Introversion and Why Evangelicalism is Doing It Wrong

Introversion

In a recent interview for Scientific American, Susan Cain claims that American society is biased in favour of extroversion. Cataloguing some of the ways in which introverts can be marginalized and their skills underappreciated, she argues that this results in a loss for the whole of society.

Introverts are routinely misunderstood. As Jonathan Rauch observes, in a superb article on the subject of introversion:

In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. “People person” is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like “guarded,” “loner,” “reserved,” “taciturn,” “self-contained,” “private”—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality.

While I have a few social skills that I can dig out when I really require them, I am a fairly extreme introvert. I consistently test as an INTJ, with a very high level of introversion (100% in the last such test that I took). My own personal history, which I won’t bore you with here, has compounded my natural introverted tendencies in several respects. I am extremely self-contained, and can happily go for days without human interaction, provided that I have the stimulation of books and ideas.

As Cain observes, introverts are not anti-social, although we are often labelled as such. Rather we are differently social. Engaging in small talk or in socially or emotionally ‘charged’ group situations quickly depletes the introvert’s energy. However, in a situation with a small group of close friends, or with a single friend, where conversation flows naturally and doesn’t need to be ‘made’ we don’t have the same trouble. While the ideal form of sociability for the extrovert may be the buzz of the larger group of friends, for those of us who are introverts it is more likely to be that enjoyed with a close friend with whom you can share the silences and be alone together. Being introverted doesn’t mean that you will be less invested in your relationships. In fact often it is quite the opposite that is the case: the introvert has fewer relationships, but is more invested in the ones that they have.

Introversion and Evangelical ‘Fellowship’

All of this raises questions for me about how introverts are to fit in within the context of evangelicalism. Being an introvert can prove especially interesting within the context of the evangelical church, with its loud piety, demonstrative and expressive forms of worship, preference for spontaneity over form, liturgical chattiness and lack of silence, and elevation of sociability to the level of a central Christian virtue. I would suggest that evangelicalism’s extroversion rises to the level of a theological and liturgical pathology.

In contrast to perhaps even the majority of other Christian traditions, the evangelical church places a particular form of extroverted sociability at the very heart of its life, practice, and theology. The evangelical Christian is expected to find in the church a readymade social life, a social life raised to the level of a Christian duty, under the name of ‘fellowship’. To abstain or distance oneself from this is viewed with suspicion, as indicative of spiritual vulnerability, disobedience, or failure.

The noteworthy thing about evangelical ‘fellowship’ is that it frequently tends to be identified primarily with the informal and unstructured socializing that occurs after church meetings, and in social get-togethers during the week. Actual liturgical practice can often be conceived of in very individualistic terms. Baptism (as the rite of adoption) is merely the expression of one’s personal faith. Perhaps most ironically of all, the celebration of ‘Communion’ itself is generally treated as a time for private reflection and meditation.

This is not to say that there is no sense of ‘fellowship’ sought in evangelical church services. The evangelical worship service can often present a very charged atmosphere, creating the sort of ‘buzz’ that extroverts seek. This can be seen in the evangelical sacrament of the emotionally demonstrative worship song, in the loud and spirited singing of which a sense of mutual belonging can occur. Evangelical worship is a place of routine public expression of feelings and tends to be very ‘chatty’ in character, with lots of noise and words and little time for quiet and reflection. Evangelical sermons are also typically loud and histrionic compared to those of other traditions.

Although this can be draining for introverts, it seems to me that there are deeper issues here. Evangelical worship, with its heavy focus upon social energy as the site of communion, presents us with a constant need to ‘make conversation’, with God and with each other. The Bible, by contrast, presents fellowship as a fact rather than as something that we have to create with our spiritual gregariousness and energy. The fact that fellowship is a fact frees us to shut up and belong to God and to each other in shared silences, to encounter God in the quiet ritual and habits of the liturgy, without a need to be spontaneous and intense.

Introverts in the Church

None of this is designed to underwrite introversion as the normative form that Christian spirituality must take. My point is rather that the place of introverts in evangelical churches can be difficult in large measure on account of a profound theological misunderstanding of the concept of fellowship. Attention to the biblical concept of fellowship would produce a form of church without such a bias towards extroversion, in which fellowship could be practiced in many forms, catering for the needs of both introverts and extroverts and valuing all personality types for what they have to contribute to the life of the church.

