I’m going to post about an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation AND before you stop reading remember that everything on this blog is vaguely religious if not overtly religious. Also I guess spoiler alert? But you should really have watched them all by now.
So, the episode in question is called Hollow Pursuits and I recommend you show it to your welcoming committee. The plot goes like this: Mr Barclay is a member of the Enterprise crew, but close to very few people. He is awkward, nervous, and makes a lot of mistakes. Several members of the crew begin to call him Broccoli behind his back. This person on the outside seems like a klutz, a hazard, an idiot- does the captain fire him? Does he call him in for a strict reprimand? No. Because in the future those who are different, those who don’t fit, those who may even have social awkwardness to the point of mental illness are accepted and treated normally by society. At the captain’s prompting, the other members of Barclay’s team start to give him some slack. They open up and start to try and understand him. This actually doesn’t seem like it’s that easy for them, but they get there.
Barclay feels so isolated that he has created a fantasy world in which to feel safe. He’s not engaging others partly because he doesn’t know how and partly because they are not engaging him. If you notice, one of the first things his supervisor Geordi does is let up his expectations. It’s really the first step in Barclay beginning to trust him. Rather than treating Barclay as a commodity, Geordi begins treating him like a friend. And Geordi doesn’t just make nice with a polite smile and questions about Barclay’s weekend. Geordi actually takes the time to try to find out what makes Barclay tick. Any church welcoming committee would be well advised to think about this one a bit. It is easy for us as people to limit our contact with one another to polite smiles and questions about work or school. The challenge is that if we really are to know each other, we have to go beyond that. We cannot simply expect showing up at church, smiling, then leaving to be enough. If the group of people meant to put newcomers at ease has no more than a surface connection with old members…that is bad. There need to be plenty of opportunities for current church membership to bond. The pastor should take the lead making visible connections with members old and new. The welcoming committee should be directed to do the same. Welcoming is not something that happens overnight and relationships have to grow. Having visited a lot if churches just once I’m starting to notice this rapport among members can create a noticeable vibe.
Back to our Star Trek episode- Barclay opens himself up a crack and shares with Geordi that its actually really hard for him to be with other people. None of them seem to understand him and that makes him feel lonely and isolated. Geordi begins to see that Barclay has some real issues. Again it’s noticeable that instead of dismissing him as a weirdo and trying to distance himself, Geordi tries to help. He really wants Barclay to be more involved, to feel like a member of the team and to address some of the issues that stop him from participating within his comfort zone. Geordi understands that it is part of his job to bring Barclay into the group in a real way and he encourages others to treat him with respect.
So, now that Barclay has a little encouragement he’s all better right? No. Actually when the pressure is put on Barclay (an extra hard task is given) he retreats to his fantasy world again. Geordi has to find him and pull him out. But since Geordi has decided to take the role of friend, he questions and further encourages Barclay rather than giving up on him or reassigning the task. It occurs to Geordi more fully here that Barclay may need the help of a counselor, so he requests Barclay meet with the ship’s counselor. He doesn’t foist Barclay off and abandon him though. He makes it clear Barclay is still an important member of the team. Geordi puts it as follows: after Barclay claims the unreal friends he’s created are easier to deal with than his reality, Geordi replies by saying, “I need you out here.” It is a personal appeal on Geodi’s part which encourages Barclay to continue working and ultimately save the day. As it turns out, Barclay is a bit of a genius once he can relax and work through his ideas. Because the captain, Geordi, and the rest of his team were willing to give Barclay a chance (Geordi actually gave him several) he found a way to shine. They discover the real value he offers once they look past his oddities. I think this is a great lesson for groups of all kinds, but especially church groups. Jesus would have been considered a bit wacky in his time, but those who got close to him grew to love him even for his oddities. My Star Trek example Mr Barclay is a man with what I’d guess is a social anxiety or personality disorder. He could be called mentally ill. How many people in Jesus’ world would have said the same thing of Him?
I think this also speaks in some ways to the amount of play the words “mentally ill” have gotten recently because of our societal discourse on guns. It’s not a great idea to create a box labeled “The Mentally Ill” and assume everyone inside is violent and dangerous. I wouldn’t place Mr Barclay and Jesus in such a box. I guess what I’m saying is that we need to be careful of over-categorizing; especially if it leads to dismissing people we haven’t yet gotten to know. We need to be open to those we meet in our church and out of it because there may be someone amazing waiting, who just needs a chance from us.