Introverts in the Church

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Little Rock, Arkansas was the Sunday stop on the last leg of our cross-country trip. I don’t recall the denomination of the church we visited, but I sure remember its personality: the two-handed handshakes, the over-the-top meet-n-greet ... and the dear woman who sat next to me and kept touching my arm whenever the pastor made a good point. That church leaned hard toward an extroverted culture. For this introvert with the plexiglass space bubble, I honestly couldn’t get out of that building fast enough. While that church is certainly not typical by any means (thank heavens!), it demonstrates with broad brush strokes the extroverted culture that prevails in the church.

Adam S. McHugh looks at the church through the lens of an introvert. He encourages introverted believers to celebrate their temperament and, rather than being defined by what they are NOT (outgoing, people-loving, gregarious, etc.) to lean into the strengths and gifts that come with their personality. Rather than equating spirituality with sociability and portraying evangelism as a back-slapping presentation of The Four Spiritual Laws, Introverts in the Church argues for a biblical vision of worship that puts God on display through relationships that encourage both introverts and extroverts to go deep into their inner worlds while at the same time moving outward in sacrificial love.

Explaining the Introverted Brain

Research shows that introverts and extroverts function differently because they process life differently. Introverts derive their energy from solitude while extroverts are energized by interaction and external stimuli. In addition, introverts filter that external stimuli through a finer grid, becoming overwhelmed more quickly than extroverts do with their more flexibly filtering brains. Introverts tend to prefer depth over breadth in relationships, in their interests, and in self-examination. Scientifically and theologically, it would not be an exaggeration to say that our Creator knit each one of us together as either an introvert or an extrovert.

Solitude vs. Isolation

While introverts have a reputation for being selfish and isolated, all believers who are operating in health will instead practice solitude which McHugh defines as going “deep into ourselves in order to become more self-aware and more compassionate.” In a culture that thrives on over-stimulation, all temperament types need to formulate healthy practices of retreat, times of pulling away from the noise in order to re-enter with perspective and godly wisdom.

Level-5 Leaders

The “Level-5 Leaders” described in Jim Collins’s book Good to Great are not the classic charismatic leaders we associate with success. Their humility, diligence, and willingness to build into the lives of others explain God’s choice of leaders throughout biblical history: the second-borns and the slow-of-speech; the shepherd boys; and the uneducated fishermen. It turns out that “leaders in the real world are about equally divided between introverts and extroverts.”

Thriving as an Introvert of Faith

It is possible for a believing introvert to find a place of fulfillment and influence within the church. This is NOT accomplished by learning and parroting extrovert-ish behaviors, but rather by operating as teachers, leaders, and involved neighbors out of introverted strengths.

I was rather hoping for an “introvert exemption” on the matter of evangelism, but what I got from Introverts in the Church was far better. I was assured that there is an approach to evangelism that does not put me in the role of an answer dispensing content dumper. Introverted evangelists are fellow seekers who share with authenticity how “God’s love has reached the dark parts of [their] lives.” McHugh sees himself as one who shares glimpses of God by responding to the ways in which God is already at work in people around him. A narrow-focus of relationship building, open-ended questions, and non-defensive dialogue open the door for both introverted seekers and introverted evangelists.

Finally, as believers we are called to embrace discomfort for the cause of Christ and for the enlargement of our worship. Both introverts and extroverts will grow stagnant if never challenged. The inward and outward movement of breathing provides a helpful picture of the way a living thing survives and thrives. Believers of all temperaments need the depth and richness that come with solitude alongside the self-giving poured out life that accompanies community. God has created a diversity of personalities and gifts within the church, and this is a treasure we are only beginning to understand.

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Community Builder

 Nice. But when I attended the month-long orientation to Wycliffe with the intent of joining the organization as a Bible translator I took the questionnaire to determine my personality type according to the M.B.T.I. (for Myers Briggs Type Indicator) that revealed I was an Introverted iNtuitive with Feeling judgment.  My score on introversion was 17 on a scale going up to 100 or so.  After the month-long session during which I was found to not be ready to join them--which was a good thing since anti-psychotics are not easy to find in the bush-- I did some personal research about the M.B.T.I. and my own personality type, and I came to discover that most Intorverts or Extraverts are seldom pure cases unless they're pathologically maladapted.  So one usually has a dominant side which will be Introverted iNntuitive like me or Extraverted Sensing [because we all need one way to perceive information, either through our five senses hence Sensing ( to avoid words with strongly negative connotations) or through intuition.  If you want to know more, the book Gifts Differing by Isabel Briggs Myers and her son Peter B.Myers is a good source. And I think it can also still be found or ordered from Consulting Psychologists Press.

Community Builder

This is a really good point, Michele. (How amazing that we are both one "L" Micheles!)

Because we are fearfully and wonderfully made, very few of us can be measured well with a purely binary system. When I took the MBTI the first time, I was an ENTJ, but the E was my lowest score and, sure enough, the next time I took it, I was an INTJ. I have a feeling that the I and the E are a coin toss for me, depending on my people saturation level on the day of the test.

Cynthia Tobias wrote about a different system (can't recall the name right now) that differentiates between the manner in which we express information and the way we prefer to receive it.

I guess we would both agree that it is helpful to know as much as we can about peoples' preferences and personalities, but only so that we can be growing and operating out of a healthy place -- not so that we can put ourselves and others in boxes!

Thanks for taking time to comment. 

Community Builder

 I agree.  Besides the book Gifts Differing, I read other books that pointed out that the MBTI is really meant to be used as a sort of personality Zip Code (or postal code in Canada).  It gives people an idea of where you're coming from but leaves plenty of room for individuality.  Besides, even if two people have the same type, they won't necessarily have the same scores, so even there their personalities will manifest themselves in different ways.  Wycliffe adopted the MBTI to help them with staff management and conflict resolution because if you know that the person you often clash with does things a certain way because of their type, you're less likely to take their behavior personally, and a multinational organization like Wycliffe NEEDS a system to resolve conflicts in a big way.

One thing I liked a lot about Gifts Differing was the amount of time  and energy she--the author--spent on explaining the theory, a trait that showed she was an Introvert, because even though I read that book some years ago now, I still think I would know where to place the various types on the chart.  

Community Builder

 I'd like to add that according to the MBTI, personality types have both a way of perceiving information, either through Sensing or iNtuition, and a decision-making process, Thinking Judgment or Feeling Judgment.  In half of the types, the dominant process is a information gathering one, and in the other half it's a decision-making one, because most balanced people usually decide how they're going to deal with what they learn.

Participant

As an introvert with a high need for expression I am an oddball in church.  I thrive on teaching and big groups don't bother me.  Because I am passionate in the pulpit people are disappointed with me in the pew.  I now respond that thank goodness I'm a bit more outgoing in the pulpit.   It took me a long time to stop accepting the criticism with the intent of becoming an extrovert.  When I am on "duty" I am as outgoing as possible.  When I am a parishioner I try to reach out to those who would like a friendly hello but don't want the hug, the small talk and the forced cup of coffee.  I often end up having deeper conversations by not offering these other ways of relating.

Community Builder

What an amazing insight:  "because I am passionate in the pulpit people are disappointed with me in the pew."

I know that feeling, and have stood in groups of women and engaged in conversations, realizing that I was somehow not living up to their expectations.

I always come back to mission and calling in thinking about this personally, Even though I have introverted preferences, I don't get a pass on being part of the body. And, it's true that we get further in this effort when we do it in sync with God's unique design.

So good to hear from you, Victoria.