Archive for the ‘the church’ Category

How Churches can Welcome Those on the Autism Spectrum   Leave a comment

This blog was published on The Mighty last week and I’m sharing it here as well.

 

Here is how churches can welcome those on the autism spectrum.

1. Provide training about autism for church leadership and volunteers.

Include information about autism: what it is and what challenges people on the autism spectrum face when socializing in large (and small) gatherings. Let the staff, small group leaders, and Sunday school teachers know that a person with autism may not look different, but they may act differently than a typical person. This training could be during a Sunday school hour or a half hour session as a component of a larger training. The key thing to convey is no matter how different someone on the autism spectrum may seem to be or how unexpected some of their behaviors may be, love and respect for the individual with autism and an acceptance of that person is what matters most. With an increasing number of children and adults who are diagnosed on the spectrum, chances are they will be visiting your churches. It makes complete sense for the church to be prepared to welcome them.

2. Be the one who initiates.

Individuals within the church need to initiate and develop relationships with person on the autism spectrum. They also need to understand that to fully include someone with autism may require accommodations. Don’t assume individuals with autism will blaze their own trails into the church as a whole, a Bible study or small group. You will need to be the one to make the effort (as you would with any new visitor to your church). Some people with autism may have a hard time remembering names and faces, especially in a large group setting, which might be overwhelming, such as a chaotic church vestibule. When you see the person at church, greet him or her, and don’t be offended if it takes a while for him to remember your name. Don’t be offended if people on the spectrum seem stiff and unsure; they might be doing their best to cope with sensory overload and trying not to have a meltdown.

3. Focus on authentic relationships.

Once the initial contact has been established on Sunday morning, focus on authentic friendships with the person with ASD. Follow up with by checking in and asking about some detail that may have been shared during a previous visit. Many people on the spectrum have special interests and may love to talk about those — make time to listen. Whether your follow up is next week at the next meeting, whether it is Sunday morning, whether it is by phone or text in a few weeks, it doesn’t matter. Just be faithful to follow up.

4. Invest time in cultivating friendships.

Do something practical to show your interest and care. After a few meetings, invite the person to join you for a dinner in your home or a get-together outside of church. If a specific need has been mentioned that you could possibly help with, offer that help. If such an invitation seems to make your friend uncomfortable, keep focusing on building an authentic relationship until the trust is established to spend time hanging out outside of church.

When people feel included in a group, they tend to feel more comfortable — it is no different for people on the autism spectrum. All people should feel they belong in their church family. The church will only benefit from the gifts of those on the autism spectrum. They have gifts and talents to share, wisdom and insights to offer.

Honestly, it only takes one person to begin the transformation of your church into a place of welcome for those who are different. You can start this by providing awareness training and creating an ongoing plan for the church and its members to be hospitable and accepting.

Advertisements

Posted May 22, 2018 by swanatbagend in autism, the church

Suffer The Little Children: Part IV in my Autism series, Updated   Leave a comment

So today I’m writing about experiences that people on the autism spectrum have had at churches around the United States.  Some people were children, one an adult when I talked with them about what it was like to attend church or youth group.

There was a general sense that other people just didn’t know how to interact, so sometimes families with people with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) were just left alone, and did not have any overtly negative experiences.  One respondent told me that her son had a very positive experience at the church they were currently attending.  People were accepting of differences, and the congregation was friendly.  At this church, the pastor had a grandchild on the spectrum, which she said made him more understanding and inclusive.  At two other mega-churches they attended before the family found this small Southern Baptist church, their son was directed to the special needs department, which he did not need as a high functioning individual.  This lack of understanding of his actual situation seemed patronizing to him and he would not go back to that church.

Another mother, Shelly, met personally with people in leadership roles in three different churches to explain her child’s situation.  Her older teen-aged son is a talented musician who wanted to get involved by playing in the worship team.  They agreed to include him in the band.  However, when some difficulties arose in getting all the musicians in sync, instead of spending the additional time it might have taken to help him get up to speed with the band, the leader decided this young man on the spectrum was too much trouble, and he was asked to leave.  Shelly also found out later that the pastor had said unkind things about her son during a church leader’s meeting.

In a different situation, as she moved up from the middle school group, Kimberly’s daughter Julie found the high school scene to be focused on socializing and the teens who were leading the worship music.  The environment was supportive of the musical talent of these kids, leading them to rise to the top in what quickly became a popularity contest, and girls and guys who had previously been Julie’s friends in the middle school group began to ignore her.

