Introverts in the Church

I wanted to make you aware of a new book out entitled Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam McHugh. You can also follow Adam at his blog Introverted Church.

I was very interested in seeing the book in print because Adam had let me know that he cited a post of mine concerning introversion in the church. That post is reposted below. In the coming weeks I hope post a review of Adam's book.


Introverts in the Imago Dei? (reposted from 6.19.2007)
In Lectures 6-7 of The Varieties of Religious Experience William James moves from his discussion of the healthy-minded believer to speak of the sick soul. Again, the sick souls are those who tend to be the more pessimistic believers among us, those of us preoccupied with the problems of existence. In my own research, I've labeled this type the Winter Christian and the Existential Believer, so I won't write more about them in this post.

What I do want to write about starts with James' sick soul type but goes in a different direction. Specifically, I want to write about the place of introverts at church.

Most people are aware of Jung's typology of Introverts and Extroverts. What you may not be aware of is that trait affectivity is highly correlated with these types. Specifically, positive affectivity is significantly associated with extraversion and negative affectivity is associated with introversion. That is, extraverts tend to be energetic and enthusiastic while introverts tend to be mellower or even melancholic.

The point here is that James' sick soul type is very often going to be an introvert and the healthy-minded type is very often going to be an extrovert. It is this connection that I want to discuss.

Here's the question I want to ask you: Do introverts fit in at church?

The answer, obviously, is that it depends upon what kind of church we are talking about. In liturgical churches I expect introverts and extroverts fare about the same. But in non-liturgical churches they may fare differently.

Specifically, non-liturgical churches tend to be more sociable churches. So, let's call them that. That is, there are liturgical churches and there are sociable churches. Sociable churches tend to emphasize relationality among its members. For example, a large part of the sociable church experience involves lengthy greetings (being greeted and greeting others), adult bible classes that are conversational and oriented around fellowship (e.g., in my church we sit at tables drinking coffee, eating donuts, and chatting), and the in-depth sharing of personal prayer requests.

This is not to say that liturgical churches aren't sociable or don't have sociable facets to them. It's just the simple recognition that going to a Catholic mass (the prototypical liturgical experience) differs greatly from my day at church at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. My experience is heavy on the “visiting,” as they say here in Texas.

In these highly sociable churches there is an implicit theological theme that marries sociability with spirituality. That is, being sociable—visiting intensively, and being willing to "get into each other's lives"—is highly prized. To a point, this is understandable. A sociable church is going to rely on extraverts to make the whole vibe work.

But introverts fare poorly in these sociable churches. The demand to visit, mix, and share with strangers taxes them. Worse, given that these social activities are declared to be "spiritual," the introvert feels morally judged and spiritually marginalized. As if their very personality was spiritually diseased.

Consequently, the "issue of the introvert" is one of the big overlooked problems in these sociable churches. For example, church leaders often want to make church more "meaningful." What they mean by this is that they want to create an atmosphere were deep human contact can be made. This is a fine goal, a worthy goal. However, to pull this off in an ordinary church setting demands a degree of sociability that introverts just don't have. Take a typical church service, communion service, small group service, or bible class. Let's say, to make it more “meaningful,” you ask the participants to find someone sitting close to them to have a spiritually-oriented exchange/conversation with. A time of sharing. Well, the introverts are just going to HATE this activity. They may hate it so much that they just might stop coming to your services. In fact, I know introverts at my church who purposely come in late to avoid the perfunctory meet-and-greet that occurs right at the start of our services ("Find someone close to you and say hello!").

Now, you may say that these introverts just aren't good people. But you would be wrong. Introverts are very, very relational. They just aren’t sociable. And to confuse the two is a grave theological and ecclesial mistake.

But many churches fail to make this distinction. They tacitly set up the following equation for church life:

Spirituality = Sociability
For example, I was once visiting with a church leader at my church who was making a recommendation that, to make our adult classes more "meaningful," we would need to share more of our lives in these classes. I stated that such a recommendation would drive the introverts crazy. The response was, "God is about relationships and church is about relationships. Thus, if these people aren't going to be involved in relationships they will just have to change."

