By / May 3

If you’ve not heard the word “neurodiversity” yet, you might soon — and I trust your life will be richer for it. Neurodiversity identifies people whose brains and bodies process information differently than much of the population. 

The fall of mankind means that we live in a world where our bodies and brains don’t function perfectly. Even though that is the case, the dignity of all humans as image-bearers of our triune God should still be affirmed and celebrated within the body of Christ. So why does it feel like many of us have been waiting too long to hear the church speak to these issues in a meaningful way?

We’ve been trained to see diagnoses like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or sensory processing disorder as purely deficit-based, measuring people negatively against a set of normal brain functions. But advocacy on the part of neurodiverse people themselves is beginning to flip the script. And fortunately, our society is beginning to see the value of people with neurological variations instead of seeing those people as problems. For Christians, this is welcomed news. We, of all people, should be able to see the beautiful way that God uses us in the midst of our challenges, difficulties, and sufferings.

Looking for love in unfamiliar places

Author, hip hop artist, Christian, and autism advocate Sho Baraka raps in a verse of Propaganda’s “I Ain’t Got An Answer” and captures the tension of life in a neurodiverse household as a parent of two sons diagnosed with autism:

It’s apparent sometimes I think I’ve failed as a parent. 
And my son having autism is rough.
But maybe he don’t speak cuz words don’t say much.

Maybe he don’t need words to communicate his love.
And sometimes his silence causes me to stumble.
It’s possible he’s a version of me that’s more humble.
And I think my child finds more joy in playin with my phone,Than playin’ on his own.
Will he shed a tear when I’m gone?
I’m wrestling with the shame of an outsider view of me,
Cause life is the spotlight on my own insecurities.
But I know his laugh, it lights up a thousand rooms.
And when he speaks to me it just like a flower blooms.

Baraka has shared publicly about how initially he didn’t want to disclose his boys’ diagnosis, wrestling with the world’s expectations of his boys and of him as a parent. Once he used his platform to share his family’s story, though, he said he received hundreds of notes from others saying he made their family feel represented.

Similarly, in his new book, Disability and the Church, Atlanta pastor Lamar Hardwick recalls a dual reaction when he shared his diagnosis and changed his Facebook page to “The Autism Pastor.” Being honest about his autism with his congregation opened the door for many families who — seeing the label — felt comfortable going to his church because they knew they would be cared for and prayed over, and that their worth would be acknowledged by “having a seat at the table.” While Hardwick says he respects people’s right to disclose or not disclose their diagnosis, he has been hurt by other Christians who indicated it would be better for him as a leader not to identify so freely as someone with autism.

Hardwick knows firsthand that “families and individuals with special needs don’t need us to rush them through the valley. They need us to walk with them slowly and deliberately . . . . Good shepherds go at a pace that works best for their flock.” 

I can attest from my own experience that the pastors who best understand my sister (who is neurodiverse) are the ones who themselves have children with disabilities. The level of patience and kindness they demonstrate is always from a place of knowing. I’ve also seen too often that such empathy is a rare commodity in the church. 

What can you do? 

If families with special needs are the most underrepresented demographic in the church, how can churches reach out to, get to know better, or shepherd neurodiverse families? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Don’t pathologize — Do some research

Neurodiversity is not one-size-fits-all and doesn’t necessarily always come with an official diagnosis. Spend time listening to neurodiverse people and reading some books on the subject.  You may be surprised to find out just how inaccurate and hurtful some ideas you have about ADHD (“That just means he’s hyper all the time”), autism (“Oh, he’s like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, right?”), dyslexia (“She’s just a slow reader”) are — let alone the pain that comes with dismissal (“Those aren’t real problems; it’s all overdiagnosed”). 

If you have a friend who has been diagnosed (or perhaps their child or a relative has), ask if they are comfortable sharing. If so, ask what things they enjoy about themselves and about neurodiversity in everyday life. Read websites from autistic people, people with ADHD, or dyslexia, and you will see that every story is unique.  