When Kimberly met with the youth group leader to explain about Asperger’s, he wanted to assign another girl to be her friend, but Kimberly said Julie would see right through that.  She suggested instead that he create more structure for the group meetings, as she knew there were other introverted teens who were having a hard time with the long periods of unsupervised small talk and general chaos.  His response was that the majority liked the arrangement as it was, and as the group was growing quickly, Julie would just have to get used to the way things were.  Due to all the factors that were making youth group overwhelming for Julie, Kimberly decided to let her stop attending.  Then she was criticized by other parents in the church for not requiring her daughter to attend.  The family eventually left this church for one that was much smaller, where they are happy.

Most of these situations while hurtful, were not overtly dangerous.  Unfortunately, having autism apparently does put you in literal danger.  Marie left her three-year-old in the church nursery.  He was found walking along the road outside the church by people who happened by and brought him back in.  The reason?  The male nursery worker let him leave the room because he had “had enough.”  I’m not sure what behaviors a three-year-old could exhibit that would justify “releasing him into the wild” to fend for himself.

Marie also had a younger son knocked down and kicked in the head during another church’s children’s program.  No adults intervened, and when she let the leadership know, they didn’t take any action.  In both of these cases, nobody was concerned, let alone apologetic.  I’d like to provided more commentary, but on this one, I’m speechless.

The church seems to have a hard time with anybody being different.  I think this problem extends far beyond the world of ASDs.  No room is left for people to be different and for people to be loved as they are.  If you don’t raise your hands occasionally during the songs, get into the music and smile at everyone, and if you aren’t comfortable holding hands during group prayer, you are criticized as being un-Christian.  Yes, a pastor actually told the congregation from the pulpit that if you did not join hands with others, you were un-Christian.  There’s a very small grain of truth to that–but it doesn’t take into account other realities.  It dismisses the challenges those with ASDs face every day.

If a person has extreme social anxiety or a physical condition which would prevent her from holding hands during a group prayer time, this would probably be understood.  The same consideration should always be extended to any person who is worshiping in a congregation.  Consider that for people on the spectrum, sensory input or a change in routine can be overwhelming, and these challenges can be something as simple as your talking to her while she is worshiping, or asking her to move out of her accustomed spot.  These are concerns that neurotypical people often are not aware of.  But now you know–large group gatherings can be a literal minefield for other minds.

Your feelings may get hurt by what you think is odd behavior, but the focus should be honoring the needs and feelings of the other person.  Your ideas about what is socially acceptable behavior may be upset, but what is important is that members of the body of faith experience the grace and peace the church exists to share.

Love the person as he is and where he is.  Continue to acknowledge the person even when you don’t seem to be getting a response; smile when you see him; ask how he is.  Over time, your consistent love and kindness will be rewarded.  There are many valid reasons why a person may not be either able or willing to do exactly as the majority of the church body is doing during worship.  These reasons should not keep a person from being loved, valued and included.

 

 

Posted April 18, 2018 by swanatbagend in autism, the church

Tagged with , , ,

I Feel for Crocodile Dundee   1 comment

Don’t let the church ever be New York City for Crocodile Dundee.  Remember the scene where, newly imported from Australia, he’s walking the sidewalk saying “G’day, mate” to every person he passes?  If anyone looks at him, it’s in the sense of wondering if he’s grown another head.  Where did he come from?

Contemporary culture seems to demand that we remain in our own little space, in our own yard, on our own block.  This is the exact opposite of what the church should be.  Even a big church.

There’s enough of that going around already.  There’s enough of us pretending we don’t see our neighbors when we are outside in the yard.  There’s enough of us staring intently at our phones in waiting rooms and restaurants.  There’s enough of us walking past people we know as if we are busily on our way to a much more important destination.

I’m sure part of this perspective is just me.  I love talking to people, and I enjoy people.  So, this morning when I was in the greeting card section at the store, I actually liked it when a friendly looking woman asked me if I knew what a pug looked like.  “Is this one?” she asked, holding up a card with a funny looking little dog on it.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Shoot, I’m trying to find a card for someone who loves pugs….what about this one?”

“I don’t think that’s one either,” I said, “but I don’t know what it is.  I know I’d know a pug if I saw one.”

