One fall day about 20 years ago, I packed up my car and set out on the hour drive from home to begin my college career. I was excited to shed some of my high school persona I had painstakingly crafted over the past four years and start over and simultaneously wondered how, or if I would succeed at all. With most of my belongings packed in the back, I reached around the mess of items in the front seat for any CD I could listen to for the next 50-60 minutes. I landed on the most unlikely of choices, a Michael W. Smith album. It seemingly materialized out of nowhere, 18-year-old me not being particularly interested in church, nor was I a Christian music connoisseur in any way. I popped it in the CD player, scanned through the songs, and vaguely recognized the song “Place In This World”.
One verse stood out immediately.
If there are millions down on their knees
among the many?
Or can you still hear me?
The next hour was filled with questions as I listened to these words over and over and over again. Did God really hear me? Did He really SEE me? I began to search for the answers to those questions as I began to seriously explore Christianity, church, and my place in it. And here is what I discovered.
Almost immediately upon attending church regularly, I found I struggled with many of the aspects of a traditional worship service. This was not all that surprising to me, as after all, I struggled to maintain focus through even 50-minute class lectures during the week. Sunday mornings, I was highly distracted by any number of things: the one random ceiling fan in the sanctuary that did not work, was not turned on, or rotated at a slower speed than all the others, the way the light hit the carpet through the stained glass window panes, thoughts of whether or not I set my fantasy football lineup for the day, and the list goes on. I tried to sit in the same spot each week, as my focus only diminished and restlessness amplified if I sat in a new or unfamiliar location with a new visual perspective of the worship stage. I spent so much of my mental and emotional energy attempting to just be “present”. I often sat and wondered if God saw me. If He saw my internal restlessness as I tried to pull together the pieces of my fragmented brain long enough to absorb some of what I was supposed to be learning.
The experience of Sunday morning church often felt hard. And from where I was sitting, it seemed like it came easy for everyone else around me. I know now, both statistically and anecdotally, that I was wrong. I was not the only one. With nearly 25% of the population of the United States impacted by disability in some way, I was far from being alone. I just didn’t know it yet. It would be many years before my behaviors and feelings were named Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
My husband and I once visited a very large church while we were on vacation on the recommendation of a friend. The church had a bookstore onsite and after one of the services, I perused the shelves out of curiosity. I have no idea what the sermon message was that day, but 15 years later, I remember one of the books I saw on the shelves. It was about how Christians should be wary of psychology and seemed to suggest Christians should not pursue psychological support. By this time, I was a part-time seminary student working full time in a residential treatment facility for teenagers and this book stood out like a Pruis at a monster truck rally. What would this church say to the teenagers I encountered every day who were profoundly impacted by mental health struggles and by profound, often debilitating trauma inflicted on them by the very persons who were supposed to care for them? What would this church say to the teenagers I taught every day who carried the 24/7 burden and impacts of the feeling of never really belonging anywhere? It started me thinking broadly about why those who seek professional help seem to be marginalized and stigmatized by the very institution that preaches the passage in Genesis proclaiming God as El Roi (the Hebrew translation for “the God who sees”)? Confusing, yes?
In subsequent years, I have found myself amidst discussions and questions about whether or not mental illness is demon possession or sin, if autism is real, or those with disabilities are worthy of integrating into our congregations (the latter not so much communicated with words but by the inaccessibility of some aspects of church and congregational life to those with disabilities or mental health challenges). Thankfully, I have since encountered many churches that encourage individuals to pursue counseling and therapeutic treatment--either offered by qualified pastoral counseling staff or referred to trusted and effective local therapists. These same churches support those in their congregations seeking psychopharmacological interventions and partner with community organizations such as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), local school districts serving students with disabilities, and day programs and group homes.
When the church is at its best, it allows for diverse worship, connection, and service leadership opportunities. While I knew I was likely never going to join the finance team, the administrative team, or any other team that relied on one’s ability to be organized and attuned to detail, I found opportunities to mentor students in our ministries, race 5th graders down a slip and slide during summer vacation Bible school, MC events and help lead and build volunteer teams. It was in these spaces where I began to understand that God sees me. Did I struggle to focus nearly every single Sunday in church? Yes. Was I still equipped to serve in the church? Also, yes. The church, if it chooses, can extend opportunities for meaningful service, connection, and belonging to those who have previously had few opportunities in faith communities.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, churches have begun to devise many creative ways to minister outside of the church building. Instead of relying on our community to come to us, we are going to them. We are doing ministry outdoors, on patios, driveways, backyards, parks, and neighborhood streets. This forced shift in the way we do ministry has created brand new pathways for connection and relationship building. Those who felt limited or intimidated by the physical walls of the church have now been liberated to any number of flexible ministry settings. I too have felt more freedom to worship, connect and serve during this incredibly challenging season. And in that freedom, I have seen God redeem and restore so much of the church experience, for me, and for others.
Photo by Ismael Sanchez from Pexels.