Welcoming Neurodiversity in Christian Education and Worship

Jun 27, 2023 9:00:00 AM / by Jessica Davis

"One of them, an expert in the law, asked him a question to test him. 'Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?' He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” 

Matthew 22:35-40 

On the surface, these two great commandments seem so simple—just love God and love each other. But when we try to live it out, it gets messier. How I love is not how you love. And what makes me feel loved is not what makes you feel loved. And none of us know exactly how God wants to be loved. So what are we to do?

In previous blogs, we've examined best practices for prioritizing diversity of many types as central to our lives together in Christ. Here, we'll examine some best practices and suggestions for how to structure our worship and learning spaces to allow all people to love God and one another with their minds, even when those minds operate very differently from one another.

For the purposes of this blog, we'll use the term "neurodivergence/neurodivergent" to refer to individuals who may think and function in ways that diverge from the dominant societal standards. People who are neurodivergent may have diagnostic labels such as ADHD, autism, learning and intellectual disabilities, and a wide variety of mental illnesses. They may have many of these diagnostic labels or none. But what they have in common is that, at some point, society has decided that the way their minds work is "wrong" or "abnormal." The term "neurodiversity" will be used to refer to the beautiful God-given diversity in which every single person's mind is considered valuable and holy.

There are established best practices developed directly by neurodivergent people that can easily be applied to worship and Christian education spaces and that serve not just to welcome them in particular, but to cultivate a way of being in community where all minds are made welcome.

First and foremost, it is crucial to disrupt binary thinking that separates people into "normal" and "abnormal." This can best be demonstrated by taking a position of curiosity. Invite worshippers and learners into pondering "Why do you think God did X?," "How would you feel if you were this biblical character?," etc. De-emphasize "right" answers and embrace possibility and wondering.

Another principle crucial in neurodivergent spaces that can be incredibly useful in welcoming people of every possible neurotype is "questioning the questions." Gently and cheerfully interrogating one another and ourselves with questions like "Why do you ask that?" or "Why is that question important to you?," etc., can help us not only understand what matters most to us, but also to identify what our cultures and communities prioritize. For example, in the US, we often introduce ourselves by talking about our professional lives. But in other places, it might be the custom to introduce yourself by talking about your family tree or hobbies, etc. Why is "So, what do you do for work?" the question we chose to centralize? Beginning to question the questions puts us in a position to gain understanding about ourselves and one another on both "macro" and "micro" levels.

Lastly, recognizing, teaching, and preaching about neurodivergence and neurodiversity in scripture can go a long way towards making people feel that they are empowered to love God and one another with "all their minds." The God of scripture seeks out people who are able to think around corners, interrogate the status quo, and ask the questions no one else has thought of. Biblical characters like Noah, Moses, and Mary are regularly praised and rewarded for "thinking outside the box," and for prioritizing fresh and full understanding over unquestioning obedience. When we create an environment where all minds are welcome, we may just discover that there are those among us who are likewise well equipped to lead us onto blessed paths yet unimagined.

Sparkhouse has previously published a number of other blog posts on neurodiversity, available here.

Topics: neurodiversity

Jessica Davis

Written by Jessica Davis

Jessica Davis, MA is a Christian educator, pastoral counselor, church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Their ministry passions include youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, they can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with their work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.


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