We went back and forth laughing at the dog cards and our general lack of knowledge of dog breeds.  I loved that some woman in the greeting cards actually initiated a conversation with me.  It was fun.

So, keeping that in mind, it may be my idea of what interactions would be normal are a bit skewed.

However, I am also certain that our culture’s definition of “normal human interaction” has gotten a bit skewed lately.

So imagine Crocodile Dundee, especially in a big church.  Don’t walk past him.

Gospel Elitism   Leave a comment

I’ll just say up front that the title of this blog is deliberately contradictory.

Gospel and elitism do not go together, but maybe I got your attention.

Take Jesus.  He spent most of his time on earth with earthy people.  He did not hang out with the mighty, wealthy, non-odiferous and powerful.  Humble would be more like it.  He did not cast out people because they weren’t cool enough or good enough or holy enough.

In fact, his harshest words (that I can find) are directed toward those who looked pretty good on the outside.  He called them whitewashed tombs.

Two women I know: one of them went to a Christian school for several years when she was a child.  The other had Christian roommates when she went to college.

One was teased and tormented by girls at her school, until her parents eventually found out about it.

The other was ostracized by her roommates, and made to feel that she was less holy because she wasn’t doing the Christian things they were doing.  She wasn’t living her life the way they thought Christian people are supposed to live.  I really don’t know what it was she wasn’t doing–Bible study? small groups?  going to a certain church?  having daily devotions that other people could see?  praying before meals in the cafeteria?

Another woman I know was at a homeschooling field trip when the person next to her initiated conversation by asking where she went to church. The woman replied that she was a member of a different faith.  The person who’d asked about church immediately turned her back on the woman and started conversing with someone else.

There is an open invitation to the table to sit down with Jesus, but, are people going to want to sit down with the ones who are already there?

If we ask them to come join us–will they have any desire to do so if we are hypocritical, self-absorbed, judgmental, and cruel?

Posted November 3, 2016 by swanatbagend in the church

Why I Generally Don’t Miss a Sunday   Leave a comment

There is almost always something I need to hear in the liturgy, in the readings, in the music, or in the sermon.  I can’t deny this.

There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed, or just don’t feel up to the process of eating, dressing and hurrying everyone out the door to get to church on time.

But I have found even on those days, that, when I follow through on my basic rule of thumb which is “Go anyway,” I hear just what I need to move me past the obstacle that made me debate the need to go in the first place.

I’d be a fool not to go.

Posted September 1, 2016 by swanatbagend in the church

What I Miss about a Small Church   2 comments

For most of my adult life, I have been a member of small churches.  During the last five years, we ended up making an unprecedented shift to both a different denomination than the one we’d been part of for twenty-five years, and to a church much larger than any we had attended before.  It didn’t start out large as it was a church plant, but it rapidly grew to several hundred and went on up from there.  It’s now at about 700.  To me that is huge.

I didn’t expect to be a member of a church that big, of course.  Starting from a small group one doesn’t know what to expect.  It just kind of took off.

Now that I’ve experienced both, there are some differences I’ve noted.

In a small church, there are always financial challenges, of course.  If the pastor says he will eat beans if he has to, you know two things.  One he’s an amazing man, but two, you have a financial problem.

If there are personality conflicts that cause big problems, they are front and center in a small church.

It is hard to find people to fill all the roles that need to be filled.  There are only so many adults who can be elected deacon or elder.

One of the main difficulties with a small church body is it can be quite problematic to get the needed momentum to pass the boundary of awkward into do-able.  People who want to just blend in are not going to be comfortable attending a church where they stand out.  Many people who are looking for a church may have expectations about size, programming, dynamics and so forth.

The good point of a large church are that there are lots of people.

There are people to volunteer in the nursery, there are people coming in who are interested in serving, although, honestly, in big churches as well there can be problems with motivating people to serve.  Big churches can have financial problems, too, but I think it is less likely, barring some disaster in leadership, which thankfully I have not experienced.

Big churches are more likely to have vibrant children’s and youth programs, as those can more easily be funded and fueled, and there are more kids there to keep the momentum going.

But I’ll tell you what I miss.

I miss being in a body small enough that I know everyone.  That takes a small body, as in 50-100 strong.

In that setting, there are few enough people that over enough fellowship dinners, service days, and nursery work, you get to know people well.  It creates an intimacy that is often missing in the general culture.

A small church united in a common cause is a force to be reckoned with.  When someone has a problem, it is noted, and people draw in around the sufferer to help.

