Sunday, April 11, 2010

Challenges At Church - Is it related to Autism or just my own issues?

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? 


  1. June in Las VegasMay 8, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    Hi, Karen,
    I enjoyed reading your Challenges at Church thoughts. To answer your initial question, "Is it related to my autism or just my own issues", my guess is to say that it may not be, because I share your feelings on points 2,3, and 4.

    Some background info -I was born and raised Lutheran in a German/Swiss household. I attended Lutheran school and we went to church every Sunday, and we were very active in the church one way or another. I have always had a church home no matter where I lived and usually attended each Sunday. In the past few years, I have slacked off and not always gone each Sunday - maybe twice a month. (Talk about guilt!)
    I do share your feelings exactly on most of the issues you mentioned. #2 - I guess when God's people get together, there are many ways to worship as you said, and I too am distracted by those souls who recite too loud, or sing too loud off key. My own worship goes right out the window and I find myself listening to them worship and trying to hear how many notes they actually hit in tune. I guess it's because I am a music teacher, who knows, but I think it is normal to be distracted by others who do not blend in with the crowd. I agree with you that I too, worship God best when I am at home listening to spiritual music or praying by myself.

    #3 - Our church has at times asked us to greet the people around us by saying "The Peace of the Lord" or "Good Morning" and shaking their hand. We are not asked very often, but I feel exactly the way you described. Now I love wishing peace for others just as much as the next person, but you hit the nail right on the head when you said that it feels contrived and not honest interaction. I'm sure other people are better and more comfortable at it than others, but not me. I suppose it does get everyone moving about and being aware of their neighbor and breaking the ice. I always just figured it would be good for me to be more outgoing to people I don't know.

    #4. It does seem a bit much that your church asks twice in one service. We have a collection plate each week and from time to time certain projects that ask for our support, not to mention that a preschool was just added to our gradeschool. But nothing is formally said each Sunday. I always feel that I could give more, too, and have felt some guilt (my parents would not approve of the $ I have spent for my doll collection) but I do what I can, and try not give out of guilt, but from the heart. God loves a cheerful giver, I was taught. The minute I give out of guilt, I stop myself. There are so many ways to give. I feel that some of the most important are not monetary, or attached to the church. For one example, you give of yourself to the autistic (and non autistic) community through your beautiful blog "Come As You Are-Let Your Light Shine". You are sharing you experiences with others who face the same challenges, and in so doing you help them. When we use our gifts to help others or just use the gifts we have been given, we are giving and serving God. Ed and I help out the local basset hound rescue. It is not attached to any church, but I would like to think that God appreciates our helping out his lost and abandoned creatures.

    One of my issues with church is that my mind wanders often and I end up thinking about things I need to do that day or whatever instead of listening to the sermon. The other issue is that sometimes when I get there, I start to relax a bit and notice how tired I am. I never fall asleep though, although my mom did that every week when I was growing up! And my husband does that! I had to poke my mother to keep her awake, and now I have to poke him!

    Just wanted to share my experiences and say that some are very much the same as those you have experienced. These issues do not keep me away from church, they just are not my favorite things about it.

    Keep on sharing and letting your beautiful light shine, Karen!

  2. I bring foam earplugs to church and make no bones about visibly inserting them, sometimes glaring at the choir. Mine is Anglican, with proper ritual, but sadly has lots of modern hippy dippy newage (rhymes with sewage) music, with crooning affected soloists, set in keys which are difficult for a man to sing, electrically amplified and very loud. I have often offered to repair the sound system, if handed a fire axe.

  3. Hello,
    As I was looking through my blog comments today, I realized I had never responded here to thank both of you for posting.

    June, actually I think I wrote to you your amazing post response back in May but reading your comments once again just showed me what an amazing woman you are and how well grounded you are too. Ed is truly lucky to have you!

    Justthisguy, I had to laugh about your offer to repair your church sound system. Let me know if they ever take you up on your generous offer! There may be a contracting opportunity there somewhere! :-)