I test out as an introvert on the Myers-Briggs type indicator. And by that I mean seriously introverted. I have 99% of the signs and characteristics of this personality type, and probably a few additional ones that would fascinate the psychological profession to no end.
Some people are surprised to hear this because I am a litigator. A lawyer? Not so surprising. After all, someone needs to sit in front of their computer for hours on end drafting things like those license agreements that we never read when we install software on our computer – and who better to forego hours on end of personal interaction than an introvert, right? But a litigator? Who has to deal with witnesses? And judges? And juries? And other lawyers? And – gasp! – clients? How does that work?
It actually works out much better than you would imagine. I have arranged my work and non-work patterns so that I get a lot of quiet time, and the rest of my practice actually helps to get me “out” and interacting with people on a day-to-day basis, something that my extroverted wife insists is good for me.
Dealing with church, however, has always been an interesting challenge. This isn’t because introverts are incapable of rich, healthy spiritual lives, but because – to the introvert – most modern-day, Western churches look and feel like social minefields.
Inspired by a recent reading of Adam McHugh’s Introverts in the Church, a book I would heartily recommend for pastors (introverted or otherwise) and introverted lay-leaders as well, I will try to explain – in this post – why doing church (as its come to be called) is challenging for introverts. Then, in a couple of posts to follow, I plan to provide brief survival guides for introverts in the church, and for the church leaders who deal with them.
So…what makes church such a challenging experience for the introvert? To answer the question, lets look at some typical traits of introverts, and consider the way they impact their interactions within modern-day churches.
- Introverts often prefer solitude over socializing. Introverts require a certain quota of time in which they are either (a) alone or (b) in the company of a only select person or group of people, such as a spouse or family member (and even then, not conversing very much). This gives us time to process the things that happen to us in our lives and to recuperate from the difficult task of interacting with the world. Some people go crazy if they spend too much time alone. Introverts go crazy when they spend too much time with people, even people that they like.
- Introverts value conversational quality over quantity. Introverts are not interested in constantly talking when in the presence of others. If you happen to stumble over a subject that interests the introvert, you may find yourself in a deep conversation a few minutes later (like it or not!). However, if not, the conversation is likely to strike the extrovert as awkward and puzzling. For the introvert, small talk is hard work, and generally unpleasant. I often think of it this way: extroverts like to talk about what is on their mind at the moment, while introverts like to talk about what has been on their mind lately. The first is contemporary, spontaneous and semi-random; the second is an expression of a more purposeful train of thought that has likely bee in the introvert’s mind for weeks, months, or even years.
- Shyness and introversion are not the same thing. Some introverts suffer from communication apprehension, or the fear of personal interaction. However, many – like me – don’t really fear interaction per se. Rather, casual conversation – something that comes very naturally for most people – is simply experienced as hard work. When we are involved in purpose-driven communications – such as lectures or group meetings – introverts often shine. I’m pretty sure that some of the best preaching ministers/pastors that I’ve ever known have been extreme introverts. Give introverts a good format and forum in which to express their thoughts, and you may be surprised at the results!
- Introverts are Anxious About Being Misinterpreted. As I’ve said, casual interaction is hard work for the introvert. This isn’t because we dislike people, or because we think the subject matter of casual conversation is too trivial for our “deep” thoughts. Its just very difficult for us to stay focused on this particular type of conversation. We avoid extensive small talk because we are inadequate at it. However, at the same time, we fear that people misinterpret this as a form of rejection/withdrawal. Its a very awkward thing, and we often don’t deal with it very well because…well…we’re introverts. So the problem tends to spiral downward.
- Introverts talk less about themselves. At this point, it probably goes without saying, but introverts tend to be “closed” personalities. Though close friends and spouses know them well, they tend to talk about themselves less with their casual acquaintances. This makes it difficult for them to become well-known in social organizations, and they are often thought of as mysterious and reclusive.
- Introverts tend to prefer mediated communication. Books, email, and (even) Facebook are great forms of communication to an introvert, because they allow the introvert to communicate as much as they want, and only to the extent that they want. These tools allow the introvert to regulate the quantity and rate of communication at a level that is more tolerable.
Some people, I realize, have a lot of trouble “getting” what the big deal is when it comes to the lack of capacity for extensive, casual interaction. For those, a workable comparison can be made to the feeling that students get when they have to study for a test on a subject area that doesn’t interest them. The act of forcing oneself to concentrate can itself be very stressful and anxiety-inducing. Again, this isn’t because we dislike people – we just like to talk (a) less and (b) on a different “wavelength.”
So why are Churches such difficult places for introverts? The short answer is: modern Churches tend to be places where people are expected to talk – a lot! This is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes the Church an attractive place for most people. However, the problem lies in the introvert’s perception that they are required to participate in the chattiness. A great example is the “stand up and greet your neighbor” segment that many churches utilize during their worship time to help encourage an atmosphere of friendliness and informality. It works great for most folks…but – if the statistics are correct – every time it happens in a church with more than a handful of visitors, at least one of them is made less comfortable by the experience. The request to stand up and introduce yourself is actually experienced as something that is inhospitable. I know it sounds counterintuitive to say that the first thing an introverted visitor needs is to be left alone for several worship sessions, but that is often exactly what they need to acclimate themselves!
The theological language of “community” can also pose a problem. Church leaders often use terms like “authentic community” to describe something that members are supposed to experience. Another, similar term that I used to hear a lot was “fellowship.” While I think these are valid theological concepts, Churches often translate them into informal events, often involving meals and “fun” activities, in which everyone is supposed to come together and interact. All of the talk, no matter how superficial, is seen as the embodiment of “community.” Again, these types of gatherings are perfectly normal activities for most folks, but they have little to do with forming the type of “community” that is described in the Bible. Equating them with healthy spirituality can make the introvert feel like a second-class member.
One last example: small groups. Some churches put heavy emphasis on getting new members into small groups very quickly. The initiates are then asked to attend regular meetings and to interact with the strangers in the group about spiritual issues. Introverts need these experiences, but they probably need to start much more slowly, and they probably need to be a part of smaller, more intimate groups (even pairings). Rushing everyone into groups like this – while it may be effective on a larger scale – tends to drive out the more extreme introverts.
I write all of this because I think that both the introvert and the community suffer when a heavily “extroverted” culture develops in a Church. I’ll explain why as we continue in the next post or two.