Several churches in my hometown of Chattanooga have “buddy programs” or “parents’ night out” to help make care and love for special needs families part of the regular ministry of the church. They want to be known as families who open their arms to serve others who otherwise might be overlooked, and then retain them as valued members. If Christians take the time to think through their social networks (school, neighborhood, workplace, sports leagues, etc.), they might recognize that they actually know several neurodiverse people. Are we seeking out them out for community within the body of Christ, or do we see them as an inconvenience or “high-maintenance” relationships to be avoided?

2. Support and accept them like Jesus would

When I think back to some of the trauma my sister endured in public schools in the early 1990s because of her neurodiversity and other special needs, the church was often one place my family could count on to go and have people support them. Thankfully, my sister’s behavior was not always a barrier for inclusion. Yes, she might talk your ear off about snakes, medical news, or whatever she had just learned about, and her volume might be louder than you anticipated for a conversation, but everyone knew how much she loved coming to spend time with the body of Christ every week. 

To this day, people from the churches my family has been part of still take my sister to run errands or to her various volunteering jobs because she cannot drive. Neighbors ask her to dogsit. She has tutored children at the local elementary school. She longs for a reason to get up in the morning, and Christian community is one of the few places where her dignity is actively being restored.   

3. Advocate for neurodiversity in your church 

If a member of your church is chronically misunderstood because of their behavior, don’t let others ridicule them or make jokes at their expense. If someone has an nontraditional idea or suggestion about ministry and shares it with church leadership, leaders should pause and ask themselves why they are uncomfortable with the out-of-the-box thinking or inconvenience before they say no. 

Neurodiverse people are very aware of power dynamics because too many are used to having their actions misinterpreted by those in authority. Youth leaders need to be especially vigilant and proactive about advocating for inclusion where possible by educating parents and children on issues of disability and acceptance. 

The easiest way to advocate for neurodiversity is to encounter it from an asset-based approach — ask what strengths the person brings to the church body before asking what they may lack.

Three years ago, my husband and I joined a new church to be closer to home. One of the big draws there was the wide range of neurodiversity represented in the congregation. Parents were open about their children and diagnoses, including our pastor’s son. It has been a major encouragement to see our daughter, who is diagnosed with ADHD, feel represented and understood by other parents and peers when she comes to church. This gives me hope that others will see that kind of inclusion as foundational to the church’s mission, and I pray that the Lord will give us his heart for those the world often leaves out.

By / Mar 17

Review by Jordan J. Ballor of Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (IVP, 2012)

Writing as a lifelong activist against nuclear weapons, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is uniquely placed to criticize a brand of evangelical social activism that emphasizes energy and enthusiasm over patience and perseverance. Christian obedience requires all these at various times and in various manifestations, but Wigg-Stephenson detects an imbalance at the heart of contemporary Christian cultural engagement that threatens to wither the roots of the entire enterprise. He is greatly concerned about the “cause fatigue” that he commonly, and increasingly, sees among younger Christians.

“It is important to shine a light on the ways in which world-fixing impulses are often at play in our activist behavior,” contends Wigg-Stevenson, because such pretensions breed the inevitable failures that lead to burnout, depression, and despair. The world isn’t ours to save, fix, or transform, he says. In a post-Fall reality, the world is a bit like Humpty-Dumpty: all the efforts of the King’s own people, his Church, simply cannot put it together again.

The reason for this is at its core twofold. In the first place, Christian activism cannot “save” the world because in the most significant and meaningful way the world already has been saved by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Christians in their work don’t do what Christ did in his life, death and resurrection; and so there is a qualitative difference here between accomplishing cosmic redemption in an objective sense and realizing the reign of Christ’s kingdom in our own lives subjectively. “Our job is not to win the victory,” writes Wigg-Stevenson, “but to expose through our lives the victory that has been won on our behalf.”

But we also are unable to “save” the world in another sense: the problems are just too comprehensive and total. The biggest problem facing Christian attempts to change the world for the better is the unchanging reality of human sin in this life. No program, agenda, campaign, project or institution can eliminate this sinfulness. In a noteworthy section in which Wigg-Stevenson compares the image of the bronze snake from Numbers 21 with Christ lifted up on the cross, he writes, “If the bronze snake shared the image of the poisonous snake problem that it solved, then Jesus’ humanity tells us that the problem he cures is humanity. Us. We are our own worst problem.” Or as the apostle Paul put it, we “invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30).

