Alaska’s Methodists, through Alaska United Methodist Conference, and United Methodist Women of Alaska (separate organizations), are tackling two major issues many area churches either fail to address or address inadequately.
Religion and spirituality in today’s world will be the topic of an upcoming conference as seen through the eyes of prominent theologian Diana Butler Bass. I’ve repeatedly addressed the growing “spiritual but not religious” attitude by many professing Christians.
The other issue confronts attitudes and behaviors by members and clergy toward people with disabilities. Both concerns, but especially disability, have been repeatedly brought to my attention by affected church members over the years. (I’ve blogged, for example, about autism spectrum disorders and a lack of church support in dealing with them). I believe churches failing to adequately address disability issues cannot correctly call themselves Christian. Christ repeatedly spent time in his ministry dealing with those with disabilities. The United Methodist Women of Alaska organization is providing information and training about this issue in an upcoming two-day seminar.
Diana Butler Bass
Christianity has been undergoing major transformations in the past couple of decades. These changes have affected every area from scholarship and belief to religious practice and divisive cultural stances on issues such as homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Diana Butler Bass is a noted historian and chronicler of Christianity, its origins and new directions. The Alaska United Methodist Conference is bringing her to town next weekend to share her knowledge with the faith community. She is the author of eight popular volumes, including “A People’s History of Christianity,” “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and, most recently, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” She will give three presentations: one free and two for a fee. The free lecture will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
For this column, Pastor Carlo Rapanut, Alaska United Methodist Conference superintendent, said, “Our Conference recognizes the reality we are ministering to an ever-changing world and that most, if not all, of the ways of doing ministry we are used to, may no longer be relevant today, especially among the younger generation. Dr. Bass is an expert in religion and spirituality in a post-modern world. We look to her to share with us insight to better understand today’s post-modern society and wisdom into how we may retool and reset our ways of doing and being as an organized denomination.”
Personally, I’ve enjoyed the insight Dr. Bass offers in her many books and recommend them. They are an excellent starting point to understand the origins of Christianity and the development of our belief over the 2,000 years since the time of Jesus. In her latest book she writes, “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service,” and “Spiritual awakening is not ultimately the work of invisible cultural forces. Instead, it is the work of learning to see differently, of prayer, and of conversion. It is something people do.”
In my many years of spiritual questing and journeys into the many sacred spaces the churches of Anchorage offer, I often see the lack of self-examination of one’s belief practices. Too many Christians are utterly consumed by the multiplicity of distractions in their daily lives to concern themselves with devoting time to examining the reasons for their beliefs. While I’m not in full agreement with everything Dr. Bass writes, I find her thinking challenges me deeply. She speaks on Friday, Jan. 30 and Saturday, Jan. 31. Further information can be found here. I look forward to attending her presentations and learning from her.
Disabilities and the church: some background
I first became aware of issues surrounding how churches handle disability when several parents of children with autism contacted me, in great distress, because they had been ostracized from participating in the activities of their church, and urged to go elsewhere. In researching this issue, I discovered many churches were not prepared to deal with members, and/or their children, with a wide range of physical, mental, developmental, neurological, and psychological disorders.
“Without the full inclusion of people with disabilities, in a truly authentic and genuine way, we fall short of being the Body of Christ in any given time and place. To deny the Church the benefit of the wisdom and perspectives that such folks bring is to consign ourselves to being a mere shadow of who and what we are called to be,” said Michael Burke, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Leaders at many levels in churches, as well as members, need sensitization toward the needs of disabled worshippers or training to help them (or both). These are not merely mobility or architectural issues, but cut across the spectrum of human behavior. For example, most Sunday school teachers are not trained to understand how to respond to those with communication, learning or behavioral problems. Take autism as an example: In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated autism rates were 1 in 150 children. By 2010, it rose to 1 in 68 children. By 2050, estimates indicate 1 in 20 children will be affected. How are churches to respond?
Addressing the problem: a conference to help
The conference “Mission U: Learning Together for the Transformation of the World” has been organized to address these needs. Participants will explore these themes and receive detailed instruction in a two-day symposium at Hope Community Resources on Feb. 6-7. Program sponsors are United Methodist Women of Alaska, UAA Trust Training Cooperative and Hope Community Resources. Further information and registration can be found here and here.
These Methodist organizations deserve our thanks and support for these learning opportunities. Regardless of your faith background, you will find useful information and challenging material to bolster your Christian growth.