By Mandy Smith
Imagine hearing the following at the opening of your next church service:
Welcome! We’re going to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth today. So let’s strip off all encumbrances by removing our shoes, socks, and accessories. Now, grab someone new and give them a hug. Go on, don’t be shy. In fact, the Bible tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss! Now, empty out the contents of your pockets and purses and form small groups to examine them together. Open up to those around you. Tell them your fears and weaknesses so you can feel the love of your Christian family.
How comfortable would this intro make you feel? A few people might relish the attention, but most would be hesitant to divulge the contents of their pockets, or even of their shoes. All imaginary scenarios aside, I’ve come to understand that a significant group in our churches feel this uncomfortable on a regular basis.
They are introverts—commonly misunderstood1 by churches and church leaders who thrive on experiences that extroverts prefer.
Clearing Up the Misconception
Introverts are not always shy. In fact, research has shown that introverts are often very sensitive to subtle social signals and may simply be reacting to information others just don’t see.2 In our culture it’s a compliment to be told you’re extroverted—it means you’re happy and sociable. On the other hand, introverts are frequently thought to be reclusive, self-centered, or anti-social. But introverts care for others no less than extroverts; they simply show it in different ways.
While their sensitivities may make introverts seem weak, introversion actually creates many strengths—including great depth and insight—allowing them to be gifted leaders, speakers, teachers, and visionaries.3 In fact, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates and, believe it or not, Steve Martin, are among the ranks of the introverted.4
It’s important to look at the three main differences between introverts and extroverts:
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.5
Perhaps by now certain friends are coming to mind (or maybe you’re the introvert calling “Amen!”—albeit silently!) Let’s look at how these introverted traits intersect with common church practice and how church leaders can make introverts feel welcome and valued.
Does the Church Ask Too Much of Introverts?
1. Responsiveness during services—The words of influential worship leader Matt Redman sum up the message given, directly or indirectly, by many contemporary worship leaders: “Our Heavenly Father loves us with an extravagant abandon. Passionate, undignified worship is our only reasonable response.”6 Of course, worship should be heartfelt, but can’t we allow for worshipers who express themselves in invisible ways?
But the “worship service” isn’t the only time we require responsiveness: some preachers feel they haven’t touched people unless they’ve heard “amens” or seen heads nodding during their sermons. Churches that use postmodern models often get very experimental in their effort to create worship experiences; they might ask people to move around the room, remove their shoes, or create works of art during services. These activities can be effective but they can also be very disconcerting for introverts; the experience rarely feels authentic.
Other churches require those who are seeking a relationship with God to walk to the front to make their decision. There’s no doubt God desires a response of some kind, but are we requiring more than Scripture requires? Perhaps we would elicit a more natural worship response (visible or invisible) from introverts if we included such introvert-friendly elements as acoustic music, times of quiet meditation, and deep exploration of Scripture.
2. Obligatory involvement in a small group—Small groups can be great for introverts because they provide an opportunity to connect with a few people at a time. But leaders often give the message that until someone is in a small group, he or she is not really part of the church. 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.”7
3. Evangelism according to an extrovert model—Recently, new approaches to evangelism have surfaced. For many Christians, however, evangelism still means talking intimately with strangers—a frightening prospect for most introverts. Even friendship evangelism has its challenges for the introvert, who prefers a small group of intimate friends to a large group of acquaintances.
By no means should introverts be given a “get out of evangelism free” card—it’s a challenge for everyone. However, church leaders need to offer resources and methods that are useful to them.
What Does the Bible Have to Say About All This?
The Bible doesn’t deal directly with introversion. However, the Bible does describe characters with vastly different personalities (contrast David’s spectacular worship in 2 Samuel 6:14-23 and Paul’s timidity in 2 Corinthians 10:1) without condemning one or the other. We also know that the Bible allows for many different kinds of people in the church (1 Corinthians 12:14-20).
