I think I may have found my doppelganger.
There were times as I was reading through Adam McHugh’s wise and helpful book, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, when I thought he was reading my mind, representing my exact thoughts in the very words by which I would express them.
He and I are introverts, you see. We live among you. You will often find us out on the edges of the room, engaged in conversations with other individuals rather than participating in the raucous partying of the crowd. We may sit by ourselves in church. We don’t always speak up or initiate conversation in small group settings. We may disappear for awhile from all the banter taking place during the family reunion and everyone will wonder where we’ve gone. And you might find us taking a walk or sitting under a tree away from the din of the festivities.
If I were your pastor, you might wonder why I am not up front all the time or engaged in lively interaction in the center of the room at church fellowship events. I might be off in a corner talking to one or two people, in the kitchen checking with those who are serving, or down the hall seeing how the nursery workers are doing. When you think about what I do throughout the week, you might wonder why anyone needs to spend so much time in his study. If you are on the board, you might question my requests for regular personal retreats. You feel insecure sometimes because I don’t have a quick answer to a question or solution to a problem. You may inwardly wonder if I have the leadership skills to run a church. Me too.
Adam McHugh, fellow introvert, can identify with this. He writes:
My struggles to be an introverted pastor are representative of the struggles many introverts face when navigating the waters of Christian community, which can be unintentionally, or intentionally, biased toward extroversion. As a pastor who has participated in both independent and denominationally affiliated churches, it is my experience that evangelical churches can be difficult places for introverts to thrive, both for theological and cultural reasons. Just as I have had a difficult time squaring my own temperament with common roles and expressions of the pastoral ministry, so also many introverted Christians struggle with how to find balance between their own natural tendencies and evangelical perspectives on community and evangelism. A subtle but insidious message can permeate these communities, a message that says God is most pleased with extroversion. (p. 13)
It’s the story of my life, and I, for one, am glad Adam McHugh has told it so well.
In Introverts and the Church, Adam McHugh helps us understand first of all what introversion is and is not. It is not a category of person. The words extroversion and introversion describe the balance of certain tendencies within all people. Each of us leans one way or the other. And there is no “mold” for what an introvert always looks like. Nevertheless, there are some basic characteristics of those who tend toward introversion as a way of encountering the world and relating to others.
- Introverts get their energy from solitude and from within, whereas extroverts derive their energy from external stimulation.
- Introverts process information internally through observation and reflection, whereas extroverts process more externally, through conversation and interaction.
- Introverts prefer depth over breadth and tend to invest energy into a limited number of topics, activities, and relationships. For extroverts, on the other hand, there may be no limit to the breadth of experiences and acquaintances they can have.
Because introversion is not synonymous with shyness or aloofness, true introverts are harder to identify than you might think. You can’t always look for wallflowers or people staring at their feet to determine who the introverts are. Healthy introverts are not recluses. Just because we are oriented toward our inner worlds does not necessitate that we live in a private world, devoid of social contact and activity. It means that whatever context we are in, we are predisposed toward what is happening inside of us more than we are in what is taking place around us. Introverts can be in an unruly crowd, still immersed in our internal worlds. (p. 42)
An Extroverted Church
So, what do these characteristics mean for introverts in the church, especially in America? In his book, McHugh describes how American evangelicalism is, by and large, an extroverted enterprise. Theologically, evangelicalism’s emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus leads to religious practices that are social and relational in nature. Its emphasis on the Bible as the authoritative Word of God and the prominence of preaching and proclamation evangelism leads to a culture in which speaking, crowds, and group activities are highly valued.
