Magazine article The Christian Century

A Niche of Welcome

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Niche of Welcome

Article excerpt

My good friend, a lifelong, dedicated Episcopalian, announced that she had stopped going to church. "Oh no! What happened?" I asked. "I just can't take the dirty looks any longer. I just can't do it."

That was all she had to say. I could easily fill in the rest of the story. She has three beautiful children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. Forcing them to sit through an hour-long service had become too difficult when the community didn't understand how people of all abilities could worship together.

Since that day, I have become increasingly aware of those times when the parents of a daughter with Down syndrome or a son with autism drop out of a worshiping community. I wondered who was doing the work of reaching out to people of all abilities.

I was thrilled when I met J. C. and Mindi Mitchell. He is a Disciples of Christ minister, she is an American Baptist minister, and they are the parents of A. J., who is blond and energetic and has autism. His parents took time to teach me how to communicate with him, instructing me how to take his lead, touch his forearms, and appreciate his motions.

When it comes to works of art, we can think about their appeal in two ways. Some works seek to reach a wide audience. These are the works that become the hit tune, the runaway best seller, the blockbuster movie. Other works seek a particular niche. A niche artist knows that the monetary payoff may be small, the audience limited.

We have hits and niches when it comes to starting new congregations as well. When denominational churches dominated the religious landscape in the 1960s, we had buildings in the center of town. Sometimes denominations would buy a piece of property at a well-traveled, well-heeled intersection, and expect the members to flood in. But when the membership numbers dropped, churches began to reposition their ministries. Many have figured out how to serve in a niche.

Bellevue Christian Church in Washington is doing just that, with the help of its pastor, J. C. Mitchell, who is working on a "parallel start." Most of the members in the dwindling congregation were in their eighties and nineties. The congregation sold its building and set aside part of the proceeds to help start a new congregation. The established group now holds its traditional services in an elementary school.

J. C. Mitchell serves the traditional congregation at one-quarter time and the new church at three-quarters time. Mindi Mitchell serves the new church at one-quarter time, while working with Burien Christian Church.

The couple began Open Gathering, an emerging community that reaches out to a population of all abilities. …

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