The problems with this formulation are obvious:
1. From a psychological perspective, introverts don't change into extraverts (or visa versa). To expect this is ridiculous.

2. From a moral perspective, you are moralizing aspects of personality: Extravert = Good and Introvert = Bad.

3. From a pastoral perspective, you are confusing relationality with sociability. That is, your pastoral intervention, although well-intentioned, demands a kind of personality to work well. It is true that deeper relationships are needed at church, but the route isn't always best achieved by throwing strangers together into forced conversation.

4. From a theological perspective, you are insinuating that introverts are not created in the Imago Dei, in the Image of God. (In fact, the etymology of the word "enthusiasm," that trait of the extravert, means "filled with or by God." The association, then, is that introverts are NOT filled with or by God.)
This last is the most worrisome. For years, sociable churches have ignored the introverts in their midst. Worse, they have sent a consistent message that they were less spiritual than their extraverted brothers and sisters. That to be like God was to be extraverted.

In my opinion, the damage this subtle message has caused has been enormous.

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21 thoughts on “Introverts in the Church”

  1. When Flavil Yeakley studied the "Boston Movement" years ago, one of the troubling things he found was that people were being pressured to become extroverts. He found actual changes in their scores on personality tests, which he reported to the people in Boston as a very dangerous thing.

    He says their response was: "That was Jesus' personality type."

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. As an introvert, I thank you for the re-post. It affirms my experience and the experience of friends of mine. Now I won't feel so deeply the pressure to engage in certain social situations. I can keep my boundaries intact.

  3. Politics drives ALL of life. And politics is the driving force of the church, under the guise of spiritual goals, and spirituality. Therefore, introverts don't just get marginalized in their social interactions, but their jobs, if it happens that Church is mixed with "ministry", as a job.

    I think it is important to emphasize to the extrovert, that introverts are to be considered and consulted when it concerns these issues. No one can or should make decisions about another's life commitments or choices. That is where the extrovert steps over the boundary of self-control and proper respect for the other person.

  4. Thanks for this. And let's not forget the "energy sources" of introversion and extroversion. For extroverts, church is likely to be a time of "refueling" where they are going to enjoy being among the crowd. Time of prayer and introspection, however, can be very energy draining. The converse is true for introverts.

  5. rich
    it is interresting that this subject has been brought up....i e-mailed a friend sad i was having a bad day (although that is a compared to what subjectively speaking)and as expected he drove me right into tears of joy.... a true blessing of god to have a man as him to in a dire time of my life at 62 years old you would think that i would keep my hind end out a the ringer. "BUT NO!!!"
    anyway....
    at the end of my mail i said someTHING to the effect of
    "as we all journey down the road called faithful hope we notice the speed limit IS LOVE ..."

    now i bet ya if an extravert was taught properly the defination of love,instead of let's pound each other over the head with doctrine maybe the intervert might be a little more forthcomming out of the safty of saying nothing...
    it only took two thousand years for us to be so sceptical of each others agenda that we comunicate and dialouge through a facade, so as to feel no emotional impact from the loss of the intamacy that could be gained, and become a richer fuller functing body of our lord...
    FEAR MY BROTHER aint that what what ya call it...
    unfortually we all have everything to gain by exposing our true self if we but root out the christ of god in our respective fellowships.

    and learn the speed limit of HIS LOVE.... :-)


    blessings richard

    rich constant

  6. This needs to be preached from the rooftops. It is one of the pernicious assumptions of the megachurch culture, and it creates internal exiles. Unnecessarily. qb

  7. Perhaps there should be a 12-step program for "talkaholics." Or groups for introverts only, since extroverts dominate all social circles. I can stand hen chatter for only so long before I have to bolt for oxygen.

  8. Dr. Beck,

    My experience very much correlates to what you've written about in this post. I read this post, actually, when you originally wrote it several years ago, and it stuck with me. I'm strongly introverted and had felt uncomfortable in non-liturgical churches my whole life (in fact, in college I was one of those people who showed up late to Highland to avoid the meet-and-greet segment--I often left early, too). I remember being anxious every week on the drive to the service, and I never became deeply involved in any aspect of the church life.

