alt Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh (IVP Books, 2009)

(I wrote briefly about this book based on a Mars Hill Audio interview with its author; now I have finally read it myself and can do it more justice.)

Hello.  My name is Linda, and I'm an introvert.

(Hi, Linda!)

That's the way I once thought about this aspect of my personality type, as many people still do.  At best it's an affliction, a disease—if not evidence of weak character or even mental illness.

Rare is the book that will make me cry, unless it's in frustration over poor writing, but Introverts in the Church brought me to tears in the early chapters, as I recognized again and again how many of the characteristics of my own life fit into the introverted pattern.   "I am not alone" is a most powerful emotion.  I was also reminded of Marcus Buckingham's assertion that we spend too much time and effort trying to shore up our areas of weakness, and not enough building on our strengths.  Somehow we have been sold on the idea that introverts should work hard at being more like extroverts, rather than applying our strengths for the common good.  What's more, I discovered that in trying to act more like an extrovert (and doing it rather badly), I have myself misunderstood and hurt fellow introverts.

McHugh's focus is on how this dynamic plays out in the church, so the remainder of the book was not as emotionally moving as the beginning, but it, too, was revealing, as I gained insights into why introverts are often uncomfortable in modern churches, and why their unique gifts are just as important as those of extroverts—and may be especially valuable because we live in such an unbalanced time.

My comment that I should probably buy a copy of Introverts in the Church just so I could lend it out provoked the response, "Would you lend it to your introvert friends or your extrovert friends?"  The obvious response is, "To both."  To the introverts, so that they might experience the affirmation that their weaknesses are the flip side of strengths of which our world is in much need, and to the extroverts—exactly the same thing, actually, and so that they might understand, appreciate, and encourage the introverts in their lives.

As usual, there's no way a few quotes can do justice to the book, or give an adequate picture of what the author presents.  What's more, long quotations are discouraging to most blog readers, myself included, I am somewhat embarrassed to say.  Nonetheless, here is a small sampling of ideas that struck me, culled from the bookmarks that bristle all over the book's 200-some pages.

There are three primary characteristics of introversion, and the first has to do with energy source. ... Introverts are energized by solitude.  We are recharged from the inside out, from the forces of our internal world of ideas and feelings. ... The second classic mark of introversion is internal processing.  In our culture we are continuously bombarded by stimuli, in the forms of information, images, conversation, and a multitude of other data and experiences.  In order for introverts' lives not to degenerate into disassociated states of confusion, we need to process these stimuli and integrate them into our lives. ... A third distinctive of the introverted temperament is the preference for depth over breadth [in relationships, interests, and our understanding of ourselves].

I can identify with nearly every one of McHugh's list of common attributes of introverts:

  • Prefer to relax alone or with a few close friends
  • Consider only deep relationships as friends
  • Need rest after outside activities, even ones we enjoy
  • Often listen but talk a lot about topics of importance to us
  • Appear calm, self-contained and like to observe
  • Tend to think before we speak or act
  • May prefer a quiet atmosphere
  • Experience our minds going blank in groups or under pressure
  • Don't like feeling rushed
  • Have great powers of concentration
  • Dislike small talk
  • Are territorial—desire private space and time
  • May treat their homes as their sanctuaries
  • Prefer to work on own rather than with a group
  • May prefer written communication
  • Do not share private thoughts with many people

Any introvert who finds himself trapped in an airplane seat next to a talkative neighbor will appreciate this quotation McHugh offers from Type Talk at Work:

"One of the big mistakes Extraverts make is to assume that if someone is not engaged with another person, that individual is simply not busy.  So, it's okay to interrupt someone sitting and reading because that person is probably reading only because there's no one else with whom she can talk.  You can only imagine what an Extravert thinks of someone who is sitting there not even reading but merely reflecting.  Clearly that person needs to be put to some more useful task—such as listening to the Extravert's thoughts of the moment."

