By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)
March 21, 2023
Me: What would a church look and feel like if its membership is predominantly autistic or neurodiverse, and its pastors and congregational leadership also are predominantly occupied by autistic folks? What sort of things would be different from typical Protestant churches, in terms of polity or governance, how worship services operate, and environmental designs in general?
ChatGPT: A church that is predominantly autistic or neurodiverse, with autistic pastors and leadership, would likely have a different approach to polity or governance, worship services, and environmental designs than typical Protestant churches. Here are some possible differences:
Polity or governance:
Autistic or neurodiverse leadership might be more likely to approach church governance in a more structured, logical, and systematic way, with clear rules and procedures. They may prefer written policies and procedures, as well as clear job descriptions and accountability measures. They may also be more likely to use technology to facilitate communication and decision-making, such as online forums or email lists.
Worship services in an autistic or neurodiverse church might be designed to accommodate the sensory needs of the congregation. This might include using visual aids such as PowerPoint slides or videos to supplement spoken or sung words, providing fidget toys or other sensory tools for people who need them, and avoiding sensory overload triggers such as loud music or bright flashing lights. Worship services might also include more structured and predictable routines, with clear expectations and guidelines for behavior.
The physical environment of an autistic or neurodiverse church might be designed to minimize sensory overload and accommodate different communication styles. This might include using soft lighting, muted colors, and sound-absorbing materials to create a calming and welcoming atmosphere. Furniture and layout might be arranged in a way that accommodates different sensory needs and allows for more flexible movement and seating options. Signage might be clear and consistent, with pictorial or written cues to help people navigate the space.
Overall, a church that is predominantly autistic or neurodiverse, with autistic pastors and leadership, would likely place a high value on clear communication, structured routines, and accommodations for sensory needs. They may also be more likely to embrace new technologies and approaches to governance that are more systematic and logical.
Me: Many autistic congregants may find formalities, complex religious and social conventions, and rigid organizational structures off-putting and anxiety-inducing, however. How do you find a point of balance there? Would a large congregation with traditional worship services serve this population better, or should we consider a network of microchurches with a rather unconventional approach to doing church?
ChatGPT: You make an important point that many autistic congregants may find formalities, complex religious and social conventions, and rigid organizational structures off-putting and anxiety-inducing. Therefore, finding a point of balance that meets the needs of both the neurodiverse congregation and the traditional aspects of a church may be challenging, but it is possible.
One approach could be to create a hybrid model of worship services that incorporates some traditional elements but also allows for more flexibility and creativity. For example, the service could include traditional hymns and readings but also provide space for non-traditional forms of expression such as dance, art, or poetry. The structure of the service could also be adapted to include more breaks or opportunities for quiet reflection or sensory regulation.
Alternatively, a network of microchurches with an unconventional approach to doing church could also be a good option for the neurodiverse population. These microchurches could be smaller in size and allow for more personal connections and a sense of community. They could also offer a more flexible approach to worship and organizational structure, allowing for individual preferences and needs to be accommodated.
Ultimately, the approach that works best will depend on the specific needs and preferences of the congregation. It may be helpful to gather input and feedback from the congregation and to be open to experimenting with different approaches until a balance is found that works for everyone.
Me: I envision a network of churches with autistic leadership, that are self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting. One of the challenges I see is that the conventional system of leadership formation is hostile to the neurodivergent population: denominational seminaries are not usually designed for them, and too often, pastors are expected to be both spiritual leaders and non-profit corporate executives, and that may pose difficulties for many of them.
What would be the best ways to create new alternatives to the traditional formation of church leaders, that are truly for and by autistic people?
ChatGPT: Creating new alternatives to the traditional formation of church leaders that are truly for and by autistic people will require a thoughtful and intentional approach. Here are some possible ways to create new alternatives:
Partner with existing organizations: Consider partnering with organizations that specialize in leadership development for autistic people, such as Autism Speaks [Me: WTF? Hell no.], Autistic Self Advocacy Network [Me: good], or Autism Society [Me: okay]. These organizations can provide valuable insights and resources to help develop a leadership formation program that is truly for and by autistic people.
Co-create with autistic individuals: It is essential to involve autistic individuals in the development and implementation of any leadership formation program. This means co-creating with them and incorporating their ideas, feedback, and perspectives throughout the process. Autistic individuals could be involved in the design of the program, the selection of curriculum and materials, and the delivery of training.
Use a flexible and strengths-based approach: Traditional formation of church leaders often requires a rigid curriculum and expectations, which may not work for autistic individuals. A more flexible and strengths-based approach that takes into account the unique abilities and challenges of autistic individuals may be more effective. This approach could involve providing individualized coaching, mentorship, and apprenticeships that focus on developing specific strengths and skills.
Incorporate technology: Technology can be a valuable tool for autistic individuals to access training and development opportunities. Consider incorporating online training modules, webinars, and virtual communities of practice. These can provide a more flexible and accessible way for autistic individuals to access training and development opportunities.
Overall, creating new alternatives to the traditional formation of church leaders that are truly for and by autistic people will require a collaborative and innovative approach. It is important to involve autistic individuals in the process, use a flexible and strengths-based approach, and incorporate technology to create accessible and inclusive training opportunities.
Me: Based on the latest CDC estimate, about 2 to 2.5 percent of the U.S. population may be autistic. If this is the case, the autistic community represents a sizable minority in the United States, larger than the Chinese-American population (1.5 percent of the U.S., est. 2019), and comparable to the Native American and Alaska Native populations (2.9 percent of the U.S., est. 2021). While this shows good potential, I find a couple of possible obstacles.
