church, but I take care of my elderly mother who has Alzheimer’s. I can’t take her with me, I can’t leave her alone, and I can’t afford someone to sit with her while I’m at church.”
“We’d love to be faithful church members, but our child has a disability that makes him extremely sensitive to the light and sound stimuli in the worship service and he becomes uncomfortable and disruptive. Attending church is rarely an option for us.”
“I’m the sole caretaker of my husband who is a quadriplegic. It takes several hours to get him up, dressed, and ready in the morning. We’ve tried, but there’s no way we can make it to the 9:00 a.m. service of the only doctrinally sound church near us, and no other service times are offered.”
These are just a sampling of the stories I’ve heard from readers recently as I’ve written about the importance of church membership and attendance. The Bible is clear that we’re to be faithful members of a local body of believers. The entire New Testament assumes that Christians need to meet together to worship, pray, encourage and exhort each other, study and hear the preaching of God’s word, celebrate the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and serve one another. “Lone Ranger Christians” don’t exist in the New Testament. Neither do Christians who are perfectly able to attend church, but choose to skip it in favor of sleeping in, kids’ soccer games, birthday parties, frequent travel, shopping, and other non-essential activities. We aren’t to place such a low value on meeting together that we attend church only if it happens to fit into our busy schedules; we arrange our busy schedules around being faithful, active members of a local church. Yes, Scripture insists, it’s that important.
When I was a child, there was still the notion among Christians that you were to attend church unless “Providentially hindered,” meaning that God, in His providence and sovereignty placed you in a situation that made it impossible for you to go to church that day- illness, death, unavoidable imperative travel, an emergency.
But what about people who are Providentially hindered from attending church week after week – maybe for years on end, maybe even for the rest of their lives – because they’re taking care of somebody else who’s Providentially hindered by illness or disability from attending church? How are these precious brothers and sisters who are honoring their parents or laying down their lives for their children not only to obey the Scriptural admonition to meet together, but also to receive the encouragement, edification, and spiritual nourishment they desperately need and want?
It takes two, baby. Both the caretaker and the church itself bear some responsibility here.
The caretaker needs to make sure she’s put in the effort to explore all possibilities of physically attending a doctrinally sound church or meeting of believers before concluding that she can’t. Her first priority is to pray fervently that God will provide a way. God honors the prayers of believers who are looking for ways to be obedient to Him. The caretaker might have to make some sacrifices of time, money, convenience, or preferences, but God can and will make a way.
Most of the caretakers I’ve heard from are praying. They have made the effort. And that’s where the local church comes in.
It is to our shame (and I include myself in this obliviousness) that local churches often don’t even think about what it’s like to be a caretaker. To long to simply attend church for worship, fellowship, and refreshing of soul, only to realize it’s the impossible dream. Christian caretakers are often out of sight, and, thus, out of mind, but they are not out of God’s heart, His mindfulness, or His family, and we need to be ministering to them.
How? It’s a great question, and I don’t have all the answers because each situation is unique. But guess who can answer that question? God, and the caretakers your church needs to minister to.
Does your church have a heart to reach out to caretakers, but isn’t quite sure how to go about it? Pray. Ask God for the wisdom to find caretakers who need to be ministered to and to know how best to meet their needs for fellowship and worship.
Go to your pastor or church secretary and ask for the names of families who are already on your church roll or who are in some way connected to your church, and start with them. Ask friends and family members for names of caretakers your church can minister to. Go to your local agencies, hospitals, organizations, schools, businesses, and other entities that provide services to people with disabilities or chronic illnesses and let them know your church wants to reach out to caretakers.
Contact caretakers and ask them how your church can meet their needs both inside and outside the church. Caretakers often feel invisible to the church. They need to know Christ loves them- that they matter to Him. We can demonstrate His love by coming alongside them and making a sacrificial effort to help. And, who knows? It might be simpler than you think.
Think Outside the Box:
Put yourself in the caretaker’s shoes. What could be a creative solution to helping her attend church while still tending to her loved one? Just a few ideas…
Sitter rotation– The caretaker in the first scenario of this article could attend worship if just a handful of church members would volunteer to come over to her house and sit with her mother during church on a rotating basis. It wouldn’t even cost anything.
