In 2021, about 42.5 million people in America lived with a disability, according to the United States Census Bureau. It’s estimated that about 85% of churches lack any level of special needs ministry, according to a 2014 article by The Gospel Coalition.
The CORE Christian Community in Falcon is breaking down barriers to reach the local special needs population by expanding beyond offering a special needs ministry within a typical church; they are instead planting (establishing) a brand new church, specifically designed to cater to individuals and families with special needs.
The church is named Access Christian Church, which represents its mission to provide access to the Gospel, Jesus, worship and a well-rounded church experience for those with special needs. It will be located at Mountain View Academy near the intersection of Highway 24 and Constitution Avenue. Pastor Dennis Blaisdell will lead the church, backed by the support of the CORE Christian Community. It will officially open for its first Sunday church service Dec. 3 at 10:45 a.m.
The concept for Access Christian Church has been in the works within the CORE Christian Community for about five years, but COVID-19 delayed its progress. In May 2022, Blaisdell, who was working as a middle school history teacher and sports coach in Maine, had previously been involved in the CORE Christian Community when he lived in the Falcon area several years ago. He received a phone call asking if he would be willing to help with the new church venture. Blaisdell said, “I quit my job, drove across the country to move my family of five, got here in June and now we’re starting this thing.”
Blaisdell has talked to more than 25 families, caregivers and individuals with special needs to find out precisely how to best serve them at Access Christian Church.
“What we’ve found is that the (special needs) community is just so underserved within the ‘big C’ Christian church. … We’re supposed to be reaching everybody, and I think we sometimes lose focus of that,” Blaisdell said.
According to a doctoral dissertation by Melinda Jones Ault, nearly one-third of special needs families (out of 400 sampled) said they had left at least one church because their child was not included or welcomed. More than half of special needs parents reported that they had kept their child from participating in a religious activity because support was not provided or because parents were expected to always accompany their child.
“We have to flip that,” Blaisdell said. “We have to do better.”
Access Christian Church is designed with special needs in mind first, tailoring the entire experience from the start to promote involvement for everyone — special needs or not.
Some of these special needs accommodations (already in place) include a shorter Sunday service of just 45 minutes; an “unplugged” worship experience that is quieter and can be enjoyed even by those with sensitivity to sound. Alternative seating options such as sensory chairs, “wiggle” chairs, camping chairs; a movement area with mats; sensory rooms with headphones, calmer lighting and different sensory inputs; and personalized sensory bags containing various tools and toys for people with different needs will also be available.
Blaisdell said he expects the services to look much different from a typical church service where members might be expected to sit still and remain quiet throughout.
“It’s OK if people laugh. It’s OK if people have a meltdown,” he said. “I was a middle-school teacher for eight years, and there is not a disruption in the world that bothers me one bit.”
Additionally, the entire children’s ministry curriculum is designed with special needs accommodations already in place.
Blaisdell said the church will gear the children’s ministry toward special needs members first.
A buddy system will also be offered for individuals.
“A ‘buddy’ is just someone who can help a friend with special needs during the church service,” Blaisdell said. “So, for example, a 13-year-old person with autism may need some assistance or even just a friend to hang out with during the church service, so we would tag them with a buddy to help them out. Or maybe someone with a wheelchair may need to be pushed around, that’s something a buddy could do.”
The buddy program will also transfer to a respite day program the church will offer, where kids and adults with special needs can enjoy games and good company while parents and caregivers get a break to go on a date, run errands or just rest. The team at Access Christian Church hopes to eventually have adequate resources to offer respite days every month.
The first respite day is scheduled for Nov. 11, from 1 until 4 p.m. and will cap at 20 special needs participants plus any siblings who would like to join.
The vision for Access Christian Church is not only for those with special needs to feel comfortable attending church, but also to feel empowered to get involved at church.
“You look at the Old Testament and the Gospel, and God continuously uses what the world calls ‘weak’ to do amazing things, and it’s so powerful. … When we’re thinking about providing access to church and to Jesus for this community, we also really want to focus on people with special needs serving in the church,” Blaisdell said.
The church’s team is already setting the example for that type of inclusive involvement; four out of the nine members on the startup worship team have special needs.
“The church is designed to meet the needs of special needs people, yes; but it doesn’t mean it’s only for people with special needs. It’s for everyone. It’s a church,” Blaisdell said.
He and his team have also partnered with Joni & Friends, a faith-based organization committed to reaching and serving people with disabilities.
Joni & Friends will soon be sending an instructor from New Mexico to Access Christian Church to provide two full days of training for Blaisdell and the ministry organizers. The training will cover topics such as special needs etiquette, church leadership, children’s ministry, respite days and the buddy program — all completely free of charge. The church will also have ongoing access to a mentor from Joni & Friends to guide the team once the church is up and running.
Since the church is uncharted territory, Blaisdell said he believes the church experience will evolve through trial and error. Adjustments will be made based on the congregation’s feedback.
“I am completely learning this as I go, 100%,” he said. “As long as we have the heart, that is what matters. We are not perfect. We are going to make mistakes and try new ideas, but we are going to do the best we can to love on these people.”
For those interested in getting involved, Access Christian Church has a “Give Send Go” campaign on Facebook.
Individuals and families with special needs who are willing to share their stories and help educate the church teams can email email@example.com.
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