Church: The Friendliest Place in Town?
To this day, I can still recall the particular dreams and aspirations that I had for my boys when they were born. However, as I traveled the long and weary special needs journey, my hopes and dreams for my boys on the autism spectrum have had to undergo major revisions. One of those revisions has had to be in the area of friendships. Watching your child struggle to make friends can be difficult, but for parents of kids with autism, it can be devastating. Many of you who are reading this have been there, done that, and I’ll bet that it still breaks your heart that very few people in your child’s life have ever attempted to be their friend.
Many kids, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum are deprived of friendships. It is not unusual, especially for those on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, for all of the relationships to be with people who are either family or those who are paid to be with them (i.e., therapists, para’s, respite providers, etc.).
It’s difficult for those of us who have friendships to imagine what it would do to us if we did not have any of them at all. Friendships help us to grow, develop, enjoy, laugh, relax, share, and participate meaningfully in our community. An absence of friends makes it difficult to develop self-respect and a sense of self-worth. An absence of friendships can lead to loneliness, despair, and depression.
Friendships with those who are like us are a normal part of life, but Christian friendship should reach out, in particular, to those who are different and those who are marginalized. The problem is that many churches do not do a good job at reaching out to those who are different. The problem of a lack of friendships with people with special needs is a very real one and is facilitated by two primary factors:
1. Extractional Church
The church operates, in large part, as “extractional.” By extractional, I mean to say that churches, with all of their programs and events, have a tendency to remove believers from their non-church relationships. Alan Hirsch, author of The Shaping Of Things To Come, states that, “Within 3 to 5 years, a new believer hardly has any meaningful friendships outside the church.”
The U.S. Congregational Life Survey reveals that the longer people worship at a church, the more bonds they develop with other church members, and the less meaningful contact they have with non-church members (US Congregational Life Survey, December 6, 2011). Neil Cole, author of Church 3.0, agrees with this previous statement and adds:
“Instead of connecting to the world, churches have a tendency to isolate people inside the church community. I have met countless Christians who have spent so much time in church that they no longer know any non–Christians.”
When the church cuts off the friendship ties of new followers in favor of building only safe Christian relationships, it has less impact in the community. The influence the church sacrifices by cutting off friendships outside of the church is that the community at large is robbed of God’s kingdom influence…to include the special needs community. As a result, the potential exists for the church to be considered by the special needs community as a group that is judgmental, fearful, and exclusive. As a result, it is often perceived as the un-friendliest place in town.
2. “Same As Me” Friendships
Human beings are social creatures. We’re made in the image of a social God who is Trinity so it is only natural that creatures made in God’s image should desire friendships. For most of us, our friendships are based on the “same as me” principle. When many of us reflect on our own friendships, we find that the majority, if not all, of our friends are very much like us: socioeconomic status, common interests, age, culture, common activities, religious preferences, and so on. This process of developing friendships reflects the philosophy within our Western culture and, by implication, on the church that is embedded within that culture. The limitation of “same as me” friendships is obvious…friendships with those who are “different” are virtually nonexistent.
The type of friendship that is revealed in the Gospels in the life of Jesus differs radically from our Western cultural understandings of friendship. In the Gospels, Jesus presents us with a radically different perception of friendship. Jesus befriended those who were cast out by society— the tax collectors, the blind, lepers, the poor, the mentally ill, harlots, all those who were in many respects radically unlike himself.
Jesus modeled a form of friendship that was radical in that it transcended “same as me” relational boundaries and was extended towards those who were different. Pastor John Swinton, a former mental health nurse, stated “In the earthly life and ministry of Jesus one finds a continuing picture of a man entering into friendships not with social equals, but those whom society had downgraded and considered unworthy of friendship.”
The Solution: Friendship As An Outreach Ministry Of The Church
It is within the area of friendships, that the Christian community has a vital contribution that they can make to the care of people, and families, with special needs. Professionals and medical specialists often focus on the biological, psychological, medical, or neurological aspects of a disability in order to bring healing. It is a gift that God has given to some. However, the whole body of Christ can offer a distinctive contribution to the care process thru friendships. Nancy Eiesland, former professor of theology at Emory University, suggested that friendship is the distinctively Christian gift that the church has to offer marginalized people. She rightfully believed that, “Friendship is necessary for the church to be the church in any kind of meaningful sense because the authenticity of the gospel is always judged by the ability of Christians to live their lives in ways that reflect the truth of the message.”
I believe that the role of the church lies in creating a community of people that should be willing to develop and nurture friendships with people with special needs. These types of friendships, in and of themselves, would be the best way for the church to become the friendliest place in town. I can’t think of a better form of outreach ministry than friendship. Caring for people with autism in this way would not be an act of charity but an expression of the true nature of the church and the One we seek to image.
Friendship with those living on the autism spectrum or any other special need is not an option for the church; it is a primary mark of the identity and faithfulness of the church that is seeking to demonstrate Jesus every day, in every way, to every one.
In addition to serving as a Church Consultant with Key Ministry, Mike Woods currently works as the Director for the Special Friends Ministry at First Baptist Orlando.