Archive for the ‘the church’ Category

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.

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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

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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

Make the Rough Places Plain   Leave a comment

In my most recent blog, I shared an open letter from an anonymous blogger about his experience in a local church.

I shared this letter in concert with the author in our mutual hope that by delineating his experience, we can transform future experiences for other individuals with autism.  I hope that by reading it, you will begin to understand some of the challenges faced by those on the spectrum and that you will know what you can do to change the status quo.

If it isn’t obvious what to do–read on.

My experiences so far with relationships with people on the autism spectrum, and others with disabilities, have given me a few ideas.

First, I think any church that makes it a priority to train its small group leaders and ministry team leaders can allot time to provide some simple information about autism–what it is and how it affects people.  There are increasing numbers of children and adults who are on the spectrum, so there will be more of them attending churches.  It makes sense to know how to reach out.  It makes sense to remove the simple barrier of ignorance.  A half hour session as a part of other training would be a great start.  Other special needs and differences might be included as well, since the key component in any interaction with anyone is respect for the individual.

With autism, it may not be so much that a person looks different, but that a person acts differently.  However, I’m confident that a little practice can take the fear out of interacting with any person who is different or has a disability.  I know it can be awkward at first.  I still think one-to-one respectful interaction works no matter who you’re interacting with.  As my guest blogger observed, making a big deal is not necessary.  A little bit of straightforward teaching providing the needed awareness is, in my opinion, all it would take.  Parents of children with disabilities and those with disabilities, let me know your thoughts, please.

Second, in any group setting, whether a large group like a church congregation, or a smaller one like an in-home group, to initiate and develop a relationship with a person on the autism spectrum and welcome him in will take a little effort.  A warm genuine greeting, followed up by follow-up, will open the door to relationship over time.  By follow-up I mean, check in with the person.  Whether that is next week at the next meeting, whether that is Sunday morning, whether that is by phone or text in a few weeks if you haven’t seen him, it doesn’t matter.  I mean follow-up.  Do something practical to show your interest and care.  After a few meetings, invite the person to join you for dinner in your home or elsewhere.  If he doesn’t seem ready for such an invitation, save it for later, but do it.

For a person with autism to be welcomed, it isn’t going to work for you to assume he will blaze his own trail into a group.

Also, many people with autism have a hard time remembering names and faces.  Especially in a large group setting, such as a chaotic church vestibule, it is very difficult to pick out individuals in the crowd.  It all blurs together, and can become overwhelming.  So, when you see the person at church, greet him.  Don’t be offended if he doesn’t remember your name.  Don’t be offended if he seems stiff and unsure.  Don’t wait for him to initiate with you.  The fact that he’s there, in the building, can be a huge effort for him.

Once the person is included in a group, he can feel more comfortable, and will eventually get to know other people in the group.  He has a great deal to contribute–insights in discussion, and loyalty in friendship.

Honestly, it only takes one person.

One person to consistently and faithfully initiate in friendship.  Once that one person draws the other person in and he experiences welcome, he will develop friendships and relationships with the other people in the group.

Christ welcomes us.  By definition, we welcome each other.

 

 

Posted May 27, 2016 by swanatbagend in autism, the church

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Open Letter to Sojourn Community Church — Guest Blogger   1 comment

Today, I am publishing an open letter by an anonymous blogger about his experience in a church as part of my current series on life with autism.

 

Almost two years ago now, I stood up and walked out of the sanctuary of Sojourn’s J-Town campus. I never came back. Indeed, I never set foot in Sojourn Community Church (as it calls itself) again. I swore that I would not, and I have kept that oath to the letter.

As I said, it’s been two years, and many things have changed in that time—just as many things have also remained the same. One of those things: I am still angry. Not so angry as I could be, but furious nonetheless—furious at Sojourn for all that it did and did not do—and this fury shows no signs of dissipating.

Holding anger within for two years is unhealthy, to make a bit of an understatement. It is time to set it free, and hope that by doing so it will cause no further damage, either to myself or to others. It is time that Sojourn knows how it hurt me, and what it must do to improve.

I came to Sojourn from a church that had, since my arrival, made a custom of ignoring me. It was easy, of course, for this to occur: I am an introvert, and introverts excel at metamorphosing into inanimate fixtures of their environment, no more deserving of interaction than a piece of furniture. I assumed that this was my natural fate within the church—I was not outgoing nor stimulating in conversation, so why should anyone reach out to me? I contributed nothing; why should I receive anything? A disappointing state of affairs, but a wholly just one.