Over time, devotion of that sort creates a very strong bond.  Family would not be too strong of a word.

That’s what I miss.

Posted July 21, 2016 by swanatbagend in the church

Tagged with , , ,

The Love Compels Us   4 comments

When thinking about the situation a person on the autism spectrum faces when walking in the doors of a church building, you could say it is up to that person to change himself and make things happen.

You could say there is not a disability here that we need to accommodate.  If we can’t see the disability it does not exist.

You could say if he is a child, the person’s parents should explain in advance to other people that their child needs certain special treatment.

You could say the person with the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who didn’t make friends and ended up leaving a church should have made more of an effort to involve herself in group conversations and to introduce herself to others.

You could even say the church is not here to cater to different special interest groups; rather, the church’s goal is to share the gospel with as many people as possible.

 

These are some of the trains of thought which confound those wanting to make the rough places plain for those individuals who do not fit the template of “church” that has been laid out by popular Christian culture in the United States.

I’ll take a look at each one.

I think that demanding that the person who is new to the church and on the autism spectrum bridge most of the gap toward other people is almost as illogical as stating that people who use wheelchairs should get out of their chairs and drag them along, in order to get into a building that doesn’t have a clear, smooth ramp.

Sometimes people assume that because a person with an ASD which can include diagnoses like Asperger’s syndrome, high functioning autism and so on, does not appear to be different or to have a disability, that he does not in fact have a disability.  If you see someone with no physical differences, who is able to walk around, and is seen talking to his family, people can assume that whatever problem this person is supposed to have is no major problem at all.  Other times, when parents of a person with autism explain to those in leadership what things are hard for their child and where he will need a little extra guidance or help, or, when they explain what is not working for their child about the way things are at church, sometimes people can’t seem to understand that there is a problem.  It’s as if because it appears that all is normal, they think there will be no problematic situations later.  Or maybe it’s because they are people who are already truly committed to reach out to others, so they feel like they are truly doing that.  Maybe, this is why they can’t see that there is a problem sometimes–because they believe they’ve already met the need.

If someone comes in who is a child or teen, it may be thought that somehow the parents will convey exactly what other people are supposed to do, and nothing need happen until then. There are a couple of reasons why this is not a good assumption.  First, in a new setting, it can be unclear to the parents that it is either appropriate or acceptable for them to make special requests of other people in a group setting.  It’s awkward.  If a parent is just making his or her own way in a new church, it can be difficult for her to know if it is all right to ask for specifics.  Parents don’t want to be demanding, as that probably isn’t going to help them make friends either.

Also, the parents may not know that their child needs an entrée into youth group or conversations with other people in the body; they may assume welcoming overtures will be made to their child by adults and other children.  Or, they may know that he could use help, but they may not be sure how to help provide that extra assistance in a way that will be both effective and workable.  In any social environment, nobody wants to feel like a special project, or like somebody is being paid to be her friend.  You can’t manipulate genuine friendship, and people with ASDs do not want you to.  That’s fake.  People want to be wanted, because.

While it is always true that more effort could be made by any individual to reach any desired goal, the question becomes, how much is enough?  For people on the spectrum, and honestly for any person who has trouble getting to know new people or trusting them, there’s a chasm between where he is now and the desired community on the other side.  He’s not being difficult; he’s not being selfish.  Relationship building is painful work for him.  Sure, there are times when she’s not making much of an effort.  There are always times when individuals don’t make enough of an effort.  But, in general, a person with an ASD is probably doing her best to interact with others.  To say that if she had just pushed herself harder she could have been welcomed is obviously wrong.

And I would agree that the church’s goal is to share the good news with as many people as possible.  That includes the people who are already in the church building, not just the ones on other continents.  I’m not saying those who have never heard are not important.  They are priceless and valued by God.  But so is each person you see as you come and go on a Sunday.  If the church cannot love those who are sitting in its figurative lap, how is that church living out the gospel?  Would you want to come every week to a place where others assume that you should be working at full steam on your areas of weakness, or would you like to come to a place where on a foundation of love first, you can grow stronger?

To know Christ is to know his love for us.  His love for us bridges the gap and draws us in.  So we bear with others’ weaknesses, knowing that they too are bearing with ours.  We reach out to each other because.

The love of Christ compels us.

 

Posted June 9, 2016 by swanatbagend in autism, the church