Does Your Church Intentionally Welcome Families With Disabilities?

BOWIE, Md. — CJ Matthews, the pastor of Bethany Church (BC) in Columbia, poured his heart out at the 2022 Special Needs Conference on April 2 at Cresthill Church in Bowie. Matthews shared candidly about his and his wife, Katie’s, extreme struggles raising a child with disabilities and his passion for churches to take whatever steps are necessary to welcome every family — no matter what.

CJ Matthews challenges churches to ensure families with special needs are welcome (photo by Sharon Mager).

God touched CJ’s heart at the 2016 Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s “Evangelicals for Life Conference” in conjunction with the National March for Life. CJ left the conference with a vision that one day, churches would respond to mothers in crisis pregnancy situations: “If you can’t raise your child, the church will.” Seven months after that conference, CJ and Katie welcomed their eight-year-old son, Thomas, into their home. CJ, pointing Thomas out in a family photo on the screen behind him, said, “Thomas loves doing backflips, BMX racing, singing, dancing, and driving us crazy. But God taught me a whole lot raising Thomas.” The young child was born in 2008 addicted to heroin and cocaine. He was physically abused and neglected and was in seven foster homes between the ages of 5 and 7 before he became a Matthews. “My son’s disability is invisible, but it’s very real,” CJ said. By 2018, Thomas had seven psychiatric hospitalizations and had significant trouble controlling his anger. Following an 18-month residential treatment program, miraculously provided and funded through prayer, Thomas learned to manage his anger, though he still has many challenges.

Becoming Thomas’ dad greatly affected what it looks like to be a pastor, C.J. said. The experience has given him empathy and compassion for others struggling in these difficult situations.

He discovered that there is fear in bringing your child to a place like church. That was new to him. “My parents weren’t afraid to take me to church,” he said, but for many, it’s very intimidating and now he understands.

“Just two days ago at church, I walked away and our son kicked a hole in the wall. He wasn’t angry; he wasn’t screaming. My son needs constant supervision, and, honestly, I failed to give him that. For 15 seconds, I walked away,” he shared. The grounds manager took care of the wall. CJ said that he doesn’t want his son to kick a hole in the wall, but if Thomas goes to church and is not supervised, that might happen — but they learn to deal with it

Bethany Church lovingly supports the family. Associate pastors step in to serve when CJ can’t be there. They also rally around CJ and Katie’s daughter Annaka, who sometimes gets less attention due to Thomas’ needs.

Thomas Matthews had a blast on Skycroft Conference Center’s zip line at Celebrate Abilities Camp in 2021 (photo by Sharon Mager).

CJ has a passion to see churches be intentional in welcoming families with disabilities.

“This conference is called ‘Every Child Belongs,’” CJ said. “My hope is that anytime someone with a disability comes into my church or your church, we will say, ‘You belong. We’re going to make this a place that’s good for you, and your parents will feel good about you being there. We’ll figure it out.’”

He referenced Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV), “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

The church does a good job stirring people up, CJ said — Bible studies and conferences stir people up. “I was stirred up,” he said, referring to the conference that inspired Katie and him to adopt Thomas.

Referring to the rest of the verse, CJ said, “Followers of Jesus need to meet together.” Sometimes, he said, people step out in obedience in adopting or fostering a child with disabilities, and it makes being involved in the church a whole lot harder.

CJ shared information from Lamar Hardwick, a speaker, and author. In his book, “Disability and the Church,” Hardwick, who was diagnosed with autism as an adult, shared the various reasons people with disabilities don’t feel comfortable attending church:

  • ADHD — 19%
  • A learning disability — 36%
  • Anxiety — 45%
  • Conduct disorder — 55%
  • Autism — 85%

Challenging the audience, CJ said, “Consider how you might make it known that your church wants these families to be a part of the body.

“Are you willing to step up to the plate and meet the needs of a family that comes to you or that you find and say, ‘we want you to come?’ Are you willing to step up and do what is needed for them to be part of the body?

“I heard a disturbing statistic from the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health that 25% of Christians, when asked if people with disabilities were made in the image of God, said they weren’t or that they were unsure. That would lead to situations where you say, ‘we’re putting in a new entrance and a ramp,’ and they say, ‘Why would we do that?’”

CJ stressed teaching the whole Scripture from the beginning, that all are made in the image of God — male and female.

“We believe our Bibles teach that people with disabilities are indispensable,” he said. “1 Corinthians 12:23 (and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect (CSB)) teaches that the weaker parts of the body are indispensable. Families affected by disabilities feel like a burden to the church, but the Bible says they are not. There are blessings.

Thomas with Katie Matthews, the executive director of TBN, at the 2021 Special Needs Conference (photo by Sharon Mager).

“Let’s not make it any harder for families to obey Hebrews 10:25. Let’s not be the reason someone is not able to meet together with believers.”

Finally, CJ discussed the third part of the verse, referencing encouragement. Everyone, he said, needs encouragement. The author of Hebrews was writing at a time of persecution to the early church, so they needed extra encouragement. “Families affected by disabilities may not experience mistreatment to this level, but they often experience mistreatment. Even if they don’t, life is just harder for them than for others,” he explained.

CJ once again referenced Hardwick’s writing that families with special needs experience anxiety, depression, social and companionship challenges, stress, schedule constraints, marriage difficulties, spiritual struggles, grief, hospitalizations, and medical emergencies.

“Will you consider how you will encourage families affected by disabilities that God has brought or will bring to your church?” he asked.

CJ referenced Isaiah 41:10 (CSB), “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand.”

“You get to the place where life is hard and you say, ‘God, you strengthen me, but I need more than that. I need help. I need You to hold me. I can’t hold myself up anymore. I need You to hold me with Your righteous right hand,” he said.

This is the first article of a three-part series based on the recent “Every Child Belongs” Special Needs Conference. The conference was sponsored by the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, The Banquet Network (TBN), The Gathering Place, and CC. 

Cover photo: (l-r ) Katie, Thomas, Annaka, and CJ Matthews enjoy family time. (photo submitted)

Sharon Mager is a BCM/D communications specialist and church correspondent.