For instance, such a broadening of our concept of fellowship could include a recovery of the practices of spiritual direction, visitation, and of more reflective and meditative spiritual disciplines. Solitude could be given a place in evangelical piety, along with the practices of pilgrimage and monasticism. An evangelicalism that provided more in these areas would also be a far more supportive place for the lonely, the sick, long-term singles, the socially awkward, and the isolated, people who, for one reason or other, often cannot easily enter into the regular social life of the congregation.

Evangelicals frequently think of church in terms of the ‘core’ and the ‘periphery’. The ‘core’ membership of an evangelical church all too often refers to those who are more socially active and visible. This concept of the ‘core’ thus carries a bias in favour of the extroverted. The ways in which introverted persons can be no less engaged in the life of the church, without being so visibly sociable can be forgotten. Introverted Christians may be gifted in one-to-one ministries such as spiritual direction and mentorship, in private visitation, in prayer for the life of the church, in theological reflection, small group teaching, etc. These are ministries that can easily pass beneath the radar, but are no less essential to the life and health of the church. This entails a loss for the church, as introverts can become detached from the life of the church, falling through the cracks (this is perhaps one of the greatest dangers that I have found in my Christian life). The church loses out on the many gifts that they could bring to the table.

Challenging this core-periphery dichotomy (about which much more could be written from other angles) would result in a Church with far less clearly defined edges, and with a redefined centre. Such a church could be less threatening to the newcomer. The evangelical understanding of fellowship can lead to people being expected to engage in ever increasing numbers of social activities. It can produce people who lose their individuality in the group, and with the dulling of the Church’s critical faculties, for instance (prophets tend to be introverts). Within a church that has been reformed in this area, although congregations would be much less aggressively social, they could be significantly more engaging.

I would love to hear any thoughts or personal experiences that anyone might have that relate to this issue in the comments.

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33 Responses to Introversion and Why Evangelicalism is Doing It Wrong

  1. John H says:

    There’s a great quote by J.I. Packer about introversion in “Among God’s Giants”. Will try to dig it out. Remind me if I forget! :-)

  2. Mark Nikirk says:

    As a recovering Evangelical, I can say you’ve hit close to the mark. The expectation of emotional work is so endemic to my past evangelical experience… I finally checked out – finding refuge I’m Lutheranism, where Jesus was the perfect Extrovert for me ;)

  3. Great stuff – and chimes with my own experience in a different strand of the church (I’m particularly blessed by this: “prophets tend to be introverts”!!) See my ‘Can CofE parishes cope with introvert incumbents’ http://elizaphanian.blogspot.com/2011/03/do-cofe-parishes-want-can-they-cope.html and ‘Confessions of an introvert incumbent’ http://elizaphanian.blogspot.com/2011/06/you-were-always-on-my-mind-confessions.html

  4. Kathryn Rose says:

    I think there are difficulties of this sort outside of the evangelical branches of church, too, and I am wary that those who look to the evangelical churches as models of how to create financially sustainable church will unwittingly adopt or augment some of these problems.

    However, I have some reservations:

    I’m afraid I don’t put much stock in Myers-Briggs personality typing; I find my test results very inconsistent, especially on the introvert/extrovert scale. I seem to be similarly inconsistent on other scales which measure introversion, and I would have difficulty classifying myself as either an introvert or an extrovert; while I am definitely better at communicating on my own terms, and find large or loud groups tiring and overwhelming, I am definitely not someone who likes to be alone for long periods of time and I can find the more solitary aspects of my work very challenging in this respect. So that makes it difficult for me to relate to discussion of introversion/extroversion in church situations on a personal level rather than on an abstract one. My own preferred liturgcal style is structured but not solitary or silent. I think there is much to be said for ensuring liturgy and social events suit a range of people but I am not convinced that the polarisation of introvert vs extrovert which many of these articles talk about is actually helpful in doing this.

    You quote Ruach’s article:
    Introverts are described with words like “guarded,” “loner,” “reserved,” “taciturn,” “self-contained,” “private”—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality.