In the end, my family departed that church, for it also made a custom of ignoring even those who contributed most to its enfeebled existence. And, due to doctrinal particulars that I need not detail, we wound up at Sojourn.

Sojourn was an entirely different place. For one thing, it was big, and growing even bigger. It surrounded itself with artistic talent and endeavor, from an unimpeachable worship band to bulletins prefaced with artworks relevant to the sermon series. The sermons were never anything less than eloquent.

However, the people who comprise Sojourn seemed to be the most significant difference; they were young and hip—the youngest and hippest that a church can scrounge up these days. More importantly, they were enthusiastic for all that Sojourn Community Church stood for: the Gospel, Jesus, and most of all, Community. If you have attended Sojourn for any length of time, you will have noticed that it emphasizes Community a great deal; there is never a Sunday where the phrase “we are a Community!” is not emitted by some grinning individual at a microphone.

You will also have become aware of the primary vehicle by which Community is expressed: namely, the community group. Having become members, my family immediately involved itself in one—and I was there every step of the way. I had discovered that passivity would not work: in order to be anything more than a tumor on the Body of Christ, to truly belong, one must contribute.

In the beginning, I tried my best—and for a time, it seemed to work. My input in sermon discussions was valued (or so it was claimed). Individuals inquired after my well-being (a strange thing indeed). When I underwent neurological surgery, there were people with whom I had no genetic kinship in the waiting room, actively praying for my recovery.

But it did not last. I do not know when the laborious process of constructing relationships with those who comprised our community group ceased, but cease it did: it was as if I had hit some barrier that could not be surmounted by any amount of effort. I reached out, but my reaching was no longer reciprocated. Invitations were refused, excuses made. I stopped attending community group; no one noted my absence. (I did not merely assume this—my parents confirmed it.)

While taking an intensely difficult class in mathematics over the summer, a fairly prominent individual within Sojourn offered to tutor me. Desperate to the point of wishing that I were dead, I accepted. Yet this individual would never respond to my emails requesting assistance in time for us to actually meet. In the end, he stopped responding to my emails at all.

Again—and not for the last time—I was a non-entity. I had less worth than the installations that Sojourn produces in an attempt to validate itself through artistic expression: at least people would sometimes stop and look at those things.

Having been completely abandoned, I left. I fled this shell of a church that would not extend its much-vaunted “community” to the likes of me. In the end, I had lost the capacity to trust, and gained…nothing. Nothing, except bitterness.

Perhaps I simply did not try hard enough. Perhaps I got what I deserved. Perhaps there is no need for me to be angry: there are far worse things that Sojourn could have done to me. But being ignored, and then persistently informed that the church is overjoyed to involve me (“We’d love to meet you”), is cruel.

There is a reason for the regrettable events I have described: I have Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes me about as capable of developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships as a turnip. However, I am not stupid enough to fail in recognizing fraud. “Community” does not exist within Sojourn Community Church, except as a buzzword. Seek it here, and you will fail; knock, and the door will be opened, then slammed shut.

“All are welcome”, states the page describing community groups on Sojourn’s website. I find that I must disagree, Sojourn. Some are welcome: not the lonely, the broken, nor the hopeless. Certainly not those on the autism spectrum.

So, what can you, my reader, do to rectify this situation? Firstly, mean what you say. Do not feign friendliness. Align your actions with the gospel of grace that you aver. In a world of hypocrites, you have been part of the problem and not the solution.

Secondly, take note of the introverts around you: the person who never speaks up in community group, the skinny young man who wanders around the narthex after Communion. Don’t simply introduce yourself: try to involve yourself in our lives. Invite us out for lunch. Nine times out of ten, we will refuse; but there is always a chance that we might be willing to take a risk and accept your attempts to show concern for us.

I should note that this is not, per se, a call for the church to do better in its ministry towards those diagnosed with Asperger’s, or even those on the autism spectrum in general; although I know firsthand that Sojourn is for all intents and purposes oblivious to us, and that this must change, I do not wish those on the autism spectrum to become the targets of some new initiative in outreach—grist for the mills of pamphlets and books describing five-point plans for “welcoming those with ASD”, complete with mnemonic acronyms. The church in the United States excels at this, but I want none of it. I do not want special treatment. I merely want to be treated as a human being.

I know that introversion is an unacceptable character trait in today’s culture. But we have the image of God imprinted on us, too. It would behoove those who call themselves “Christian” to treat us in the manner to which they were called.

Posted May 25, 2016 by swanatbagend in autism, the church

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