Transportation– Maybe the caretaker’s loved one uses a wheelchair and could attend church with her, but she doesn’t have access to wheelchair accessible transportation on Sundays. Could your church borrow or rent a van and set that up for her?
Special classes– We already provide things like nurseries and children’s church for babies and small children. What about a similar concept for ill or disabled people of any age?
Home church– Perhaps there are a few families with disabled loved ones who would like to meet together for worship in one of their homes. Could the church send a pastor or elder to lead and teach them?
Home groups– Does your church do home groups? Could one of them meet in the caretaker’s home and bring church to her?
Medical needs– Could a caretaker bring her loved one to church if there were medical help available should the need arise? Perhaps a church member who’s a doctor or nurse would agree to be “on call” if needed while the family is at church.
Service times– The caretaker in the third scenario would be helped by the church simply pushing back its service time an hour or so. Could your church adjust its Sunday morning worship time or offer additional services, Bible studies, or small groups on Sunday evenings, on Saturdays, or on a week night?
Accommodations– Could your church make structural changes such as installing wheelchair ramps, elevators, modified seating, or other adjustments to the physical property that would make it possible for the caretaker’s loved one to attend with her? What about turning off the strobe lights and turning down the volume of the sound system for those sensitive to these stimuli? If the caretaker’s main concern is the distraction (noises, etc.) her loved one might create, would it be possible to simply educate the church body about the disability and train them to make loving allowance for these distractions during the worship service?
In home help– Perhaps it would be helpful to the caretaker for a church member to volunteer to come to the caretaker’s home and help get the disabled person ready for church on Sunday mornings while the caretaker gets herself ready.
Professional help– Are there members of your church who are special education teachers, doctors, nurses, home health care aides, contractors? Enlist their help for suggestions on how to make your church accessible to the ill and disabled and how to help caretakers both at home and inside the church.
The spiritual needs of caretakers have been overlooked by the church for far too long. Thanks to technology, transportation, and other modern conveniences God has blessed us with, it has never been easier to reach out to caretakers and meet their needs. Are you looking for a place of service in the church? Maybe you’ve been a caretaker and are all too familiar with ways the church failed to help you? Reaching out to meet the needs of caretakers is a ministry that’s practically tailor made for godly, nurturing women, especially since the majority of caretakers are also women. Could God be calling you to help bridge the gap between caretakers and the church?
Want more suggestions? Check out how these churches and ministries are assisting caretakers and their loved ones, and if you have a helpful idea or link, or if your church offers a ministry to caretakers, please share it in the comments below. Another reader could be looking for your church, resource, or idea!
Does your church have the resources to “go big” in ministry to families with disabled children both inside and outside the church? Could you partner with Jill’s House and import their respite services to your area? Could you replicate their services at a level your church could fund and staff? Check out this amazing ministry. No doubt there’s a need for it in your area.
Suggestions from a reader:
My former church was a megachurch that had a great special needs kids ministry: A special classroom for children and a classroom for teens who needed more care, pairing a special kiddo with a buddy to go to the regular kids’ program, a once a month respite night.
1) The first step is to welcome the family. Caregivers are tired and can be easily discouraged. If your church only has one service, consider adding another service.
2) Be patient. You may not see them every Sunday; medical emergencies and other stuff happens. They also may not have time to volunteer or attend Bible studies. Someone from the church will have to take the initiative to contact them: a phone call, an email, a postcard are HUGE. Also, having sermons available to stream online may help the caregivers to catch up on missed sermons.
3) Offer a once a month respite night to the whole community. If you can muster the volunteers then for 2 hours a month, you can offer parents (or spouses) the chance to drop off their special kids at your church and give them a much needed break to grocery shop or take a nap. Seriously, this is a huge ministry to parents – especially single parents. Also, I have seen teenage volunteers absolutely flourish by being a buddy to a special needs child. Another great opportunity for teens and adults is to be a buddy to a special needs child for your VBS or AWANA programs as well.
4) Joni and Friends is a Christian organization that ministers to the disabled. In California where I’m from, there are regional offices that offer to host disability ministry workshops to local churches.
5) Realize that at least with special needs children it is not all sunshine and lollipops. There are behavioral, cognitive, and physical challenges. But these kids need to hear about Jesus, and their parents need to feel loved and a part of the wider church body. They need to feel they’re not alone.