Sensing Too Much – Spiritual Autism. Or why churches should be careful of pastors who would flunk monastery!

I love “inputs.” If you imagined me with lots of electronic outlets and inputs that wires get plugged into, that would be about right.

It’s not noise that I need. I need to be sensing, wondering, thinking, “what iffying.” A lot of the time, this gets me into trouble because in my heart and mind I am always moving on. I can do routine, at least to some degree. Most of the things of life I manage to some degree of acceptability. Never had a bank overdraft. I change my car oil on time, before time. I can’t remember being late for a meeting. I am one of those “better two hours early than five minutes late” whackos. Don’t know where it came from. I think it mostly had to do with being an early morning paper route kid from age 12 to 18. Never had the teenage syndrome of sleeping in til 1 pm. A couple of times waking up late and dealing with seniors who didn’t have their newspaper on time cured me of tardiness. I still wake up at 4:30am or before, even if I don’t get out of bed, though mostly I do.

But I digress.

One of the things that I regularly run into in ministry is people who don’t love “inputs.” Not the “I don’t want to do anything for Jesus” kind of people. But the people who are looking for safe places, natural rhythms, predictable zones. Sensing too much going on gets them hyped and they start feeling out of place. They are lost when it comes to plugging into the moving escalator of ministry programming and getting it all done.

I think there are lots of these people. When I was doing recovery work with Celebrate Recovery, I ran into whole groups with this kind of issue. Easily overloaded. Not sure where it comes from. But life gets overwhelming awful quick for lots of people. they shrink, retreat, hide – but try to connect.

This link to a posting by Andrew Sullivan calls to mind how much many people have to struggle with sensory overload at the level of autism. It has a great video capturing how the “normal” world feels to a person who is autistic. But I think it relates to a broader spectrum than we might first imagine.

I find myself to be the kind of person these kind of people stay away from. I overload them. Loading is not what it is about for them. They seek good things like love, trust, safety, loyalty, honor and reciprocity. I seek those things, too. (I think!!) But not in a way that slows things down but speeds them up. CR is where things had to slow down so that connection could speed up. If you go to any recovery meeting, the routine is predictable. Almost like the Mass at a Roman Catholic church. It’s about not getting confused, staying focused, using ritual to make it through because it is so easy to wander.

Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, speaks of this phenomenon in the RC church. A short, predictable embodiment of spiritual focus is much more effective, he asserts, in keeping an addict in the now of recovery. Keep the ritual going! As soon as you introduce elements of surprise, creativity, and spontaneous human invention, the mind and spirit are destabilized. This is my phrasing, but I think I am faithful to Rolheiser’s point.

It takes a certain amount of faith to do church this way in my Evangelical tradition. We were taught early on that it is about getting so many rears into so many seats and getting so many responses. The Pastor is program leader and cheerleader. Rah, rah, rah. It works!! And immediately, too. So immediately that you think it will last forever. It doesn’t. Because what you get them to attend for you must continue to give them. Or, as they say, what you win them with you must keep them with. No game changing. Churches that “bait and switch” create a lot of “customers” who are always looking for the next best bait. And soon every week as to be “better” than the last week. And when it doesn’t, the customers get restless.

I am wandering a bit myself here, but I wonder if the church as I know it creates too much stuff, always treating people like walking input devices into which the church is trying to stick wires. More people than we know refuse this. We don’t know because they are not there. Maybe there is more spiritual autism out there than we have thought about, more ADHD.

Maybe extroverted, hyped up and overextended pastors are not the solution to much of anything. Maybe a longer stint in a monastery for a while would do the pastors and the churches they serve some good. Being all present to the parishioners in the now of today rather than cooking up five year plans might do more good in twenty years than four 5 year plans. I wonder who has the courage.

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