A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, November 18, 2011

On Making a Place for Introverts in the Church

Adam McHugh writes a guest post today over at Scot McKnight's blog, Jesus Creed. It is a must read, especially for all of us talkative extroverts who have a tendency to suck all the air out of the room. McHugh is primarily addressing the evangelical church, but his words are important for all churches, including my own mainline tradition. He writes,
Unfortunately, owing to a few antisocial types as well as to a general extroverted bias in our culture, introverts get a bad rap. Mainstream American culture values gregarious, aggressive people who are skilled in networking and who can quickly turn strangers into friends. Often we identify leaders as those people who speak up the most and the fastest, whether or not their ideas are the best.

As a result, introverts are often defined by what we’re not rather than by what we are. We're labeled as standoffish or misanthropic or timid or passive. But the truth is that we are people who are energized in solitude, rather than among people. We may be comfortable and articulate in social situations and we may enjoy people, but our time in the outer worlds drains us and we must retreat into solitude to be recharged. We also process silently before we speak, rather than speaking in order to think, as extroverts do. We generally listen a little more than we talk, observe for a while before we engage, and have a rich inner life that brings us great stimulation and satisfaction. Neurological studies have demonstrated that our brains naturally have more activity and blood flow, and thus we need less external stimulation in order to thrive.

I saw the need for a book on this topic when I realized that our cultural slant had infiltrated some wings of the church, especially mainstream evangelicalism. As I say in Introverts in the Church, entering your average evangelical worship service feels like walking into a non-alcoholic cocktail party. Evangelicalism has a chatty, mingling informality about it, and no matter how well-intentioned that atmosphere is, it can be a difficult environment for those of us who are overwhelmed by large quantities of social interaction and who may connect best with God in silence. Sometimes our communities talk so much that we are not able to express the gifts that we bring to others. Yet if we are given the space, we bring gifts of listening, insight, creativity, compassion, and a calming presence, things that our churches desperately need.

Even more dangerous is the tendency of evangelical churches to unintentionally exalt extroverted qualities as the "ideals" of faithfulness. Too often "ideal" Christians are social and gregarious, with an overt passion and enthusiasm. They find it easy to share the gospel with strangers, eagerly invite people into their homes, participate in a wide variety of activities, and quickly assume leadership responsibilities. Those are wonderful qualities, and our churches suffer when we don’t have those sorts of people, but if these qualities epitomize the Christian life, many of us introverts are left feeling excluded and spiritually inadequate. Or we wear ourselves out from constantly masquerading as extroverts.
As I read this post, it reminded me of a brief reflection I wrote in my book, All Is Not As It Seems. Here's what I said:

Very early in my ministry as a pastor, I came to realize that there were certain persons who never attended Sunday School, or who did not attend evening Bible studies, not because they were uninterested, but rather they were very concerned, and some were even downright scared, that they would be called upon to participate in being asked to read something, or that they would be asked their opinion on the particular issue being discussed. Perhaps these individuals were not good readers and they did not want to be embarrassed at having to read out loud, or they truly felt inadequate in reference to their biblical and religious knowledge, and they did not want that perceived ignorance to be revealed in being asked to express their views.

In response to this reality, I have made it a practice in every church I have served, to offer a Sunday school class and a Bible study, where it was explicitly advertised that participation was voluntarily encouraged but not required. In each congregation, the result has been that adults, who had never attended any class in any church started to attend; and over time some of those individuals even began to participate in expressing their views periodically. I will never forget the one individual who approached me one night after a Bible study with tears in her eyes, saying how much her relationship with God had deepened as a result of her time in the class, and how wonderful it was to feel comfortable just learning and not sitting in fear that she was going to be called upon to say something. Extroverts may not understand her fears, but they are real and should not be lightly dismissed.

One thing we must always remember—it is the talkative and the extroverted that get to make the rules. I have discovered that many extroverts are very uncomfortable with introverts. The outgoing are disquieted by the quiet. They feel that there is something wrong with people who are naturally quiet, and they subtly insult them with the word "shy." So they feel the need to involve them in the way they think they should be involved. So they ask everyone to go around the room to read the Bible lesson for the day, or they ask them to express their view when they would prefer to listen and learn. The result of this well-intentioned, but misguided behavior is that there will be those who will be driven back only to attendance at worship on Sunday morning.

It is not a matter of asking people to step outside of their comfort zones; it is recognition of the truth that God has created some folks to be outgoing, and others to be reserved. The loud folks get to make the rules and they get to lead, but without all the quiet individuals, all that necessary work behind the scenes that make the extroverts look so good, would not get done.

Every Sunday school class and every Bible study I teach, I make it clear that all are welcome to participate if they so desire, but no one will be required to do so. The result has been people whose lives have been enhanced, and whose discipleship has been deepened because an environment was created in which everyone, the talkative and the quiet, were encouraged to participate only as they desired. Moreover, such a posture creates a space for all persons to fellowship and deepen their faith. The result of this is more individuals, who do more than sit in the pews for one hour of worship (which, of course, is important); they, as a result of a deepening faith, contribute their gifts and graces to the mission of the church in the community and the world.

Thank God for all the quiet folk! They provide an important counter-balance to those of us who can't keep our mouths shut.

1 comment:

PamBG said...

Thank you both for this. I'm what I call a gregarious introvert. I have no problem speaking up but I *do* need to be alone to recharge and I also need to think before I speak rather than speak to think.

Can I point out that these biases are also cultural? The UK prizes intoversion more than extraversion and sees introverts as more mature and thoughtful. Whereas my need to stop to think seems to alarm many Americans.

In my 21 years living in the UK, people were constantly trying to tone down my gregariousness which they saw as tiring and childish. Then I get back to the US and my CPE process is trying to get me to be more decisive and own my own authority. (I'm perfectly capable of being decisive and making up my mind, I just want more than 60 seconds to think!)

I'd never really thought before how Es and Is mistrust each other. In a mirror-example of your illustration above, I had someone (an extavert) who came to a meditation group whp fled from the room in tears because she didn't realize we were going to spend 10 minutes in silence.

I think God has created us all differently for a reason. It might be good for Es and Is to talk more about their perspectives and to understand each other better. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.