Ministering to Kids and Teens with Special Needs
It was her first Sunday on the job and her heart was already broken. It was 2016, and Chelsey Jones was the new children’s pastor at New Life Church in Renton, Washington. She had just seen a family with an 8-year-old boy who had special needs turned away because the church didn’t have a class for him.
“I was uncertain what to do,” Jones, now 25, admits. “But right then, the Spirit of God began speaking to me — church should be a place for anybody to come.”
Out of that conviction, Jones says God led her to establish “The Bridge” — a Sunday morning ministry for children ages birth through 6th grade — at New Life Renton. The Bridge, which has specially trained volunteers, offers children with special needs the opportunity to come and be taught about Jesus and God’s love for them in a safe and nurturing environment.
“Something that people don’t always understand is that The Bridge isn’t just about children with special needs; it’s also about their families,” Jones explains. “Now, families with children who have special needs have a place to come to church, knowing that their son or daughter is being properly taught and cared for.”
Jones says that it took six months to launch The Bridge, and at first, only two children attended regularly. But then, she took a chance.
“In researching about ministry to children with special needs, I ran across a ministry event called Night to Shine, put on by the Tim Tebow Foundation,” Jones says. “I saw where other churches were doing it and I thought, Why can’t we?”
Night to Shine is designed for teens with special needs, not children, but the decision to pursue the event has resulted in blessings for Jones and the entire church that they did not anticipate.
“I put in our application, got approved to do it, and it exploded from there,” Jones says. “Last year, we had 230 guests attend. This year, we had 375 teens with special needs attend and 600 volunteers to help put on the event.”
The event begins with weeks of training for volunteers that includes prayer for the event, community, and church. Guests can take limo rides and literally have the red-carpet treatment: hundreds of volunteers lining either side of a long red carpet, cheering and clapping for guests as they walk — sometimes run — up the pathway. Inside there is a beauty room for the girls and shoeshine for the boys, a karaoke room, a dinner for all the guests, a photo booth, music, a special video message from Tim Tebow, and much more.
“Every single guest receives a crown as a king or queen, which is presented to them by their buddy (a volunteer) who is accompanying them,” Jones says. “Our guests are treated like celebrities.”
At New Life’s Night to Shine, they also offer parents a relaxing experience, providing them with a separate VIP room that includes a complete five-course meal, a massage therapist, and people available to pray with them.
It’s no exaggeration to say that families and volunteers get as much joy out of this ministry event as do the teens attending.
“People who aren’t believers come to this event, experience the presence of God, witness what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and the Spirit of the Lord touches them, changes them,” Jones says with a touch of awe in her voice.
Sharing a few examples, Jones tells how a photographer who came to take pictures at the event claimed he was an atheist. However, the event so moved him, was such a display of Christ’s love in action, that he and his wife are now regularly attending the church.
“We also had a police officer on duty that night that was so moved by what he saw that he started coming to our church — he’s now a volunteer on our church security team,” Jones says.
Of course, the focus of the evening is still on the teens. Lorenzo Armstrong-Jackson is 13 years old and has Down Syndrome. He and his mom and dad, Shannon and Rodney, have been attending New Life since the 2017 Night to Shine event.
When asked about what he likes best about New Life, Lorenzo’s response was telling: “Kindness,” he says. “The people are kind. Chelsey [Jones] and the people are very kind.”
Shannon agrees. “Lorenzo loves his church family, and he absolutely loves Chelsey. Everyone is so kind and genuine — people are always calling out to him.”
Shannon admits that prior to coming to Night to Shine, the family simply didn’t attend church. In fact, she didn’t even know the event was going to be held at a church. But since that night, the family has made New Life their church home — rarely missing a service. Shannon says, although Lorenzo has always been kind, she’s noticed a new and growing warmth in him as his relationship with Jesus has grown.
“I feel safe — Jesus is safe. He is kind,” Lorenzo says, concentrating. “I feel Jesus loves me. I love Jesus.”
Rodney has recently become a church greeter and Shannon says that many of her own questions about God and the Bible have been answered.
“It seems every time I have a question or am struggling with something, the pastor speaks about that very topic,” she says. “Over the last year or so, we’ve experienced several deaths in the family, and I know that church has helped Lorenzo a lot in knowing his grandpa and grandma are in heaven.”
As a result of Night to Shine, Jones says it’s not just the church’s NXTGEN youth group that has benefited, but The Bridge has benefitted as well — growing from two to 15 children.
Jones has also noticed a change in the church culture, which the Armstrong-Jacksons have personally experienced.
“Everybody kind of walks in a different spirit — they have eyes to really see the people around them and a desire to meet the needs of people who sometimes can’t speak for themselves,” Jones says. “And Matt [Harder], our NXTGEN youth pastor, says he’s never seen our teenagers rally around kids with special needs like they have — they’re beginning to understand what it really means to be the Church.”