Many churches are moving away from the traditional Sunday school model and using home groups. But this way of “doing life together” can leave special-needs families isolated and alone.
There are good reasons churches are transitioning to a home group model. Some are simply out of space in their buildings. If they want to add new discipleship classes and opportunities to build relationships, they have to go off campus. Others, like church plants, don’t meet in a church building. They have zero space for what we usually call Sunday school. All their small groups have to be in homes. And some churches believe it’s the New Testament model to meet in homes, generations learning together as they get to know each other and serve the neighborhoods where they meet.
They all have good intentions, but this model unintentionally takes away the opportunity for fellowship from one group of people—special-needs families.
I can easily take my son (who has level 3 autism) to a church with a traditional Sunday school model that has a class for him. It’s much harder to take him to someone’s house. Even if the house is “kid proof,” it usually isn’t 5th grade boy who is still developmentally like a toddler proof. So I stay with him the entire time, which keeps me from fellowshipping and learning with the others there.
If your church has a home group model, here are suggestions for how to make sure special-needs families can attend:
Ask if they’d like to host the group. This often the easiest for families like mine. Our kids are most comfortable in their own environments.
Hire a babysitter who can help with the kids who need extra attention. When we were church planting, we had multiple families who had kids with disabilities. The babysitter we hired each week did a great job working with all the kids. (The families pitched in cash each week to pay her, but if it’s possible for the church to cover the cost, that’s great too!)
Have groups in homes and groups on the church campus if possible. If you have the church space, you can use it to host a group or two on a weeknight when the other home groups are meeting.
Ask the families what would help them most. They may have a simple solution they haven’t shared because they haven’t been asked.
With the recent stats about how many special-needs families aren’t attending church, all churches need to take steps to make sure those who want to attend are welcome, no matter what model they follow. When special-needs families are included in all aspects of church life, they are valuable members who bless as much as they are blessed.
Sandra Peoples is a pastor’s wife and mom to two boys. She’s the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.