Admittedly, New Testament Christians were asked to greet one another with a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14), but we must question if this was an enforced part of the worship service or a natural greeting. It seems to me these passages focus on the commandment to greet one another and to do so in a way that is holy.8
Finally, we must also take the example of Paul to be all things to all men, in order to win some (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). He challenges us to remain unwavering in our dedication to the central truths of the faith, without forcing issues of culture or personality. It’s not always possible for us to be introverts to the introverted, but we can at least appreciate their unique approach to the world.
1Marti Olson Laney, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World (New York: Workman Publishing, 2002), 53. Also Jonathan Rauch, “Caring for Your Introvert,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 2003, 133.
2Laney, 45, 46.
5Paraphrased from Laney, 19-24, 49.
6Matt Redman, The Unquenchable Worshipper: Coming Back to the Hearth of Worship (Ventura: Regal Books, 2001), 44 (emphasis added).
7Joseph R. Myers, The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 68.
8See The Dictionary of New Testament Background, Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 628, 629.
How the Church Can Make Introverts Comfortable and Use Their Unique Gifts
• Encourage expressive worship without making it a requirement—a lack of outward expressiveness does not necessarily mean that an introvert is not responding. Introverts may worship as much during the sermon or Communion as they do during the worship set. Involve introverts in the planning of worship services.
• In decisions and communications, ask yourself: “Are we giving a false choice?” An introvert who repeatedly feels that Christianity doesn’t allow for who she is will gradually get the message that she has failed God or that Christianity is not for her.
• Ask introverts about evangelistic methods that have worked for them. While evangelism is not a sales pitch, it requires some of the same skills. The book Successful Selling for Introverts by Thomas M. Murphy may be helpful.
• Give church members a sense that they have options in their worship and church experience. These are adults—we can provide what they need, encourage them to be involved, and hope they take the opportunity. If we want genuine worship and community, we can’t force it.
• Ask leaders to do a personality test to better understand themselves and others. (The authors of The Emotionally Healthy Church suggest using the 16PF (Personality Factor), Myers-Briggs, or PerformaxDiSC personality tests.1 We often give leadership positions to “people people” but we must be sure they are sensitive to those with different personalities.
• Study the characters in the Bible (in a sermon series or a small group study), encouraging participants to note those characters with whom they feel an affinity.
• Give introverts the right to say “enough.” Don’t tell an introvert he’s “not buying in” if he isn’t at every event. Allow introverts to choose their small group or not to take part in the small-group program—they may find community in other ways.
• Plug introverts into ministries that allow them to use their creativity. Surely, if any organization can use a group of people who are reflective and deep, the church can.
• Encourage introverted leaders to find their unique leadership style. Introverts can be excellent leaders and teachers but often don’t lead in expected ways.
• Ask questions and be willing to listen.
1Peter Scazzero and Warren Bird, The Emotionally Healthy Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 142.
Traits of Introverts
Education researchers Jill Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig created a list of common traits of introverts. As you read it, consider how introverts might respond to the assumptions and programs of your church. Introverts:
• Are territorial—desire private space and time
• Are happy to be alone—they can be lonely in a crowd
• Become drained around large groups of people—dislike attending parties
• Need time alone to recharge
• Prefer to work on own rather than with a group
• Act cautiously in meeting people
• Are reserved, quiet, and deliberate
• Do not enjoy being the center of attention
• Do not share private thoughts with many people
• Form a few deep attachments
• Think carefully before speaking
• See reflection as very important
• Concentrate well and deeply
• Become absorbed in thoughts and ideas
• Limit their interests but explore deeply
• Communicate best one-on-one
• Get agitated or irritated without enough time alone
• Select activities carefully and thoughtfully
(It must be remembered that . . . no one list adequately captures the uniqueness of any individual; this list serves as a beginning guide to recognizing and understanding behaviors.)
This list of traits originally appeared in the Virginia Association for the Gifted Newsletter, Fall 1999.
Mandy Smith is either a rather chatty introvert or an extrovert who needs time alone. She is a freelance writer and speaker and recently released her first book, Life Is Too Important to Be Taken Seriously: Kite-Flying Lessons from Ecclesiastes (College Press).