Did you know that the latest surveys estimate introverts at 50.7% of the population? Yet the dominant culture including the culture of the church is extroverted.
Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam S. McHugh (IVP Books, 2009) asks, “Can introverts thrive in the church?” The author begins with his own story, then quickly branches out to discuss recent research, draws on the experiences of others, reflects on biblical examples, and examines many different aspects of church life including spirituality, community, leadership, and evangelism.
McHugh makes clear that he is addressing the “American partiality toward extroversion” particularly in the evangelical church. But what he says applies equally well here in Canada and to a broad spectrum of churches that would not at all identify themselves as evangelical. Wherever a church may be on the theological spectrum, relating with others can be intimidating and awkward for an introvert; what’s more, faithfulness, spiritual growth, and leadership tend to be defined with more extroverted qualities like being personable, relating well with others, spending time with people.
McHugh does an excellent job of raising the profile of introverts in the church and makes a good case for the gifts of both introverts and extroverts working together. Christian life and leadership are not all extroversion—we also need silence, study, prayer, listening, spiritual depth, and other more introverted qualities.
I appreciated the many practical suggestions for introverts—e.g., developing a rhythm of life that respects the rhythm of your energies and the need for rest, socializing with a purpose can make the church coffee hour less awkward, ideas for preaching as an introvert. McHugh encourages introverts to use their strengths, while at the same time encouraging them to move beyond their comfort zone. He does the same with the church, not doing away with the extroverted culture, but moving beyond that to consider the needs of those who are more introverted—e.g., adding a few chairs toward the side and at the margins of a larger grouping to make introverts more comfortable, observing some silence in worship, distributing the agenda and related materials before a meeting so introverts have time to consider and prepare.
All of this is very helpful, though if anything I would have wished for more nuance. For most of the book, McHugh speaks in broad strokes about introverts and extroverts as if they are two separate categories:
- “I interviewed a variety of introverts” (49)
- “Introverts are natural listeners” (98)
- “If introverts are the ones who write books about prayer, then extroverts have cornered the market in the evangelism aisle.” (170)
While this may be useful for his analysis, it also gives the impression that a person is either an introvert or extrovert with nothing in between. The reality we live is much more complex—on the Myers-Briggs indicator that I took near the beginning of my pastoral ministry, I was surprised that I tested on the extrovert side, since I had always thought of myself as an introvert. On reflection, I realize that I’m both, sometimes the introvert, sometimes the extrovert—a psychologist once told me that whatever an individual’s personality preference, the tendency is to move toward the “shadow” side when under stress. That explains why I like to stay home in the evening after a stressful day, and also why an introvert might look like an extrovert in a social situation (43). As the same psychologist said to me, it’s healthiest to be able to draw on both sides of our personality.
This is in keeping with what McHugh says earlier in his book:
Introversion and extroversion do not describe categories of people but two separate forces within each person. Each person has a capacity for looking outward at the world of people, things, activities and events, as well as a capacity for searching inward in the world of thoughts, feelings, imagination and ideas. All of our personalities move in these two directions. (34)
I would have liked to see this perspective throughout the book, but even so McHugh’s work is very useful, and I plan to follow through on many of his ideas.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: Are you an extrovert or introvert or somewhere in between, and how does that impact your participation in the church?
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