    Eventually, with this article very much in mind, I tried attending a liturgical church, and the difference has been profound for me. The structured servic seemed to offer some sort of protection for me (sort of in the way sharing a meal makes it easier to converse with a stranger), and I felt comfortable here from the beginning. Over time, I've become very engaged with the life of this church body.

    This is clearly, from my perspective, an important issue for the church to address, especially in our hyper-extraverted church and just general culture. Thank you for bringing it up.

    John

  9. I agree with a lot of what's said here in this post. As someone learning about church leadership, it does seem that the organization of church leans toward providing comfort for the extroverts, at the expense of increased anxiety for introverts of a congregation. There needs to be more conversation about constructing church gatherings (corporate worship, classes, etc.) to the benefit of both personality types, and I hope that eventually posts like this blog entry speak louder than the voices like the member that you mentioned at the end of this post.

    But church also needs to be a place of taking risks and growing. If I'm not occasionally taking risks while in this community of believers, is it worth even going? (Forgive my harshness.) This question gets played out in a lot of ways. I believe that it is a risk for me to, when I'm leading worship, say "Let's pause for a moment of silence" and actually count to 60 before saying the next thing. Man, that's uncomfortable for not just the extroverted people, but the extroverted-leaning organization of corporate worship. And quite honestly, I'll try to do that more as I lead. In these moments, can church be used as a safe place for these people to practice peace and silence?

    Now just because I lead worship doesn't mean that I'm this gregarious person--I'm actually quite introverted myself. It's quite terrifying at times for me to hold a microphone in front of 1500 people on a Sunday morning. But at some point four or five years ago, I took the initiative and risked my security and pledged to sing on Sundays. Richard, when I go out to eat with you and your friends on Sunday mornings, there's a risk that comes from a fear of feeling uncomfortable (at best) or rejected (at worst) because I don't your stories or passions or humor with the familiarity that I know the story of my wife. But I come anyway partly because I want to take these risks and know your stories and lives. Knowing that I can talk to people that I don't know, inside and outside of the walls of Highland, shows me a different part of God, just as being able to be quiet for 60 seconds amidst all of the tension does.

    My complaint about this post is that (my perception) its tone suggests that it's solely the responsibility of the church to provide a safe place for introverts. And I think there's a level of responsibility that the church has. My question to our church's leadership would be "What practices and languages that we overtly/covertly promote from the pulpit dehumanize our introverted population?" Church first has to become a safe place for all of its members.

    But some of the responsibility lies with me, and you, and the other introverts in the congregation to take risks and engage conversationally with others. Am I suggesting that introverts become extroverts? Absolutely not. But my question to myself and the other introverts that connect with this is "What is one small thing that I can overcome to take me out of my comfort zone during corporate worship?" The way of Christianity doesn't call us to be comfortable--in fact, it suggests that growth happens through overcoming internal and external conflict.

  10. Jeremiah,
    You make a lot of good points. You are right that the introverts should meet the church or worship leader or Sunday School teacher halfway. But how is the church meeting the introvert halfway? I've had numerous people tell me how they have felt judged, morally and spiritually, simply because they don't thrive in spontaneous conversation with strangers. Real damage is being done to people. I appreciate the call to take risks, but it's hard to do that when you feel cornered and judged. So how are we going to change this and turn things around? How do we make people feel validated for who they are and excited about taking relational risks?

  11. Example from this morning. I step out when the decibal level pushes 90 (C of Cers probably don't have this issue with bass). There was an "event" with some of my family this week. Church secretary approaches for conversation, and chatters a while. Finally she asks about my week, and I shared a little of it with her. She then proceeds to elaborate multiple stories of people she's "known" that she thinks relates. They don't, but I politely listen. For a while. There's no end in sight. She concludes with a sort of sermonizing because I stand, ready to just walk away. Is it ever going to be acceptable for introverts to say to well-meaning talkaholics in churchianity, "Shut the hell up. Your chatter is just noise. You don't know as much as you think you do, and I really don't care about all the stories of all the acquaintances you can think of from your history." Sheesh.

