I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I don’t really have terms for the different levels, but I can see definite differences between them. And I think any step towards more complete inclusion is a good thing, so no shame about any of this. Just trying to think through the logical steps. I’m going to relate these specifically to churches, since that’s my thing, but I think it applies more widely too.
I’ll probably also focus mostly on autism, since it’s what I know and where I focus most of my mental energy. But to help more people understand it, I’ll also relate it to things like inclusion of women in church and ministry. I’ll also mention other types of disability where I’ve seen attempts at inclusion. And I’m realizing that I have more to say on this than I thought, so this will probably be a series, maybe one level in each post.
So you want to make your church services available to people who can’t come into the church. Hurray! This is the first step I see most churches taking – just put the sermons online! People can listen from the comfort of their homes and not have to miss church. That covers a lot of people. The church staff and members don’t even have to think at all about who might be accessing sermons this way and why. Other than finding someone to record and upload the sermons, there’s really no work involved. And that really doesn’t take much time once you’ve got it set up. Even so, I’ve seen pushback when it comes to this simple step. Some people worry that if the sermons are available at home, no one will come to church and the community will be lost.
I don’t know a lot of people who go to church for a sermon. Even if you really like everything a pastor says, you could probably find someone saying most of the same things in a podcast, televised service, etc. I think many people go to church for the community, and if they listen to the sermon from home it’s because it helps them feel more connected so that they can participate more fully. Sorry pastors – nothing you have to say is so important that putting it online will make people stop craving the community and support found in church.
I don’t actually think it’s huge egos that scare some pastors away from this basic first step. More likely it’s a fear of the unknown and discomfort around change. Even a small one that doesn’t actually change the way they do church…shouldn’t it? I think when they speak about people abandoning the community, what they mean is that they don’t know how to do community if their church includes people who don’t come in to take part in person.
Awhile back, I got very angry at a classmate who decided not to put his sermons online because he feared people would stop coming to church. My thought was that he was absolutely right not to do so, because he clearly wasn’t serious about including the people who would benefit anyway. If he wasn’t willing to do the work to extend community, he shouldn’t pretend to care about those people.
Now I see that this was unfair. Change is always a little scary, and nothing in our coursework prepared us for that. In my few classes that discussed technology in terms of things like internet-based churches, I was always the only person who was in favor of it. People insisted that it couldn’t be done, you couldn’t create real community online, and anyway how would you handle things like Communion?
Opening up the church’s audience raises a lot of questions about what church means, who the church community is, and how to minister to them. But an important thing to realize is that the people you would be including by making this change are already there. Offering services for people your church doesn’t currently reach is the first step in acknowledging that they’re there, that you care about being available to them. If you mean that, if you’re committed to continuing to explore ways you can make your church more inclusive, that can be the first step in creating deeper changes down the road to grow your community (both in size and in strength).
Technology offers us many opportunities to be more inclusive, but it’s still fairly new and to fully embrace them we have to be willing to change ourselves and the way we’ve always done things on a fundamental level. If we’re talking about true community, it’s never going to be a simple one-step change. It’s work. There will always be work to do once you start forging a new path. I can see why that would be overwhelming for a new pastor, but I hope that more and more ministers and congregations will decide it’s worth the effort.