    I don’t think of most of those words as negative, with the possible exception of “loner” (the childhood insult which stung me the most, I think; I wasn’t a loner by choice), and I am concerned that most of the articles I’ve read on introversion/extroversion in the last year or two seem to be variations on “the nasty loud extroverts just don’t understand us it’s so unfair wahh!”. Yes, the squeaky wheel too often gets the grease, but are the judgements society attaches to words like “quiet” or “reserved” really so negative, or do some people perhaps add extra meaning? It’s difficult for me to gauge. I haven’t encountered derision or serious criticism for knowing my limits with large parties etc since I was in highschool and I don’t feel particularly resentful of people who thrive on such gatherings as long as I can reasonably excuse myself, which I nearly always can. Perhaps this is due to my not really being a “real” introvert or due to having peers who understand particularly well that different people have different preferences and needs. I don’t tend to spend a lot of my working time in the situations in which an extrovert would thrive, and working unsocial hours means my evening and weekend commitments are free from cries of “loner!” in a society where work is obviously more important. I don’t want to dismiss what is obviously seen as a real problem by those who are much more introverted than I am, but I am uncomfortable with the narrative that I see in some places.

    People I know who I would describe as introverts, some of whom are very gifted in the quieter ministries you list, I might additionally describe as trustworthy, self-sufficient, careful, calm, matter-of-fact, reliable, and committed. Oh, to be sure, the people I’m thinking of are clearly exhausted by too much time spent with too many others, but there is also a sort of quiet self-confidence that comes of not wanting to be the centre of attention all the time.

    Does the rest of the church have something to learn from this way of living with others? Certainly.

    How might we make these quieter ministries more visible, acknowledging and valuing their place in the life of the church? My return to Christian faith could arguably be said to have come about partly through such a one-to-one ministry but any attempt by me to point this out, let alone celebrate it, seems to make my friend/mentor extremely uncomfortable.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Kathryn.

      I find MBTI personality tests can be very helpful in understanding some people, and not so helpful with others. The quality of the tests themselves can also vary wildly in my experience. I also wonder whether they fail to take sufficient account of the varying contexts and relationships in which we live. Our preferred current mode of operation may not say as much about some fundamental personality type as we might initially be inclined to believe. On the whole, I feel that I fit the INTJ/INTP descriptions very well, probably in part due to the fact that my INT preference is stronger than most. Someone in your position may be better described as an ‘ambivert’: I don’t think that the majority of people are as distinctly introvert or extrovert as some of us are.

      I remain persuaded that introverts are frequently misjudged or stigmatized by extroverts – I have been characterized as ‘anti-social’, ‘withdrawn’, and ‘detached’ on several occasions before, largely because I dislike parties and large social get-togethers. I have been viewed with suspicion on account of introvert traits and have been told that there must be something wrong with me for disliking or avoiding time spent in larger groups. These judgments have definitely carried distinctly negative meaning. That said, as you remark, a few too many articles on the subject definitely do read like pity parties, and can seem resentful of extroverts.

      There is undoubtedly something releasing in learning that there are a significant number of other introverts out there and that you are not a complete oddball for feeling the way that you do. On the other hand, I have little patience for inventing and playing some whinging identity politics game. My introversion is something that I own and for which I must take responsibility. Putting a name to it and describing it helps me to do that. It has benefits and it has downsides. I deeply dislike the idea that everyone else has a duty to change the way that they act perfectly to accommodate me. While it can be beneficial for people to know how introverts tick, I find it difficult to see myself as a victim. And, frankly, if the misjudgements of extroverts are getting to me, the onus is on me to grow a thicker skin. It is my duty to maintain a clear sense of self and make my own place in the world: I don’t believe that I have the right to expect other people to do that for me (although their help and understanding is obviously appreciated).

      The important issue for me here is that evangelicals and many other Christians have elevated a particular type of sociability into a Christian virtue. Addressing this is the most pressing thing. Once a more biblical understanding of sociability has been established, then we can move towards helping people to understand introversion. Pastors and church leaders can become more aware of the distinct needs of introverts, making themselves more available for the sort of interaction that introverts most need and benefit from. Introverts who better understand themselves will be less likely to torture themselves trying to act like extroverts and are more likely to discover how to play to their strengths.