  12. Good article and the distinction you made between sociable and relational is important and well-made: "Introverts are very, very relational. They just aren’t sociable. And to confuse the two is a grave theological and ecclesial mistake." As I think of myself, I value relationships, but a chatty-Cathy I am not. I have learned to be more sociable and make small talk, but it's depth that I value, not superficiality, which is where many people live, even in the Church. Some never get past the surface and I guess the mistake I've made in the past is to not even engage in those social (surface) conversations if depth is not going to result. I realize that's a mistake as one can often then be tagged as anti-social, aloof, etc. The more extroverted could learn from us introverts and begin to examine their relationships to see if they get beyond the surface. Interestingly, I've had people come sick out my advice on issues when in fact they're part of a gaggle of friends. I've come to see over time that they do this because the group with which they associate, while good people, live on the surface and the friendship doesn't get past that point. No real sharing of any substance takes place, but in my mind, that is what defines friendships. True friends for me are those that I feel comfortable enough with which to share intimacies.

    Finally, once you get Adam's book, I don't think you'll be disappointed. It's not only very accurate in its description of introverts but it's also quite liberating.

  13. Patricia, I love this: "Is it ever going to be acceptable for introverts to say to well-meaning talkaholics in churchianity, "Shut the hell up. Your chatter is just noise. You don't know as much as you think you do..." LOL!

  14. Thanks for giving food for thought. I don't mind talking if it is meaningful...I'd love to talk about what I'm learning in Scripture or some new insights, but not in a competitive conversational way.

    MM

  15. For the record, introverts are NOT sick souls, never have been, never will be. We may do things differently from extraverts, but that does not make us sick. Our biggest problems are the personal prejudices of extraverts. We are not anti-social. We are as social as you are, we just don't like crowds. We talk one-on-one with a person. We also hate chit chat, we want to have deep and interesting conversations with one or two people at a time at the most. We do not come to church to get hugged or to hug others. If there's one thing I can't stand is a perfect stranger who thinks he can get his touchy-feelies with me because he is in church. And for the record, when Jesus preached, he wasn't expecting you to drown him out, he was expecting you to listen and learn. He wanted you to listen in silence for his words to sink into your heart, mind and soul. The extraverted priests (or preachers or whatever you want to call them) are the ones who are missing the point. And if you bother to study Jesus' personality, it comes across as that of an introvert. When I go to church, I go when there is no service, so I can hear myself think and I can have a quiet, respectful one-on-one conversation with the Lord. I can't hear his voice because of the noise during your services. Churches are supposed to be quiet places where we can spiritually connect with God. We can't do that with all that noise. So give it a rest.

  16. Do introverts fit in at church?
    We don't fit in at the kind of church man wants to impose on us, but that's ok, cause I fit in with God just fine. I don't need the church. I just need God, cause he accepts me as I am, after all, he's the one who helped make me this way. And for the record, I find that his son Jesus had an introverted personality.

  17. Im a minister finding that I am no longer liking, enjoying, enthused, or, even acceptive of the whole church, but I love God

  18. From a psychological view, personalities don't change, but whether we have adequately determined "personality" is debateable. Types of personality are simply orientations or descriptions of them, that lead to preferences. All such systems acknowledge that "mature" types know both their preferences and the weaknesses of those preferences. it becomes less of a hassle for an introvert to behave as an extrovert as they mature. It should be noted that extroverts are expected with their maturation to moderate their behavior as well.

    Many contemplatives are known not just for their contemplative behaviors and writings, but for their engagement with others. It is quite possible for an introvert to "do church" in an extroverted world, if she chanes her view from what she wants to the needs of others.

    What I find interesting is that introverts ask this question and seemingly complaign that they don't get the plumb jobs and attention. First, if we strive after attention, are we really an introvert or just an inhibited extrovert? And well, let's face it, if we're trying to gather people around us, they probably expect more than to watch us read a book.

  19. I enjoyed the post and as an introvert can relate to many of the examples.
    Obviously the responsibility doesn't lie solely with the church, there somehow has to be a meeting halfway. But personally i no longer expect anything from the church in this regard and have lost any drive to find somewhere that i feel i fit in and actually like.

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