Almost every Sunday for the past couple of years, John, Justin, Ryan and I have attended church in either Camas or Vancouver, WA. We started out at a non-denominational church called Journey and the name just fit our life at the time to a T. Last year, we changed to a church a little closer called LifePoint.
Going to church was something we had never done together as a family in California and it was a routine that we wanted to develop when we moved to Washington because we wanted to give our children and ourselves the opportunity to learn more about God, to sing worship songs and to hopefully make some friends.
I think a lot of the reason people don't attend church is because they haven't found one that they feel really fits them. Certainly I believe one can have a strong, personal relationship of quality with God without being a regular church-goer but over the past couple of years, I have seen a benefit to attending a regular Sunday service and having the chance to sing, hear a message and ponder about how I can better myself, be a better parent, a better wife, a better daughter and a better steward of the resources and gifts I have been blessed with.
That isn't to say attending a regular service isn't a challenge for me and I do suspect that some of it likely has to do with being on the autism spectrum. Tonight's blog focuses on some of the challenges I'm currently experiencing at my church.
Here are 4 examples of some of my obstacles I face at church that take away from having as meaningful of an experience as I would ideally like. I'd be interested to know if you're willing to share, who (either on or off the autism spectrum) can relate or if perhaps you have your own challenges you'd be willing to express.
1) Sometimes the music is way too loud or in a pitch / frequency that bothers my ears. I see this sometimes bothering Justin as well when he sits with us on special occasions where there is no children's ministry. At times, I've seen him cover his ears (wishing I could join right in but knowing it would be socially inappropriate) and in appropriate situations, I've taken him away from the noise to give him a sensory break.
2) Often the people around me sing or clap off key or randomly burst out into praise and it is distracting. Of course I respect other people's desire and need to worship and praise in their own way and would never say anything to try and stop the worship but the off-key stuff, especially with the clapping off-beat totally distracts me. I feel my most genuine worshipping is done at home when I can sing to the songs downloaded from I-Tunes and know my heart is truly in the moment.
I believe of course that God enjoys all true worship, on or off key but sometimes, selfishly, I just wish it wasn't so darn loud. (My issue, I know!)
3) In the particular church where we're now attending, the pastor verbally tells people after worship each week to "take a few minutes and turn around and greet 5 - 10 people you don't know and say hi" and I feel it is said in such a way that it is obligatory and not optional.
I of course don't mind smiling and saying hi to people and being nice but when I feel forced to do so, it feels fake. Although I have lived a whole lifetime learning how to put on and pull off what I like to call "the mask" to fit in with society's social scripts, when I have a choice, I really don't like doing anything that feels contrived because I crave honest and respectful interaction.
I guess what I'm saying is that especially in a church setting, I am hoping to form genuine and authentic relationships and the obligatory routine of shaking hands with someone sitting around me just for the sake of doing so and saying "hi" feels awkward and not purposeful. (For example, I haven't noticed any subsequent conversations result from these greetings if I happen to say, run into someone in the church lobby although given a chance, I do try to make eye contact and smile.) I guess to some these greetings has a purpose and for those who are extroverted and expressive, it can even be fun but for me, it's anxiety ridden. I realize this is something I need to work on but I often wonder if this is the kind of thing which keeps some people away from church. (I can't imagine this being a fun exercise for people on the spectrum.)
4) The passing of the money plate, the collecting of the tithe. Let me say first that I do not have any problem in donating to the church, to charity and to worthy causes. When I founded Count Your Beans over 11 years ago, I pledged that a portion of all sales would be donated to charities which help children. This month on our website, we pledge to donate a portion of all sales / profits to worthwhile charities promoting Autism Awareness, research and support.
What I have a personal issue with is that it we're always being verbally asked for money each week as part of the service. Money for tithe, money for offering, money for missions, money for benevolence, money for other good worthy causes... We're often not just asked once in a service (at the beginning when we have envelopes to fill out) but then again at the end.
John and I donate what we can and oftentimes it feels above our means but we do it from our heart. We're currently in a very hard financial position as our business has been very slow the past couple of years and since our boys were diagnosed on the autism spectrum in 2008, our expenses have risen in a lot of different areas. I don't say this to complain because we are also incredibly blessed. During times of tribulation, we've also been blessed to have some very generous economic help from my parents but naturally we want and need to be able to sustain ourselves and make sure our children are well provided for in the present and in the future. We don't know what the future holds for them. We don't know what the future holds for us.
So I guess what I'm saying is that I feel we are giving what we can to the church but in my mind and heart it is never enough. I feel guilty... I feel often like a failure because I'm not giving more financially... I feel like no matter what I do or give, it won't be enough. (Admittedly, I often have this challenge in other areas of my life.)
I rather suspect that the passing of the plate is what keeps a lot of people away from church as well. In my belief system, one gives because they do so of a free heart and mind. They can be reminded occasionally of the joys of giving and the benefits of God's economy versus man's but I feel uncomfortable when I perceive that it is being shoved down my throat all the time.
Okay... how is that for honest? I sure hope that I don't come across sounding like an awful person because I love the people of this world, I love God, I pray daily for peace, I do what I can to try and make this world a better place but sometimes, just sometimes, I feel stressed about going to church. I don't feel stressed about having a relationship with God although there are certainly lots of questions I have but it's the actual "church" where I have challenges.
I talked a bit more about some of my church / religious experiences in my Easter Sunday blog, "Easter Sunday - Thoughts From The Autism Spectrum". Please feel free to check it out.
As I don't often have the chance to converse with others about church and religion, I welcome your thoughts here and you can post anonymously if you'd like.
Am I the only one out there feeling the way I do? How have any of you out there overcome your obstacles or challenges with the church?