There is one phrase the church often says in a way that hinders ministry. One phrase that can stop any effort of living out God’s desire of being a place of welcome and love.
We cannot do that here.
It is a phrase that comes in many forms. Regardless of its formation, the statement projects a belief that the community is incapable of doing something that is beyond its normal ways of expression. The phrase does not suggest a lack of understanding that the church or community needs to reach out beyond itself. It does, however, suggest a lack of willingness to try.
At its root, the phrase comes out of fear. This fear is not unlike that of the Israelites, who were fearful of the unknown of God’s promised future and struggled to move forward. A community cannot fully experience God’s vision to be a community for all when fear consumes a church.
This is especially the case in reaching out to marginalized communities, such as the autism community. Those who advocate for inclusion in the church for autistic individuals can often hear expressions of fear that prevent a church and community from living out a vision of inclusion. It can be defeating to experience fear when we expect a community to embrace God’s vision of welcome with optimism. To the point that instead of pushing forward toward God’s vision of welcome, many will give up and not move forward.
So, how might advocates push forward through common fears offered in the church?
One common fear is the belief that there is not enough money. This is an expression of fear based on the scarcity of resources. It is a belief that there is not enough to do more than keep the doors open.
While reminding the church that it is to live in the hopes of God’s abundant resources, advocates and churches must remember that there is often more available than we realize. When people experience and connect to a vision and a story, they will give to help implement that dream in a community. At the same time, inclusion can occur in the church by partnering with existing resources in the community. A church can purchase the necessary items for sensory boxes for less than $100. Money is not a hindrance to inclusion.
Another common fear is the belief that there is not enough room. Most churches have rooms that it is using for nothing more than holding onto unused items.
Churches have the space needed to do ministry. When it has room, a ministry team needs to dream about how to utilize the space creatively. This type of dreaming can lead to the formation of sensory areas and quiet rooms. These rooms enable autistic individuals to have a safe space when they experience sensory overload. There are low-cost ways to create these spaces. It is better to use a room than to let it function as nothing more than a glorified closet.
Another common fear is that of failing to connect. It is the fear of being afraid of upsetting someone on the spectrum or doing something wrong. When we live in this fear, we do not try to engage the individual and their family. We also do not try to learn.
Everything we do in life comes with risks. If we live in the hopes of only doing ministry when it is easy, we will never try anything for God. The best way to overcome this fear is to try, step out, and make an effort. This might be the one thing most families on the spectrum, including my own, wishes they could see more of in the church.
The path forward for the church towards full inclusion of the autistic community is for the church to get over its fear. When the church gets over its fear, the church will experience the blessing of the embrace of a community that will express love and grace to them in a mighty way.