Our inability to get at the root of our own sinfulness, to save ourselves and our world, often leads us to inconsistent, haphazard, or poorly conceived fixes, a kind of “ADHD activism.” Thinking that we have the calling to save the world, we spread ourselves out widely but superficially to embrace all kinds of otherwise worthy causes. We sign petitions, “like” and share calls to action on Facebook and Twitter, invite others to write letters to their congressional representatives, and give of our time and treasure to a variety of causes. All of this work is undertaken with noble, but all-too-often misguided, intentions, says Wigg-Stevenson.

What, then, is the better way? Certainly not to withdraw from attempts to improve the lot of the world through the levers of influence that we have. We are indeed called to be faithful, says Wigg-Stevenson, and this faithfulness must come to external expression, not only in word but also in deed. We must recognize the finitude of our own efforts, though, even those efforts empowered and inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are called to faithful obedience, not necessarily to success by any measurable worldly standard.

What this leaves us with is a kind of pensive hopefulness, a grounded faith that takes concrete responsibilities in this world seriously and yet has no illusions about ushering in a utopia through our own efforts. Do your own thing, says Wigg-Stevenson, recognizing that each one of us has been called to follow Christ in a particular and unique way. “The breadth of Christian callings is as diverse as the number of believers who have been called, so no one-size-fits all answer exists,” he writes.

This calls for a different kind of social action, one that sees our obedience as important, even indispensable for authentic discipleship, but not all-important. As the book’s subtitle indicates, this kind of perspective frees us from the tyranny of world-saving expectations in favor of the more realistic and ultimately more responsible approach that emphasizes the life of Christian discipleship as a long journey rather than an instantaneous transformation, requiring a commitment to authentic relationship and personal engagement.

In many ways this book can be seen as an expression of Wigg-Stevenson’s convictions as worked out in his own decades-long activism against nuclear weapons. The book is replete with personal anecdotes and experiences that illustrate the concreteness of our individual Christian callings. Wigg-Stevenson uses these illustrations to craft a narrative that brings his message home: The world may not be ours to save, but we do have a significant stewardship responsibility to be agents of God’s grace in our own unique circumstances, whatever and wherever those might be.

This is a message that many evangelicals need desperately to hear. Throughout the book Wigg-Stevenson evinces a perspective that smashes problematic distinctions between the sacred and the secular, recognizing instead that “For Christians, there is no socioeconomic status or occupation that is too great or too menial to be offered as service: the calling of the Lord Jesus himself.” In important ways this perspective resonates with the legacy of the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), whose vision of the sovereignty of Christ is well-captured in the famous claim, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Although Wigg-Stevenson doesn’t mention Kuyper, and even though Kuyper does not have a monopoly on this insight within the Christian tradition, it is helpful to juxtapose Kuyper’s claim with one that Wigg-Stevenson does make, since this comparison highlights the central dynamic of The World Is Not Ours to Save. Thus the following from Wigg-Stevenson gains new salience: “There is no square inch of earth that we may claim permanently for the kingdom of God. . . . The only territory that has been irrevocably determined for the coming kingdom is the body of the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is Christ who makes the ultimate claim of sovereignty, not us. It is Christ who saves the world, not us.

What we as Christians do instead is act as faithful stewards: “we don’t have to be the hero of the story, just the steward of our calling.” As the apostle Peter puts it, the Christian is obliged to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10). This diversity of gifts, dispositions, and convictions means that there will not be agreement about what the most important stewardship goals are, or what kinds of activities and activism are best suited to achieve these goals. It is at this level of prudential wisdom that most of my own concerns with Wigg-Stevenson are located, such as with his conviction that diversity on the one hand is to be celebrated but that inequality on the other is to be rejected, or that certain kinds of political action are demands of justice. More conceptual clarity about some of these claims would be helpful.

And yet at the same time these disagreements underscore in a deeper way a more fundamental truth that Wigg-Stevenson does a great service in communicating: We “must remember diversity within unity. When we try to do everything ourselves, we risk disrespecting the diversity of gifts that Christ has given to his body.”

So do your own thing, says Wigg-Stevenson, and do it faithfully and responsibly. But don’t confuse it for the things God alone does. This is an important message for the Christian church in the world today.