The author shows how the extroverted expression of faith grew out of the revivalism of our past. We are heirs of a historic tradition that has developed into the modern ethos of evangelicalism which is, to quote Mark Noll, “activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.” (p. 26) This kind of church, frankly, is suspicious of contemplative faith, seeing it as narcissistic and uninterested in mission. However, McHugh believes the introvert’s perspective has much to offer the dominant religious culture:
In our day, I am convinced that introverts are an important ingredient in the antidote to what ails evangelicalism. Our slower pace of life, our thoughtfulness, our spiritual and intellectual depth, and our listening abilities are prophetic qualities for the evangelical community, calling us to a renewed understanding of God and a fresh reading on the abundant life Jesus came to give us. Yet because of the extroverted bias in many of our churches, introverts are leading double lives. We are masquerading as extroverts in order to find acceptance, yet we feel displaced and confused. We are weary of fighting our introversion, and we long to live faithfully as the people we were created to be. (p. 31)
Help for Introverted Christians and Christian Leaders
That last sentence describes Adam McHugh’s purpose in writing this book. He wants to enable those of us who tend toward introversion to learn to accept that this is how God has made us and it is the temperament from which he wants us to relate to him and others in this world. We have a unique perspective to offer as a gift to the church, and we must learn how to live that out faithfully.
- Spirituality: He encourages us to enthusiastically embrace the contemplative tradition and develop a rule of life that fits our introverted approach to life.
- Community and Relationships: He describes ways that introverts can participate meaningfully in the community of faith, offering unique gifts to others, and he identifies some pitfalls and challenges we will have to face.
- Leadership: Though Americans typically want their leaders to be extroverts, McHugh gives voice to alternative models of leadership that are gaining acceptance, models that carry with them many of the best features of introversion. Introverted leaders may not make as wide an impact as an outgoing, charismatic, dominant leader, but the results may be more lasting. There are particular aspects of Christian leadership, such as teaching, equipping, and spiritual direction that call out for the gifts inherent in a faithful introvert. He even describes honored Christian leaders, such as Mother Teresa, Jonathan Edwards, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who were introverts yet had great influence through their leadership.
- Evangelism: In the minds of many, the word “evangelism” conjures a picture of the extroverted “salesman” type, who is gregarious, talky, and persuasive, a style that obviously doesn’t suit introverts. However, our models of evangelism are more likely the problem than the fact that some of us do not fit them. McHugh points out many ways that introverted believers can faithfully plant seeds, engage in spiritual conversations, and “explore the mystery” of faith together with those who need Christ.
- Church Organization and Practice: McHugh encourages church leaders to be thoughtful about their church program, to recognize that many things they do may be excluding people who tend toward introversion. He asks them to consider the worship services, the way they welcome and celebrate people in the church, the balance of personalities on the leadership team, the variety of service opportunities, even the way they use technology. He asks churches to “affirm the variety of personalities, gifts and experiences in the Christian life” rather than to “conform people to a mold of faithfulness.” (p. 196)
Introverts in the Church ends with an appeal to introverts to find our place in Christ’s church through making two movements. First, we must move into solitude to contemplate the great gifts our Creator has given us, to accept and relish his goodness and wisdom in making us as we are. Second, we must move into community, because this journey is not about self-acceptance or fulfillment, but about loving God and others. It is not only about finding a place, but living in that place for God’s glory and the good of our neighbors.
For a time, Adam McHugh served as a hospice chaplain, and I identified with what he writes about the pleasure he found in visiting people in small settings and being with them in meaningful situations. And on the other hand, like me, he also found that there are ministry settings in the evangelical world that are simply too much about high-powered activism. As one pastor who interviewed him for an associate pastor position said, “This is a really high-octane environment. We’re looking for someone who is excitable and high energy. You have to be totally sold out to work here. We work full throttle.” (p. 26)
I’ll be honest with youâ€”I not only have a problem with a statement like that temperamentally, but also theologically. But that’s a post for another day. Let me just say that, as an introvert, I can only imagine how uncomfortable I would feel in such a setting. Now, factor in that slightly more than 50% of people in the U.S. are introverts, and you can see one reason why so many of us find ourselves in a post-evangelical wilderness.
Perhaps Introverts in the Church can lead some congregations to become oases for quiet travelers like Adam McHugh and me.