A Theology of Introverts

October 8, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

When I inform people that I am an introvert, I am often met with nods that hint at understanding and reassurance. And yet, having heard various and almost always incomplete definitions of what constitutes introversion, I have to wonder: Does society really understands this personality type as well as it thinks it does? And more importantly, does the church?

For instance, here are some of the ways I have had introversion explained to me: “Introverts are quiet people.” “Introverts like to be alone.” “Introverts have a very active thought life.” “Introverts feel exhausted from being around people.” And while all of these statements bear some semblance of truth, none of them, on their own, quite captures what it means to be an introvert.

Thus, rather than attempting to create my own pithy definition for the concept, I suggest the following principles (having originated from Marti Laney) as a helpful guide for distinguishing this personality from its counterpart: the extrovert.

1. The ways they get energy—Extroverts receive energy from external stimulus, while introverts get energy from the inner thought world. As a result, even if introverts perform well in social settings, they are often drained by people and need time alone to recuperate.

2. The ways they respond to stimulation—Extroverts thrive in environments that provide multisensory stimulation. Introverts, on the other hand, have a busy inner world and can easily be overwhelmed by external stimulation. That’s why introverts may be reserved and prefer quiet environments.

3. Their approach to knowledge and experience—Extroverts like to absorb as much as they can from their environment; they crave variety and breadth. Their introverted counterparts prefer depth; they invest energy in select areas. This is why they may be careful about choosing activities and may be hesitant to offer their feelings or ideas. 1

For those of you who are visual learners, Psychology Today, with its notoriously exquisite photo shoots, offers up this image of the introvert, and all of its 1000 words. 2

Taken from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201008/revenge-the-introvert

While a secular perspective would encourage us to view such personality types as cornerstones of our identities, a Christian perspective would recognize that a foundation or identity built on anything other than Christ is doomed to fail. Nevertheless, personality traits which are both inherent and constructed, God-given and God-transformed, are important bricks in the building of individuals and communities.

Thus, I think, it becomes important for the church to evaluate itself, and see to it that the entire body is being cared for. And while the implications of this statement abound, I want to focus on three areas of potential assessment: Church Fellowship, Church Services, and Church Theology.

1) Church Fellowship: Introverts and Mingling

Perhaps one of the hardest things for introverts in the church is the seemingly endless pressure to “get involved,” “get connected,” or “get plugged in.”  While introverts have no qualms with the underlying principles of these commands (hospitality, fellowship, service), they do fear the narrowly designed pathways that provide access to these virtues.

For instance, at some churches, the only means of fellowship are found in venues such as the coffee hour, the potluck, the ministry fair, and the small group. For an introvert, all of these activities can be reduced to one resounding word: Mingling. This is the introvert’s worst nightmare. Endless stimulation and signals to read. Endless potential directions of conversation and action. And at the end of all of it, he or she will be exhausted.

Thus, sometimes undetected and sometimes to the chagrin of more extroverted church members, the introvert will often flee the scene or avoid showing up at all. This is not because the introvert does not care for people, or for the church, but simply because such settings, while extremely conducive to the extrovert, are overwhelming and unnatural for the introvert.

At the same time, such settings are often designed with specific images of fellowship in mind, images in which the introvert is not an adequate poster child. For instance, a church might unintentionally be sending messages such as “fellowship is people bantering over coffee,” “fellowship is a girls-night-out party (put on by the women’s ministry) at an active, downtown venue,” or “fellowship is a small group laughing, crying, and instantly clicking with each other, even at their first meeting.”

The risk of these preconceived images is that they put pressure (unspoken but still detected) on introverts and make them feel as if they are “doing it wrong.” Furthermore, they often obligate introverts to act in ways that are completely opposite to their personality in order to fit in.

In her article, The ‘IN’ Crowd: Ministering with Introverts in Mind, Mandy Smith says something similar to this effect in her assessment of what she refers to as obligatory involvement in small groups.

“For many churches, small groups are organized so that participants are forced to meet with those they don’t know and prodded to share what they’d prefer to keep private. Although small groups can be meaningful for all personality types, Joseph Myers’s conclusion in The Search to Belong should make us think twice. He says, “Often our small group models encourage forced belonging.” 3

2) Church Service: Introverts and Responsive Exercises

Turn to your neighbor and say “Your a Sinner.”  Now turn to your neighbor and say “I’m a Sinner too.” Now turn to your neighbor and say “God Loves You Right Now.”

Nope, this is not Christian preschool. This is church for many people whose pastors have decided to implement “responsive” or “interactive” exercises into their service structure. While some people seem to respond well to these participatory acts, for introverts, they are meaningless and irritating. And while distaste for these practices is not an exclusively introvert characteristic (as extroverts, too, may view them as corny or schmaltzy), they are particularly damaging for introverts, who prefer their social interactions to be few but meaningful, but are forced to participate in many social interactions that are devoid (at least for them) of any authenticity or depth.

