Book Review: Introverts in the Church

IntrovertsI came across Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam S. McHugh around the same time that I came across Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (linked to my review). Susan’s book was somewhat clinical and historical, and I thought Adam’s would be a nice complement to hers, with spiritual applications.

It was and wasn’t. Some parts of the book were extremely helpful, but some of it totally turned me off.

One of the main characteristics of introverts is that they’re energized by solitude. They’re not hermits, not all are shy, they do like socializing to a degree, but it drains them, whereas extroverts are energized by socializing. They also process things differently. Extroverts process by talking with others: they can speak and think at the same time, though sometimes they are more prone than introverts to speak before thinking (e.g., Peter). Introverts process things internally and take longer to do so, so sometimes they miss speaking up because they’re still trying to figure out what to say. Extroverts can handle a lot of stimulation: introverts, only so much. Introverts also “prefer depth over breadth” (p. 41). That doesn’t mean that extroverts have no depth: it just means that introverts may have only a few very close friends rather than a great number of casual friends, generally hate small talk, prefer to fully explore a few interests rather than experiencing a smattering of interests.

McHugh starts off by making the case that church life seems to be set up more for extroverts than introverts (see the post on his blog, The Top Five Things Introverts Dread About Church, one of my all-time favorite posts ever). He cites a survey indicating more people than not thought Jesus was an extrovert (though McHugh lists several qualities of both the introvert and extrovert from what we see of Jesus’s life and suggests that Jesus was the perfect balance between the two), examples of equating spirituality with sociability, of a church atmosphere resembling a “nonalcoholic cocktail party” where “there is a chatty, mingling informality…where words flow like wine” (p. 21) rather than quietness and reverence.

Introverts tend to process things slowly, so they might lag behind in conversation and therefore be uncomfortable. They prefer having more involved, meaningful conversation with one or two people rather than glad-handing everyone they see. They “can faithfully sit in the back pew of worship services, rarely talking to anyone and still feel a genuine connection to the community (p. 93). They probably prefer quieter forms of church worship and wouldn’t mind some intervals of silence in order to think and process.

McHugh emphasizes that neither approach is right or wrong, and most of us have some mixture of introvert and extrovert in us, though most of us are usually stronger one way than the other. He asserts that, just like there are a variety of spiritual gifts withing the church that are supposed to interact to make up the body, so the church needs different personality types, partly so that we can minister to different personality types. There are valuable ways introverts can minister that may not look just like the way extroverts do, and that’s ok. An introvert doesn’t have to change his personality to “fit in” God’s kingdom, though McHugh acknowledges that we all need to be stretched out of our comfort zones sometimes.

He cites various ways introverts can be misunderstood or can feel they don’t fit in. He tells of a few people whose pastors thought that fostering community meant having a lot of church activities and groups, and one was thought less than spiritual if one did not attend all or most of these, yet the introverts found them exhausting.  Introverts may be thought standoffish. I admit I have seen some of this. Recently a pastor who is usually very gracious equated being “quiet and bashful” with being “self-absorbed,” and the solution seemed to be to stop being quiet and bashful rather than to find ways a quiet and bashful person can minister (although, as I said above, we do need to extend ourselves past our comfort zones sometimes, but anyone can be self-absorbed, introvert or extrovert). Those kinds of things hurt, yet I can’t say I carry the sense of woundedness McHugh seems to, but he does have a chapter on “Finding Healing” for those who do.

He does have some admonitions for introverts that I found helpful:

“It is natural for introverts to distance themselves from others to do the necessary work of internal processing, but too often we use that as an excuse for avoiding others, even when we have the social energy to engage” (p. 52).

We are “susceptible to an unhealthy degree of self-preoccupation” and “become mired in our inner worlds, to the exclusion of relationships and actions that would bring …healing and joy” (p. 59).

“Our inner reflections can become excessive to the point of inaction. Introversion should never be an excuse for laziness or sin. Understanding our introversion is not the end of our self-discovery and growth; it is a beginning point for learning to love God and others” (p. 59).

“The love that is the ultimate goal of the Christian life cannot be restricted to inner stirrings, but it must be expressed in self-sacrificial action. Healing will come en route. We stretch as we take risks and move beyond our comfort zones” (p. 59)

“We bless the body of Christ when we express our gifts within community and when we love at personal costs to ourselves” (p. 60).

“When we use our introversion as an excuse for not loving people sacrificially, we are not acting as introverts formed in the image of God. 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. We worship a God ‘who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine’ [Ephesians 3:20]. We must be always be open to the sovereign God who can shake us to our cores, who gives us the strength to transcend our humanness and to do things we never thought possible” (p. 63).

“Even when our resources are at their lowest point, even when we have nothing to offer, we work out of a power that can take our scant reserves and overwhelm people with a mercy that heals both body and soul” (p. 65)

“Sometimes we play the ‘introvert card’ in order to avoid taking a risk or doing something uncomfortable” (p. 136).

