Today Stephen speaks about respecting neurodiversity in the Church. Check out his other post about Why Online Church Services Should Continue Beyond the Pandemic.
People experience God in different ways. For some people, the connection happens during a vibrant worship set, others through traditional liturgy, and others by walking through the woods or climbing a mountain. None of us are exactly the same.
This is especially true when it comes to neurodiversity. Neurodiversity has been defined as “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders).”
In a recent meeting with the group home where my children with autism live, we discussed their religious activities. My son thoroughly enjoys watching the online services of the church where I am a pastor. This is an important part of his routine. While my daughter sometimes watches the services over his shoulder, it is not really her preference. For my daughter, her religious activity is watching her favourite Veggie Tales episodes. And that is okay.
I have seen a greater awareness in congregations about neurodiversity and the variety of ways that people connect with God. One way of accommodating some forms of neurodiversity is by focusing less on the teaching of doctrine and more on relationships and experience. I have seen the benefits of this as people who are provided common opportunities to experience God together.
The only problem is that this only benefits one type of neurodiversity. I spoke to a young man with autism who had been attending a small group. The focus had been on relationships and experience, two things that did not come easy to him. Trying to connect, he mentioned his interest in Christian apologetics. That was quickly shut down as not relevant to Christians today.
For some, the focus on relationships and experience seems to be the lowest common denominator which will allow a shared faith community. While relationships and experience come easy to some, for some people on the autism spectrum, they are far more difficult than the most complex philosophical questions.
Respecting neurodiversity means not starting with an assumption of what people want or need. Christian discipleship always happens within a specific context. Start with the people who are present and adjust the practices accordingly. It is more complicated than a standard way of discipleship but it is a way that respects that different ways God has created us.