To give another example, from my college years, I recall a particularly painful exercise that was forced upon morning chapel-goers. It had something to do with connecting with people, and it involved taking a whole minute (they actually timed it) to stare into the eyes of the person sitting next to you and contemplate “them.”

While I imagine that any individuals who were attending chapel with their significant other did not mind this exercise, those of us who were attending solo and soon found ourselves being forced to share a minute of physical and emotional vulnerability with the potential creeper/person of the opposite gender next to us were less than amused.

The reasoning often provided for such exercises is that they better their participants by forcing them out of their “comfort zones” and into an embrace with a radical, potentially “life-changing” experience. And while I will agree that all of God’s people (both introverts and extroverts) should be challenged out of rigid patterns of behavior and thinking that may prevent them from leading a life of service, I doubt that such transformation takes place through exercises such as the ones that I have listed.

While I agree that the Christian lifestyle is a radical one, I think we must use discernment in differentiating between that which is radical for radical’s sake, and that which actually aligns the individual with Christ. While I don’t doubt that God calls us to radical acts such as giving away money to the poor or refusing to recant our faith, even with a gun to our head, I doubt that Jesus looks upon the pastor who has asked his congregation to amuse him by participating in some “turn to your neighbor” speak, and says, “Way to go! Look at all those people who are radically uncomfortable in My Name!”

3) Church Theology: Introverts and Complementarian Doctrine: 

In the article “Caring for Your Introvert,” taken from The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch says this: “Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.” 4

Those in the church who view personality through these gender stereotypes are often rooted in various forms of complementarianism, which, on its most basic level, holds that men and women have distinct yet complementary roles within the family and within the church. However, when this philosophy is explained or acted out through specific expectations, it can be devastating for the female introvert.

For instance, while men might be allowed and even encouraged to be stoic thinkers, contemplating hefty decisions, women may be expected to be chatty hostesses, gently touching new comers on the arm and engaging them emotionally. Given that such gender roles are often espoused by the church, it is no surprise that they are especially rigid for those who are associated with the church.

For instance, my husband and I were once accosted by a man selling beanie hats at Rockafeller Center. Before he began his sales pitch, he entered into a minute or two of small talk, and out of politeness (and the hopeful aspiration that we could exchange that politeness for help with directions) we said hello and offered up answers to his questions: Yes, we were from New Jersey.  We were living there because my husband was attending seminary.  Yes, he did want to be a pastor.  Before leaving, we offered up handshakes and said that it was nice to meet. But when he received my hand, a look of surprise came over his face. “A hand shake?” he said. “Normally, you get two things from pastor’s wives.  Either they go around hugging everybody or they won’t touch you at all.”

Now, obviously not all pastor’s wives fit into this man’s false dichotomy, however, I think his perception of women sub-types within the church was very keen, as both the social nurturer and meek bystander have their place within various strains of complementary philosophy. Of course, the former is more trendy than the latter in modern culture, which seeks to promote womanhood through validation rather than negation.

However, for the female introvert, such promotion does not provide validation, nor does it stray far from Coventry Patmore’s Angel at the Hearth. And furthermore, it does not serve the purpose of the church, which should not be a mere reflection of what is currently trendy in society (including the cult of the extrovert in American society), but should seek a communal identity that is based on and rooted in scripture.

Thus, regardless of what your church believes about the roles of women as mentioned in the bible (ie: the woman as pastor, the woman of Proverbs 31, etc.), it is the non bible-based doctrines of women (the woman as emotional, the woman as sociable, etc.) that are most threatening to the introvert, by not only discouraging women from introverted traits, but sometimes even placing scorn on the very combination itself.

Thus, for the female introvert, the church can be an environment wrought with landmines, and the church would do well to reconsider where it may have unintentionally set up these traps.

Finally, just briefly, it may be beneficial to consider ways in which churches might actively welcome the introvert and plug him or her into effective fellowship and service.

For instance, to encourage fellowship, churches could offer more activity-based rather than talk-based gatherings, where introverts would have the option of focusing on the task at hand rather than the crowd of sensory overload. A church might also consider offering one-on-one mentoring relationships or other one-on-one activities for those who find the personal rather than the group setting more comfortable.

To encourage service, a church might provide introverts with more behind-the-scenes or one-on-one roles that need to be filled (making and delivering meals, overseeing the planing of an event or trip, etc.) Also, because introverts often dedicate a good deal of time to contemplation, churches could probably benefit from their feedback. Thus, providing easy venues for sharing any thoughts or ideas that strike introverts after the fact is a good way to get them involved.

1. Taken from The Christian Standard, paraphrased from Marti Olson Laney, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World (New York: Workman Publishing, 2002) p. 19-24, 49.

2. Psychology Today also offers an extensive article that deals specifically with the personality of the introvert Revenge of the Introvert.

3. The ‘IN’ Crowd: Ministering to Your Introvert.

4. Caring for Your Introvert.