There was a time when, after a busy weekend of church activities, I would be so thoroughly over-stimulated that I'd have to go straight to bed when I got home. My extroverted husband would graciously leave me alone and instruct our children to do the same. Those days seem long ago and far away. So little angst remains about my own introverted nature that I wondered if Adam S. McHugh's new book, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture (InterVarsity Press), was even necessary. After all, I had figured things out for myself.
But then I polled a group of friends—both introverts and extroverts—and heard that differences in temperament are a major source of tension, both at home and in church. The more I thought about my own relationships, the more I realized there remains a good deal of strain because of such differences. I've settled on an attitude of détente when increased awareness could lead to lasting peace. Introverts in the Church is a resource for dissolving the impasse—if it is read by both introverts and extroverts.
The book is founded on the premise that ours is a culture biased toward extroversion, and that churches reflect this bias. Introverts struggle to find their place, especially in evangelical churches, with their emphasis on evangelism, conversational preaching, and group activities. In the introduction, McHugh expresses his hope that God will use his work to "begin or continue a process of healing introverts—helping them find freedom in their identities and confidence to live their faith in ways that feel natural and life-giving." I suspect that for a young pastor like McHugh, introversion presents a more profound challenge than it does for congregants and empty nesters who aren't trying to juggle the demands of church leadership and a growing family.
In fact, McHugh himself very nearly withdrew from the ordination process because of doubts about the compatibility of his temperament and his calling. This dilemma presents both the book's raison d'etre as well as a weakness of it. Introverts in the Church is strongest when it is descriptive, and weakest when it offers solutions, precisely because the author's solutions are too pastor-centric and, by his own admission, theoretical. However, in this case a little bit of knowledge yields significant rewards.
McHugh identifies three primary characteristics of introverts. First, he says, introverts are energized by solitude and drained by social interaction. (Extroverts, on the other hand, derive energy from external sources and find both inactivity and too much solitude draining.) Second, introverts tend to filter information and experiences internally; thinking generally precedes speaking. Third, introverts prefer depth over breadth in both relationships and interests. They may look calm on the surface, but their brains are "bubbling with activity"; thus, they require less external stimulation than their extroverted neighbors.
McHugh says, however, that "introversion and extroversion do not describe categories of people but two separate forces within each person." We all have 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." The challenge for those who tend to focus inward lies in "distinguishing between the healthy components of personalities … and the coping mechanisms that are the symptoms of our wounds." Because introverts tend to be good listeners, we can get enmeshed in one-sided relationships and masquerade as extroverts in order to be accepted. Both tendencies drain us of vitality.
We can also use our introversion to excuse laziness and sin, perhaps because we struggle so hard to find balance. McHugh says, "We cannot find freedom in our introversion until we embrace our primary identities as sons and daughters of God." He wisely adds that "understanding our introversion is not the end of our self-discovery and growth; it is a beginning point for learning how to love God and others as ourselves," and concludes that "the introverted trajectory of growth is toward relationships with others and relationship with the outside world."
These statements seem sufficient to me. In expanding upon them, McHugh inadvertently makes introversion sound pathological. In chapter 3, for example, he surmises that introverts may be more prone to depression because they internalize emotions and carry inside themselves the dysfunctions of their families in ways that extroverts don't. He says that while "extroverts commonly feel loneliness when others are absent, introverts can feel most lonely when others are present," because theirs is "the aching loneliness of not being known or understood." He is wrong. Extroverts may hide their pain better and be less self-aware, but they hurt deeply and suffer more when communal life fails to live up to expectations. Depression is an illness, not a function of temperament.
In using therapeutic language, McHugh unnecessarily confuses the need for healing with the need for spiritual and personal growth. This is unfortunate because he beautifully expresses the truth that "we who follow a crucified Messiah know that love will sometimes compel us to willingly choose things that make us uncomfortable, to surrender our rights for the blessing of others."
His descriptions are most prescriptive in paragraphs like this:
Extroverts, who want to increase their level of involvement, may proceed roughly in a straight line as they move from the periphery into the nucleus of the community. They move from stranger to acquaintance to participant to core member as they increase the breadth and depth of their relationships, finding more energy as they progress into the community. The journey of introverts into a community, however, is better conceptualized as a spiral. They take steps into a community, but then spiral out of it in order to regain energy, to reflect on their experiences and to determine if they are comfortable in that community. They move between entry, retreat and reentry, gradually moving deeper into the community on each loop. The introverted path into community, much to the confusion of many extroverts, never reaches a point in which the spiraling form is shed.
Imagine church members accepting these traits in one another instead of suspecting one another of ambition or unfaithfulness. Imagine spouses of differing temperaments accepting these traits in one another and finding a rhythm that works for both.
McHugh's boldest claim is that introverts are "an important ingredient in the antidote to what ails evangelicalism." What ails it, according to him, is shallowness, showiness, and pragmatism, to name a few of our tribe's alleged faults. He contends that introverts' slower pace of life, thoughtfulness, depth, and listening abilities are "prophetic qualities" that call the evangelical church to a "renewed understanding of God and a fresh reading on the abundant life Jesus came to give us."
It's a provocative thought, but I think he's overreaching. Extroverts are, by nature, doers. Like the biblical Martha, they can perhaps be faulted for disordered priorities, but should be applauded for their zeal and diligence. Nonetheless, in a strong chapter on introverted evangelism, the author says that introverts excel at friendship evangelism and giving spiritual seekers the time and space to grapple with their questions and doubts. Indeed, these gifts shine in a skeptical age.
A more conciliatory and hopeful vision to conclude with is this one: "When the church is led by introverts and extroverts who partner together, each contributing their strengths and offsetting the others' weaknesses, it is a testimony that the Holy Spirit is orchestrating the community."
Christine A. Scheller is a writer living in New Jersey and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women.
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Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture is available at Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
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