I did some research recently on the web about autism. My search was prompted by the news that the young son of some friends of ours was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a disorder related to autism.
No one knows why, but the incidence of autism is rising sharply, up from less than 1 in 3,000 births in the 80s to 1 in 300 today.
My heart goes out to the families of autistic children. If you have a loved one who is touched by this syndrome, I hope you will understand that the following observations are not intended in any way to make light of what you go through. But reading about common symptoms of autism, I couldn't help but notice the list of traits sounds like a description of a many churches today: delayed development and adaptation, strange, repetitive behaviors, and a lack of social skills.
Delayed Development. Our developmental delay is fairly pronounced. It's about 50 years! A leader in my denomination recently stated our churches will be perfectly poised to minister in a relevant way to the culture just as soon as the 1950s return! We are like a football team that runs the same play over and over again, hoping for a different result. We communicate well within our tightly knit subset of the Body of Christ, but we can't even communicate well with our friends of different denominations, much less with those with no church background or frame of reference. Adaptation? Our motto: We don't need to adapt; We like us just the way were are!
Strange, repetitive behaviors? Ha! Almost everything we do is a strange, repetitive behavior. How else could you explain our continuing to do things a particular way or maintaining programs years and years after it has obviously outlived it's usefulness? That wonderful working definition of insanity says it is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. One Internet entry on autism described this behavior as "They get 'stuck' doing the same things over and over and can't move on to other things." Ouch.
A friend of mine was once queried about his years of service in vocational ministry. "So you have 25 years experience?" he was asked. His reply: "No, ma'am, I've got one year's experience 25 times."
As for lack of social skills, well, have you ever been to a church business meeting? I rest my case. No one could reasonably say the church excels in the area of social skills.
Sunday School guru Harry Piland said decades ago, "Your church exists for those who are not yet members of it." We might believe that in our heads (although I have quoted that to people over the years and heard them react angrily to it) but our actions belie that belief. If you study any part of your church - the worship service, programs, publications, etc. - you will see they are all geared toward insiders, those who are already a part of your church and who lay claim, by action and attitude to ownership of it.
In general, those with autism tend to be in their own world and seemingly uninterested in others. Ouch again. We resemble that remark!
Sadly, there is no cure for autism. But with the love, patience and support of loving families, many have succeeded in various fields of endeavor despite (and sometimes even because of) the disorder. Persons with various forms of autism include comedian Dan Akroyd, American poet Christopher Knowles, author Jasmine O'Neill, Nobel Laureate Vernon L. Smith, composer Hikari Oe, wildlife illustrator Dylan Scott Pierce, and 15 year old jazz prodigy Matt Savage.
The accomplishments of these remarkable people reminds me that the church can overcome it's disorder as well. Thankfully, our heavenly Father is unconditionally patient and loving!