It's even less possible to summarize all McHugh has to say about how the church can nourish introverts and vice versa, but here's a sampling:

[I]t is a temptation for churches to define spiritual maturity as attendance:  regular worship, participation in a committee or leadership team, and involvement in a small group.  The implicit thought is that the mark of true, progressing discipleship is participation in an increasing number of activities.  Along with attendance should come a steady increase in the number of people you know and who know you. ... Because of these assumptions in many churches about what constitutes participation, we can become convinced that the faithful word in the Christian life is always yes.  When we are asked to participate in an activity or group or sharing time, if we are really committed to community, if we truly trust God, we think we must answer "yes." ... Yet no is an indispensable word for introverts who need solitude and space to refuel and reflect.  Saying "no" at times enables us to wholeheartedly say "yes" at other times.

People in our culture need models of self-reflection, leaders who will teach them how to look inward and evaluate their motivations and choices. ... As Henri Nouwen said, "Our task is the opposite of distraction.  Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God's active presence in their lives.  Hence the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks into the silence."

In my interactions with pastors over the past decade, I have been confounded by how few of them were adept in the discipline of listening.  What should be an absolute prerequisite for entering ministry has been subordinated to the all important evangelical qualities of speech—teaching, persuasion, correction—or relegated to specific "side ministries."  Our seminaries subject hopeful pastors to rigorous communication and preaching classes, but I have never seen a class or seminar offered on listening.

What a person in pain needs, on the deepest human level, is to not feel alone.  What helps someone is people who will simply be there and help carry the burden without always trying to fix the situation.

When I was a college pastor, the students who came onto campus with the greatest maturity, spiritual depth and understanding of the gospel were invariably those who'd had a youth pastor or other mentor from their communities of faith take a special, personal interest in them.  Moreover, many of those students had been the beneficiaries of a movement toward contemplative youth ministry, in which the primary role of youth pastors is less about creating entertaining programs and more about helping students cultivate an awareness of God's presence.  Contemplative youth ministry is a promising new direction both for introverted youth workers and for the introverted students they lead.

"Contemplative youth ministry" instead of activity and entertainment?  Where was that when our kids were of youth group age?  I might have actually felt that the youth leaders were supporting our family instead of tearing down what we'd been faithful and at great pains to build.

[I]ntroverts often feel more freedom in worship services that feature traditional liturgy than they do in ones that feature more open, informal, unstructured styles of worship.  Introverts often appreciate the depth of liturgical prayers and hymns, as well as the rich symbolism that fills traditional churches. ... Some introverts decry the shallowness of contemporary worship songs and their repetitive refrains, which can feel emotionally manipulative.  They say that loud music disrupts their internal dialogue with the Spirit.

I never thought of worship-style preference as an introvert/extrovert distinction, and it's certainly not universal.  Our own introverted pastor seems happiest with loud, rock, and demonstrative.  But it does offer an explanation of many of my own worship experiences.

My hope is that churches will begin to recognize when their worship services are communicating to introverts that their ways of living and relating and worshiping are inferior or unfaithful. ... I would like for my fellow pastors to understand that hourlong sermons may overwhelm a sizable demographic of their congregations, and a two second silence for personal confession may feel like a mere hand wave at people who want to interact with God in a quiet way.  In fact, as we find more balance in our worship, it will not only be introverts who benefit.  Extroverts too will learn to listen for God in the cracks of their speech and grow in understanding that "in quietness and in trust shall be your strength" (Is 30:15).

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Edit
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I find this quite interesting. It doesn't quite make me cry, but I identify with a number of points. Does he address how an introvert can best deal with situations where small talk is the norm? How is an introvert supposed to introduce himself? Does he have tips on guiding the conversation away from ourselves and toward something more comfortable/interesting? Does he have any recommendations for how to learn how to listen?



Posted by IrishOboe on Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm

As I recall, he does have some ideas along the lines you mention. He also insists there are times when we just have to suck it up (not his words) and work outside of our comfort zones. In order to do that well, however, we need to be sure to schedule plenty of time in our lives for recovery, processing, and just being alone. He has plenty of suggestions as to how to do that for introvert pastors, almost none of which I find particularly helpful for introvert mothers. :( He does have a website, www.introvertedchurch.com, which might have more ideas.



Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 7:41 pm

This is giving me insights into our BCF. I think it's a classic case of overreacting to something and going to the other extreme. BCF was (is?) and introverted church, and many of the policies were anti-extrovert. Not expressly, but in effect. They purposely tried to not over-schedule, but ended up under-scheduling. Some things that we felt were controlling were really their efforts to save us from the trouble that extrovert churches press on people. For example, when a group of people (at least 15) met to brainstorm extra activities that we could do together (not "official" but for whomever wanted to come) one of the elders ended up squashing the whole idea with one comment. Jon said at the time that he was sure the man hadn't intended to squash it - but that's how it happened, and we were quite frustrated by it.

Very interesting comment on worship styles.



Posted by joyful on Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 10:29 am

God save us from those who want to save us from ourselves! :)

It's interesting that you describe BCF as an introverted church. I know you've mentioned that there are many introverts (read, nearly everyone), but my experience there does not fit with the way McHugh describes an introvert-friendly church. Without the book at hand, here are a few things I can remember. (And bear in mind, he does not recommend all of these at once, nor exclusively. To be healthy, a church must be balanced, serving—and stretching—all personality types.)

* Traditional liturgy

* Deep preaching with open-ended questions, encouraging response and discussion, particularly in written form (e-mail, websites)

* Spaces of silence during worship. Personally, when it comes to confession of sin, for example, a few seconds doesn't begin to cover it for me. And for the most part, "silence" means just that. Putative silence that is constantly interrupted by vocal "leading" misses the point. I'm of two minds when it comes to music, though. I'd rather have none, but it's true that soft music masks the traffic noise outside, the tapping of a neighbor's fingers on the pew, the nose-blowing, and the babies' noises. On the other hand, we should be developing the ability to block out distractions during meditation, and masking them may hinder that. And the music itself, especially if it has words associated with it, is as likely to be distracting as not. (That was my own comment; I don't recall the book addressing the issue of music during "silence.")

* Taize-style, contemplative music

* Traditional hymns with theological depth

* Contemplative and other ancient forms of prayer

* Attention to non-verbal forms of worship and the importance of symbolism, art, architecture, and movement.

Those are a few that come to mind. It's true that BCF is more introvert-friendly than many churches, and there are many things I enjoyed about my experiences there. But—at least from my very limited, outsider's point of view—I'd attribute a good deal of the "unfriendliness" to a heavy-handed, top-down authority structure. Who are "they" to tell you not to organize a get-together that involves church members? No more than it was right for another church of your acquaintance to forbid a member to have a Bible study at her house.



Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, August 22, 2011 at 10:18 am

Ah. I did not mean necessarily that BCF is an introvert-friendly church. I meant that it is made up of a very large percentage of introverts. I suspect many would like to read this book to understand things better. I think a lot of the order of service at BCF is based on the leaders' idea/experience of traditional.

By the way, Andrew was definitely an introvert pastor. He had his prayer shed in the back yard for his personal time. (And he still is an introvert, just not a pastor.)



Posted by joyful on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 7:21 pm

I suspect that if he could have, Andrew would have led BCF in the direction of many of the ideas I mentioned. Just a guess.

But Father Tom is also an introvert pastor, and I'd say most of them are not his cup of tea at all.



Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Great post. Thank you.



Posted by Eric on Tuesday, August 23, 2011 at 9:37 pm

FYI, I just came across McHugh in the book, "Quiet".



Posted by dstb on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm

For good, bad, or indifferent?



Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Good, I think. The author set up a meeting with him at Saddleback Church and they attend a worship service where McHugh points out that there is no time or space for contemplation (in the service). Here's a quote (p69):
"It's brave of McHugh, whose spiritual and professional calling depends on his connection to God, to confess his self-doubt. He does so because he wants to spare others the inner conflict he has struggled with, and because he loves evangelicalism and wants it to grow by learning from the introverts in its midst."



Posted by dstb on Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 7:16 am