“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust,”
Psalm 103: 13 – 14 NIV
Over at the website ‘Facts and Trends’, Daniel Bowman Jr. an Associate Professor of English at Taylor University has written an insightful article that I would urge all who haven’t read it yet to do so. In it, he details his experience as an autistic individual worshiping in an American evangelical church. Though I am not autistic, I do struggle with mental health issues and have done so for many years and in many ways, Daniel’s article is the article I have wanted to write for a few years now.
Daniel essentially details the cultural challenges he has had adapting to evangelical circles with well meaning but ill-advised Christians who do not know how to engage with individuals such as himself. When I first realized I had severe depression, I dug in harder and put in more hours working and volunteering at my Kenyan evangelical church in a bid to ‘get over it’ but that never happened.
After a series of events that acted as triggers, I unexpectedly shut down mentally and began having serious panic attacks. Some were so serious that I could not concentrate on the sermon and had to leave the area almost immediately. In other cases, merely approaching the church gate and hearing the loud music from several meters away would trigger such severe panic attacks that I initially began slowing down my pace till the ‘Praise’ section was done and the ‘Worship’ section set in. The demarcation between ‘Praise’ and ‘Worship’ music in evangelical churches is one that has been borrowed from Pentecostalism but has now become an expected feature of non-denominational Protestant worship. Over time, I learned to time myself so that I arrived just in time as the ‘Worship’ section was starting to avoid any questions as to why I was staying away until the service was midway.
Like Daniel, I have realized that predictability and liturgy are essential for someone with mental health issues to experience. Furthermore, I have come to learn that the multi-sensory approach that evangelical churches have adopted over the years can have negative effects for people who struggle with mental health problems. So essential to me have been these realizations that I came to a stark conclusion; that I could no longer attend my evangelical church which I had served in even in high profile roles, simply because my mental health was deteriorating and that I needed something simpler, consistent, predictable, and more compassionate.
Compassionate may seem like a stretch when it comes to describing what I was seeking outside of the Nairobi evangelical culture which has aped in the last 20 years nearly every jot and tittle of American evangelical culture. But I do believe it is the apt word to use. Evangelical churches; Kenyan, American, or otherwise do not of course seek to be cruel to people with mental health issues but this is unfortunately the outcome often. As someone who once served at my evangelical church in a prominent role, I made attempts to use my influence to address mental health issues using my own struggle with depression and anxiety to no avail as it was almost always brushed off as something to get over. It also always seemed that proponents of the sort of things I objected to were more interested in creating ‘a good show’ than in listening to what people on the pew were saying.
I recall in one instance; bright flashing lights were put on to give a more concert-like feel to the praise and worship and when I rushed over to the sound guy to ask him to switch them off in case there was an epileptic in the church that morning, there was a look of bewilderment at my strange request. On another occasion, I noticed that a family with a non-speaking autistic son were trying hard to enjoy the service as their son was clearly and strongly agitated by the multi-sensory worship. The pressure on families to balance the desires of their children who want to attend churches with exuberant worship and vibrant youth programs versus children within the same family who have significant health challenges such as epilepsy and autism in need of a more consistent and slower spiritual care is palpable.
Sadly, the evangelical church does not know how to deal comprehensively with such issues and from my own experience, often ignores them as hindrances or nuisances. Now on hindsight, it does not surprise me that my own concerns about flashing lights during Sunday morning worship which I believed to be self evident, were not thought of by anyone else until the very last minute or that my own struggles with anxiety and depression once disclosed were treated as trivial.
In the last few decades and centuries, significant sociological pressures have been placed on the Christian church to conform to the whims of society so much so, that to not cater to the expectations of society is thought to be anti-evangelistic. And society demands enthusiasm, charisma, and entertainment not realizing that even its own demands are artificial. In Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ one of her interviewees Adam McHugh details under the subheading ‘Does God Love Introverts’, how extroversion and expressiveness have become the gold standard for the supposedly spiritually mature Christian, “The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness and extroversion, McHugh explained, “The emphasis is on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that they are not living out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like,’ it feels like, ‘God isn’t pleased with me,’ [chapter 2, page 66]
For many who may not be able to participate in the exuberance of evangelical worship and life, either out of being very introverted or because of mental health issues, this from McHugh feels familiar. I know so because it was my exact experience as an introvert pretending to be as extroverted as I could to fit in while at the same time struggling with severe depression within a culture that inadvertently implies that to be spiritually mature is to be extroverted and charismatic. At some point due to all the leg work I somehow became convinced that my core job as a church worker was to “keep the show running” and to be as approachable, relatable and outgoing as I could possibly be. As a result, I eventually became convinced that God needed me but as to whether he loved me, that was neither certain nor up for consideration in my own mind.
At the root of the problems with evangelical worship is an eschatological issue whereby, it is assumed that worship on Sunday mornings is to be an exact picture of heaven unspoiled by sin and other realities of the fall of man. Others are sociological whereby the assumption for worshipers is that the sermon and the aesthetics of worship are to be like an elaborate, enthusiastic sales pitch and that everything should be done to ‘clinch that deal’ i.e. save souls, at all costs.
There is much I wish to write about in the coming months specifically about Christian worship however, I’d like to finish where I began. With God’s acknowledgment of us. Christian worship as I see it, seeks to honour God despite our limitations. There really is a limitation on our lives from the fall that we may call mortality. And from beginning to end, God knows that our whole lives which are to be lives of worship, will be marred by the very real effects of our mortality. From the degradation of the body to the degradation of the mind. And for all of us lying within that health spectrum from the best our bodies and minds could be, to the worst our bodies and minds could be; all of us in the church of Christ on this spectrum are called to worship.
So, I would propose that at the very least, regardless of what our beliefs concerning the nature of worship in the Christian church may be, we should acknowledge that God acknowledges us in our frailty and mortality and that his demand on us to worship is cognizant of this. And that therefore this demand is a kindly one which ought to translate to an evidently kindly worship. I use the word kindly, not to evoke sentimentality but to indicate that sense in which God shows compassion by calling the church to worship knowing full well that our bodies and minds in many ways bear the evidence of our mortality and therefore what he demands of us in worship in every age will by the nature of his inherent compassion, mirror his character and thoughts towards our frail bodies and minds regardless of the passing features and fads that change with the cultures of the world as time goes by.
Christian worship if for no other reason other than on the basis of God’s character alone, should be a fundamentally kindly worship. Sadly, much of the evangelical world is not a kindly place in which to worship God and Daniel’s article should give us pause on how we should restore the worship of God to a state where all manner of people across the board can feel welcomed to worship their creator whether they are autistic or arthritic or struggling with anything else concerning their health. Until then, one can only hope for change and the fortitude to seek and maintain God’s best for us in how he wants us to worship him. After all, the distortions in worship that seem so fixed today are only features of a passing period in time and not inherent within the nature of Christian worship as God envisioned it.