First, it is thought that about 80 to 85 percent of autistic people in the U.S. are either unemployed or severely underemployed. This makes self-funding of churches a significant challenge if we are to depend on a conventional tithes and annual pledges model of fundraising.
Second, a popular perception is that autistic folks are more likely to be atheists or non-religious. This may make churches like this a small niche within a small niche, and for a dispersed population who may not necessarily find themselves in a highly social environment, simply the tasks of reaching out to them and building a solid, committed membership can be daunting.
What are some good ways to overcome these challenges?
ChatGPT: You raise valid concerns about the challenges that may arise in creating a church with a predominantly autistic membership. Here are some possible ways to overcome these challenges:
Explore alternative funding models: As you mentioned, relying on the traditional tithes and annual pledges model of fundraising may be challenging for a church with a predominantly autistic membership. Consider exploring alternative funding models, such as applying for grants or seeking out corporate sponsors. Additionally, creating a sustainable business model that generates revenue could help the church become self-supporting.
Focus on inclusion: While it may be true that autistic individuals are more likely to be atheists or non-religious, it is important to focus on inclusion and creating a welcoming environment for all individuals, regardless of their beliefs. This can be done by emphasizing the community and support aspects of the church, rather than focusing solely on the religious aspects. Additionally, offering a variety of programs and activities that appeal to different interests and needs can help attract a diverse membership.
Utilize online platforms: Autistic individuals may not necessarily find themselves in highly social environments, so utilizing online platforms such as social media, video conferencing, and online forums can provide a way to reach out to and connect with potential members. These platforms can also be used to provide support and resources to members who may have difficulty attending in-person events.
Collaborate with other organizations: Collaborating with other organizations that serve the autistic community, such as advocacy groups, support groups, or disability-focused nonprofits, can help increase visibility and reach a wider audience. These organizations may be able to provide resources and support to help build a committed membership.
Overall, overcoming the challenges of funding and outreach will require creativity, flexibility, and a willingness to adapt to the needs of the community. By focusing on inclusion, utilizing online platforms, and collaborating with other organizations, a church with a predominantly autistic membership can create a supportive and welcoming community that meets the unique needs of its members.
Me: You make great points! Sometimes I wonder if some aspects of church ministries may be replaced by artificial intelligence in the near future. For example, I can imagine how a 24/7 prayer ministry might be augmented by an AI chatbot instead of merely receiving prayer requests online. AI could generate encouraging messages based on prayer requests and even pray with people (or more precisely, generate customized prayers based on callers' needs), and forward messages to appropriate staffers or pastors within the ministry for later follow-up. Would artificial intelligence eventually make some aspects of pastoral care automated, and make some ministers redundant?
ChatGPT: Artificial intelligence (AI) is already being used in some aspects of pastoral care, such as chatbots that offer mental health support or Bible study assistance. However, there are limitations to the capabilities of AI in this context, and it is unlikely that it would replace human ministers entirely.
While AI chatbots can provide customized prayers and encouraging messages based on prayer requests, they are not able to provide the same level of emotional support and empathy that a human minister can. Pastoral care involves not only prayer and scriptural guidance but also listening, counseling, and offering comfort in times of crisis. These are skills that are developed through human experience and are difficult to replicate with AI.
Additionally, many people seek out pastoral care because they desire human connection and support. They want to talk to someone who understands them and can offer a personal touch. While AI can provide information and resources, it cannot provide the same level of personal connection and relationship-building that is central to pastoral care.
In short, while AI may augment certain aspects of pastoral care, it is unlikely to replace human ministers entirely. Human connection and empathy are central to pastoral care, and these are skills that cannot be replicated by machines.
Me: I am conflicted between two options when it comes to planting churches that are predominantly autistic in membership and leadership. One option is to make the church very open-ended in terms of theological positions and doctrines, making it open and welcoming to anyone but risks being too shallow and losing focus while trying to be "everything for everybody." This could also invite more internal conflicts because there are few shared values and points of unity within the congregation. The other option is to be clear about certain distinctives and articulate core values, theological positions, and doctrines. But this could risk alienating too many people and hinders the church growth. Maybe there is a point of balance between these two extremes, but what are some of the advantages and drawbacks of either of these options?
ChatGPT: There are advantages and drawbacks to both options and finding the right balance will depend on the specific context and goals of the church plant.
The advantage of making the church open-ended in terms of theological positions and doctrines is that it can create a welcoming environment for a wide range of people. This approach can help to build a diverse congregation that reflects the broader community, and it may make it easier to reach out to those who are not already part of a church. However, the drawback of this approach is that it may be difficult to build a strong sense of unity and shared purpose within the congregation. Without a clear set of core values and beliefs, it can be challenging to build a community that is focused on a common mission.
The advantage of being clear about certain distinctives and articulating core values, theological positions, and doctrines is that it can help to create a strong sense of identity and purpose within the congregation. This approach can help to build a community that is united around a common mission and shared values. However, the drawback of this approach is that it may limit the appeal of the church to those who do not share the same beliefs and values. This can make it more difficult to reach out to a diverse range of people and may hinder the growth of the church.
In general, finding a point of balance between these two approaches may be the best strategy. This could involve articulating core values and beliefs while remaining open to a diverse range of theological positions and perspectives. It could also involve focusing on a specific mission or purpose that is shared by the congregation while allowing for flexibility and diversity in other areas. Ultimately, the key is to find a strategy that allows the church to build a strong sense of community and purpose while remaining open and welcoming to a diverse range of people.
[Me: Here ChatGPT is merely repeating what I wrote using more words and with some rephrasing. This is a typical non-answer I sometimes find from an AI!]
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