“Introverts may need to keep struggling through greeting times at church, because we need the constant reminder that the Christian life is never lived in isolation” (p. 193).

“God may call some people into a work for which they are not perfectly suited, for His greater glory” (p. 138).

“When Moses objected to God at the burning bush, saying that he was a clumsy speaker, God did not disagree with him…The power of the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do things we couldn’t do otherwise” (p. 138).

But while we need to extend ourselves, there are things churches can do to minister to introverts and enable them to connect and minister. He doesn’t suggest that churches should “coddle” introverts or “create yet another target audience” (p. 193), but one of the main things churches can do is to recognize that there are different ways to energize, lead, worship, experience community. He spends much of the book discussing these factors.They can stop “communicating to introverts that their ways of living and relating and worshiping are inferior or unfaithful” (p. 193) and realize that though we hold to the same “paramount, indispensable values” (p. 23), we may have different ways of expressing them. “The truly healthy church is a combination of introverted and extroverted qualities that fluidly move together. Only in that partnership can we capture both the depth and breadth of God’s mission” (p. 30).

Someone I read thought he focused too much on leadership rather than lay people, but I didn’t think so personally: there are two chapters specifically on leadership, and many of his examples involve pastors, but I found much I could glean and apply to myself even within those chapters.

I found the majority of the book very helpful, but I had major problems with the chapter on “Introverted Spirituality” and some of the chapter on “Introverts in Church”. He recommends several Eastern practices that “move beyond the senses” (p. 70) and mystical and Catholic practices that I would be uncomfortable with. I do agree that “words and tangible images are signs pointing to God, but they are not God Himself” (p. 71), and that God said, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9), but I very strongly disagree that “words have a way of trying to control Him” (p. 71) or that we need to seek Him beyond words, especially the very words that He breathed out for us to have until we see Him again. A former pastor used to call the Bible “divinely brief” – of all the infinite number of things God could have said and conveyed to us, this is what He wanted us to know and think about and learn from. In the chapter on “Introverts in the Church,” he opens the chapter with a quote from Neil Postman that “If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness, then it is unlikely that it can still call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience” (p. 187). Though there are times when we can be humbled and amazed by God’s “otherworldliness” and transcendence, and though there are mysteries in the Bible and about God Himself that we can never fully fathom, I don’t think worship is “mystical.” A speaker I used to hear in college called worship “worth-ship” – ascribing to God and acknowledging His worth, His majesty, glory, holiness, and His abundant other qualities – which we learn of through His Word, not “beyond our senses.” Peter, James, and John had one of the most amazing spiritual experiences ever when they saw Christ transfigured before their very eyes, yet when Peter referred to it, he went on to say we have a “more sure word of prophecy” in the Scripture than even that experience. I am also wary of a prayer form that involves “silence to quiet the mind and focus on a sacred word or phrase. Apophatic prayer tries to rid the mind of all images and forms so as to be open to encounter directly the Mysterious One. It is the desire of the meditator to listen to God rather than talk to God” (p. 71). I have read suggestions that the focusing on a single word or phrase while meditating may be an occultish practice. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Biblical meditation is not an emptying of the mind but rather a using the mind, mulling or thinking over. Right when I was in the midst of this book, I was at home from church sick one day and listened to a sermon by Jim Berg on “Let the Word of Christ Dwell in You Richly” from Colossians 3:16. He defined meditation as “peering intently with purpose” involving concentration, purpose, and focus on a particular passage. I’m not saying that every single practice McHugh mentions is wrong (though there are some I am more uncomfortable with than others) or that Christians might not be able to use some of them in beneficial ways, but I am very wary of extra-Biblical practices, and strongly disagree that introverts need to seek this kind of spirituality. Besides all of that, I am just more practically minded. When he was writing of a specific form he likes to use in prayer, my thought was, “Well, ok, if that helps you. But some of us just like to talk to God in prayer.” Admittedly sometimes my thoughts get scattered in prayer, and when they do I go back to what we call the Lord’s prayer (not to say it in a rote way, but to use it phrase by phrase as a jumping-off point) or the Psalms or one of the New Testament prayers like Colossians 1:9-14 or Philippians 1:9-11.

So…as I said at the beginning, much of the book was extremely helpful, but some of it raised some red flags for me.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: Introverts in the Church

  1. Pingback: What’s On Your Nightstand: May 2013 | Stray Thoughts

  2. I loved the definitions of meditation and worship that you gave us. A very good review, Barbara! So thorough! I think I’ll be passing on this book. It doesn’t sound like I would get into it at all.

  3. I’ve been waiting to read your thoughts on this one. And now I have several of my own. 😀 I think, on the whole, I’d skip this book and stick with “Quiet” which you recommended previously. I agree with all the red flags you pointed out in your review here.

    And also, of *course* Jesus was a perfect blend of both extrovert and introvert. This hardly seems like a point that we need take much time to argue. As He was fully God, He was also perfect. And perfectly balanced in His person-hood.

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on being an introvert | Stray Thoughts

  5. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: June 1, 2013 | Semicolon

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