Kevin Lockwood qualifies as one of my former youth group students, but barely. He was in his senior year of high school when I came to Felton Evangelical Free Church; during most of Kevin's junior and senior high years the most excellent Dave Wolter was the youth pastor. But I enjoyed spending a lot of time with Kevin and his then girlfriend, Sarah Hoff, as they served as volunteers in the church youth ministry. They were mature for their age and were faithful in their service. (Plus, for the first two months we lived in the area, we lived in an apartment in the basement of Kevin's parents' house.)
Mindy and I have seen Kevin and Sarah (now Sarah Lockwood) on occasion through the years, but we were happy to have a stretch of time with them this last Sunday, going to their church and then going to their house for lunch.
Kevin grew up in Felton Evangelical Free Church (now Felton Bible Church) and Sarah grew up going to San Lorenzo Valley Baptist Church until the middle of high school. I asked both of them to tell me what they appreciated about church growing up. Both of them shared the same word, "family." Kevin said his family always made a priority of church. He grew up thinking of the people of the church as his family, as did Sarah in her church. Kevin mentioned men like Larry Barnes as examples of leadership in his life.
Kevin and Sarah have gone to a variety of churches together through their married life, and when they came to live in the mountains near Yosemite they looked for church home for themselves and their (now) five children.
The first church they attended in the area was associated with a preschool that interested them, but they began to have questions about the church's theology (a little too much love for Benny Hinn and not nearly enough scripture). Then not once, but more than twice, the church's nursery lost track of their kids. And so they left the church, though they are still part of the preschool.
The treatment of children is very important to the Lockwoods. Their children are not only adopted but several of them have special needs. I asked them share their experience of what churches have done right and done wrong in dealing with special needs children.
A good thing about kids with obvious special needs is that people often look for ways they can help. Their initial response is to be kind. But often, mistakes are made.
Once they brought their three year old to a church, and they were advised to leave their non-walking child in the nursery for "crawlers" i.e. the babies that couldn't walk. But their child wasn't intellectually or emotionally right for that age group.
At times it's been appropriate to keep their children with them in the worship service. Sometimes people in churches seem much more concerned about the noise little children make than the children themselves.
Sarah has a friend with an autistic child. This woman's husband, a firefighter, often works Sundays. When the friend brought her child to the appropriate age group Sunday School class, she was told she'd need to stay with her child. In effect, she was told she couldn't worship there.
Kevin and Sarah have greatly appreciated the ministry of Joni and Friends, which ministers to special needs kids and their families. Arriving at an event staged by the organization, the Lockwoods didn't have to ask for help. The staffers immediately called over trained college students to care for kids by means of a buddy system. They're fans of the buddy system; it's a practical way many churches could meet the special needs of children, parents and families just by providing one caring person per child, allowing children to be in groups with others of their own age without overburdening the teacher.
Many churches aren't ready to help parents with their kids, even those without special needs. There are churches with older people who will say they've "done their time" with kids, and it's time for the younger people (which usually means parents of small children) to step up. But parents need an opportunity to concentrate on the Lord apart from their kids. This can be an even greater need for parents with special needs kids.
Parents with special needs kids have doctor's appointments and therapy, along with work and school and everything else that consumes a family's time through the week. A wonderful way a church can help is to provide a buddy for their kids, so the parents and the children can seek the Lord.