      Much comes down to the process of the discernment of gifting here, which is something that the whole church needs to be active in. A church which recognizes a broader range of ministries, and doesn’t rely so much upon the more visible ones can make a huge difference here. Many of the greatest ministries in the church operate more like open secrets than as spotlighted frontline positions. Churches could make a difference by directing a lot more support, encouragement, and teaching towards such ministries. I don’t believe that these ministries should necessarily be ‘visible’, ‘celebrated’, or even be granted the dignity of some public office. Rather, they should be quietly recognized, valued, and honoured.

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  6. Susan says:

    One way that I have engaged with church families despite my bent towards introversion is to set my hands to a task along with others in the congregation. So while I find the career/singles meetings to be draining, as the emphasis is on small talk with lots of people, I tend to connect well as a part of the cooking team for a homeless Bible study or helping the internationals with their conversational English. There is no pressure to keep the conversation constantly moving as the work can help to cover any awkward pauses.

    Though not from a Christian perspective, this blog post also addresses some common myths about introverts – http://www.carlkingdom.com/10-myths-about-introverts

    • Thank you for the comment, Susan.

      Good point about the involvement in a task. I find much the same thing myself. Sometimes being on the tidy-up rota after church, for instance, can be a very freeing thing: you don’t have the duty to make conversation, but conversation can still happen if there is something worth saying.

      The post that you link to is a good one. Thanks!

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  8. Reblogged this on adventures of a (formerly) bearded man and commented:
    Alastair Roberts:
    >”Perhaps most ironically of all, the celebration of ‘Communion’ itself is generally treated as a time for private reflection and meditation.”

  9. Reblogged this on David's Blog and commented:
    Alastair Roberts:
    >Perhaps most ironically of all, the celebration of ‘Communion’ itself is generally treated as a time for private reflection and meditation.

  10. Reblogged this on David's Blog and commented:
    Alastair Roberts:
    >Perhaps most ironically of all, the celebration of ‘Communion’ itself is generally treated as a time for private reflection and meditation.

  11. Susie "Sera" Williams says:

    Nice to have it confirmed that I’d correctly worked out you are INTJ. As an introvert I was raised in the evangelical church and was curate there. The Rector was also an introvert. We might find the social side draining, but perhaps introversion helps with the theological reflection required to come up with good biblical teaching.

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  13. mattcolvin says:

    I am an extreme introvert, but with a happy and healthy place in the life of my parish. The congregation knows this about me, and we have learned to live with it. I am still not comfortable with social time after the service – not least because my genetic hearing loss makes it impossible for me to converse in a room with many people and an organ playing postludes. But everyone in the congregation knows this about me now, and I have valuable relationships with them that have been built over years of one-one-one or small group conversations instead. And the Book of Common Prayer hasn’t hurt either.

  14. Ellen says:

    I used to go to a Lutheran church during my teen years. It was very extroverted! They had a very active youth group. It was OK for me at first, but then it turned into a chore being required to attend every activity. I felt it to be very draining and tiresome to always have to go to these activities–especially since I did not feel close or connected to any on my peers in this group. I left the Lutheran church because of being pressured into the demands of it. I later joined the Catholic church, where I still belong. I can’t say for sure whether the Catholic Church is more introverted than other denominations. They have some activities, but not that many. The activities that they have usually serve a specific purpose. It might be yard cleanup in an area, or habitat for humanity with the Youth Group. They don’t really have anything for the people in their 20’s to 40’s. They don’t bother people into serving in any ministry, you have to come to them. I like the idea of more “low-key” ministries, such as soup kitchens, and one-on-one or small group activities. The problem that I see at our parish is that they can’t seem to get that many people involved that stay involved; so as a result, they ministry or social group does not last more than a few years. There are a lot parishioners and some parishes that are fairly close to each other that they could get more people involved on a lower-key level. That has been addressed in past years, but with no follow-through or follow-up.

    I guess what has turned me off before is the constant obligation, such as every Thursday at 7:00 pm sharp! I think that there should be some flexibility so that people do not have to attend every time, but can attend as they wish. And if it is about serving on a committee, have it be for a short period of time and then rotate, so that the introvert can take a break from it.

