“He’s just a little shy”, said the boy’s mother, smiling apologetically. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard versions of this same sentence spoken over children countless times (and there’s the classic, “she just needs to come out of her shell a little” as well). I’ve seen the flip-side of this too, seen the result of years of hearing that the very natural human tendency for retreat needs to be apologised for. I’ve watched an 18 year-old girl in an interview setting describe her weakness as “feeling reserved around strangers”. I’ve seen the adverts on Google that tell you you can cure your introversion. I’ve spoken to countless damaged and hurt introverts who failed to find true acceptance in their experience of school, work and church.
There’s an ‘elephant in the room’ that’s been intruding on Western social culture for a while now, and let’s not pretend he doesn’t follow us into church as well. People who have bags of charisma, who have something interesting to say, who are confident, funny, who can walk into a room with presence are more appealing, right? More respect is shown to this type of person. We think they make better leaders, we want to be like them. While this may sound like mere speculation, this is a subject that is receiving massive media attention. Recent books such as Susan Cain’s Quiet have suggested that Western culture, in the past one hundred years or so, has held an ‘extrovert ideal’, shaping schools and work places around the needs of extroverts, inevitably leading to some introverts feeling excluded. Adam McHugh, in his book Introverts in the Church shows how this mindset has trickled into our churches. In fact, in a recent survey, 97 percent of Christians asked said that they perceived Jesus to be an extrovert.But if human perfection, shown through the person of Jesus, includes extroversion, then what does that mean for the introverts?
While a lot of us don’t like to put into a box, the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ are not just another casualty of our obsession with personality typing; they signify how our brains work. Studies of the brain have shown that extroverts need more of the neurotransmitter dopamine to feel contentment, created through movement and activity, whilst introverts need more of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to feel contentment, created through stillness and reflecting.
It seems to me, though, that many evangelical churches cater more to those who thrive off this ‘movement and activity’. The emphasis, for example, can often be on participating in more and more events; the less you attend, the less dedicated you appear. The reality is, though, that you could be spending time on background roles, praying for the church, forming vision and strategy for the church.
The emphasis is also on community, on welcoming and loving others. Great, and so very biblical, but the reality is that with work and family life, some people may have very little left in the tank to be constantly engaged and ‘friendly’ in church as well. Being community shouldn’t just look like going to the shared lunches and staying until the end of coffee times. It’s about walking alongside people and loving them in a whole range of different ways throughout the week.
So much of the Sunday services are also centred around giving out from yourself; chatting at the start, long times of expressing yourself in worship, taking in the sermon, sharing in the peace for some, giving testimonies, having tea and coffee afterwards. There is little time for reflection, little time to work through and process all the thoughts buzzing around your head, little time to just sit with your maker. Yes there are many different styles of church, but my personal experience is that there are not many engaging, thriving and lively churches that manage to cater well to introverts as well as extroverts.
And the reason all this concerns me so much is not because I want a church more centred around my own needs; I can make myself fit in wherever. It is instead because of the message that I think we as Christians are giving out; the message that it is more desirable to be extroverted. And the introverts in the congregation then go home and hear this same message in university, in the workplace, through films and media, and through the speed of modern Western culture, and inevitably question what is wrong with them.
The reality is that nothing is wrong with them, and introverts may just need a portion of the day to process and reflect. For me, when I allow myself this, creativity flows from it; I write more, I paint more, I perceive more, I pray more. But there is a constant battle to protect this time, from others who don’t understand, from seemingly good opportunities that I feel bad saying no to, from my own mind telling myself that I am being lazy.
Sometimes it is just easier to pretend to be an extrovert.
(Photo via Creation Swap)