    • Good point about the constant obligation, Ellen. I appreciate being on a rota for voluntary duties at my church. It makes the commitment a little less intense. I really want to be committed to and active within my church as much as I can, and having slightly relaxed demands, but more flexibility for involvement beyond the demands makes such wider involvement easier. When every involvement entails a demanding long term commitment, one is very hesitant to take them up.

  15. Alastair, I don’t know if you ever manned the Toastie Bar at St Andrews on Friday nights, but I think ministries like that create space for both introverts and extraverts to serve as they feel equipped, with a desirable fluidity as well. Many weeks they’ve been having different Christian Union Link Groups volunteer en masse, and I think this has worked well.

    • I didn’t, although I had friends during my time there who were involved. What are some of the aspects of its ministry that you have found particularly helpful in this respect?

      • I think it was the division of labour, which was also flexible. I generally chose to do kitchen duty or to call numbers, but some people also liked to be cashiers or pass out handbills on the streets; when there were more people than were needed for even these tasks, you might also pray upstairs, which is also what I did when my foot cramped in the kitchen and I needed to do something else.

      • Yes, that flexibility can really make a difference. In my church, I am on the setting up rota. I have occasionally welcomed, but only when there is no one else to do the job.

  16. Michael Davis says:

    This was an interesting post. I’ve enjoyed reading Cain’s book on my commute to/from work. I often feel like my spirituality – because I don’t benefit from or enjoy the average worship service – is doubted. This was also the experience of one of the persons that Cain interviewed toward the beginning of the book. For those who find themselves in this predicament, we feel very marginalized.

    My concern is this: As Cain argues, there is more to the introvert/extrovert discussion than the type-casting of a personality test. There is a large body of evidence, most recently using fMRI, that clearly suggests a neurological basis for introversion/extroversion. It would be a mistake to ignore this evidence. Indeed, I’m concerned that we’re still having a discussion about the validity of the introversion/extroversion construct – when Evangelicalism could be making meaningful, evidence-based changes in practice. It is time to move on from the discussion about where one stands on the Myers-Briggs Introvert/Extrovert dimension, accept that the introvert/extrovert construct is valid, and adapt our view and approach to fit both sides of the aisle.

    You have aptly suggested ways that we might do this.

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  18. emilymullaswilson says:

    I am so glad that the matter of society’s undervaluing introverts is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Thank you for making a much-needed ecclesiological application of some of Cain’s principles. I am an extreme extrovert married to an extreme introvert, and we both feel that the imbalance favoring extroverts has been pernicious to the life of the church. I had not previously considered the fact that “fellowship” is almost always used in reference to gregarious post-church gatherings where small talk is the rule of the day. Bravo.

  19. shesparrow says:

    I agree with your point! As an introvert who has lingered primarily in evangelical bubbles, I have witnessed and experienced the pitfalls of our ways. I have been both part of a core and now exist very much in the nebulous peripheral somewhere; both have shared their lessons.

    I’ve been reading much in James lately… and somewhat on topic, the chapter about not showing partiality or favoritism towards people as a follower of Christ has been flying off the page in flashing neon lights. Perhaps our error is not so blatant as rags or riches but hidden in the blanket assumptions we make based on personalities and apparent usefulness? Perhaps….

    Personally, I think denominations are – well – of the devil. I’m just trying to learn what pleases the Lord – with much fear and trembling!

    Blessings.
    !A

    • Thanks for the comment, shesparrow. I think that the favouritism issue that you mention can definitely be at root of many of our problems in such areas.

      • John H says:

        Yes, indeed. See also: the contrasting reaction upon walking into a new church for the first time (especially a not-especially-large church) if you are (a) single or (b) a young family with children.

  20. camw1983 says:

    I think we need to realise that ‘fellowship’ really means ‘partnership’ in the New Testament and by the far the most common examples of it’s use seem to be congregations expression partnership with the apostles or other missionary individuals. It seems to be expressed through prayer, suffering and giving. None of these in the New Testament actually require contact with the other person. Not that contact is bad and should be neglected but simply that it isn’t biblically a necessity for partnering with other Christians in the gospel and in mission.

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