By T.R. Robertson
Believers want to share their faith. According to a 2013 study by the Barna Group, 73 percent of born-again Christians say it is their personal duty to share their faith. The bad news is, only 52 percent said they had actually done so at least once in the past year.1 Experience tells me many of those Christians don’t share their faith frequently or regularly.
I’ve yet to see a study, though, of the frequency of evangelism as it breaks down by personality type.
Researchers and psychologists estimate that 33 to 40 percent of Americans are introverts. It’s not difficult to imagine how difficult evangelism is for them.
Or, I should say, for us. I admit it: I’m an introvert.
Susan Cain, author of the best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, defines an introvert as someone who possesses some or all of these attributes: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thick-skinned.2
Only the rarest introvert will identify fully with all of those characteristics. Cain provides a quiz of 20 questions to help identify where each person falls on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. I answered with a firm yes to “I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in depth about topics that matter to me.” But I laughed and replied no to “I don’t enjoy multitasking.” Altogether I came through with 14 very introverted characteristics and three extroverted, with the remaining three somewhere in the middle.
Not for Extroverts Only
For anyone who is predominately introverted, evangelism can be daunting.
Extroverts produce much of the teaching and writing about evangelism, offering recommendations and anecdotes guaranteed to make an introvert give up all hope. Often, we do give up. It only makes sense, doesn’t it, to leave the evangelism to the extroverts? I’ll be in my closet, praying for them.
“In actuality,” says Adam S. McHugh, author of Introverts in the Church3, “I do not think that introverts are ill-suited for evangelism; I think that our prevailing evangelistic methods are ill-suited for introverts.”
The mentor who influenced me most was Roy Weece, longtime director of the Christian Campus House at the University of Missouri.
Roy made his reputation as a highly sought-after speaker through endless stories of his evangelistic encounters with strangers. I watched while he struck up conversations about faith with strangers at McDonald’s and in elevators, and with gas station attendants.
As random college students walked through the campus house parking lot on their way to class, Roy’s favorite question to ask was, “Do you know where you’re going?” If they slowed down to talk, they would learn Roy had other, more permanent destinations on his mind.
Like any good apprentice, I tried Roy’s approach. I failed miserably. The flaw wasn’t in the method. The flaw was in my obsessive overanalysis of every potential interaction with a stranger. By the time my mind cycles through all the possible disastrous scenarios, the moment—or the stranger—has passed.
The “soul-winning” methods of Roy’s generation have been replaced in large part by what are being called “missional” methods.
The stereotypical scenario of a missional encounter features a believer becoming a regular at a neighborhood coffee shop and striking up conversations with fellow caffeine addicts. Those conversations resemble the relationship-building small talk of a cocktail party more than the provocative seed planting of soul-winning.
I’m excited about this new approach to evangelism. I think it can be effective in fulfilling God’s mission in a postmodern, post-Christian era.
There’s just one problem: small talk mystifies and paralyzes me. At the gym, it took me the better part of a year to strike up a conversation with the young woman who sweats on the elliptical machine next to mine three or four times a week.
Giving up isn’t an option for me, though, and it shouldn’t be for any committed, but introverted, believer. I’ve spent most of my life looking for ways people like me can share our faith without trying to pretend we’re extroverts. The one thing I’ve learned is to use my personality as an evangelistic advantage, not as a hindrance.
Productive Quiet Time
Most introverts cherish their quiet time and guard it fiercely. It’s an important part of who we are, keeping us refreshed and prepared to head back out into the interactive world of people. The downside of that quiet time is the temptation to let it become an intensifier of our reclusive nature.
Instead of using downtime to hide from the world, put it to productive use in preparing for mission.
If, like me, you’re a voracious book reader, choose books that offer insights into the lives and inner motivations of people who aren’t like you. When you find yourself standing on the edge of a crowd or a small group in conversation, don’t close off and pretend you’re invisible. Stand there and practice listening, studying the way people interact and what makes them tick.
So when introverts assume the observer role, as when they write novels, or contemplate unified field theory—or fall quiet at dinner parties—they’re not demonstrating a failure of will or a lack of energy. They’re simply doing what they’re constitutionally suited for.4
An introverted evangelist, especially one who intentionally and missionally works at being a quiet student of human nature, will have an advantage in projecting a genuine interest in the uniqueness of a seeker’s inner life.
“Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” That quote, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, is a favorite among the missional crowd. The idea, to adapt a phrase from Paul, is to “be on mission without ceasing.” The example we set, the way we help people, the everyday conversations we have, should all advance God’s mission in some small way.
The idea of “quiet evangelism” speaks to one of the strengths of being an introverted evangelist.
Many introverts are very good at listening. While everyone else is endlessly talking, the introvert is usually quite content to just listen.
Many nonbelievers complain that Christians are eager to tell them what they think, but Christians don’t want to listen. The confidence a believer has in the truth comes across as arrogant when it isn’t combined with a willingness to listen to what other people think.
In an age of pluralism and relative “truthiness,” an introvert with a patient ear comes across less threatening than an extrovert with a busy tongue.
It’s important to realize that quiet evangelism can also be a temptation to an introvert, providing a convenient escape plan to justify never speaking up about Jesus. Steve Hagemeyer, of Pioneer Bible Translators, says there will always come a time, when doing God’s mission, when you have to name names. You’ll need to tell them in whose name you’re helping them, and why. Otherwise it isn’t evangelism at all.
Finding a way to become messily involved in the messy lives of messy people can be the best missional outlet for many introverts.
According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits—introversion, for example—but we can and do act out of character in the service of “core personal projects.”
In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.5
The great contradiction of my introverted life is the confidence and boldness I possess when I’m teaching, leading worship, and counseling in a prison ministry. One of my chief introverted characteristics is a strong tendency to think deeply, widely, and creatively. I thrive on odd perspectives and on tailoring what I learn to my audience. The challenge of the extreme experiences and diverse needs of my prison flock kindle the fires in my quiet spirit like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.
Many introverts will discover they’re less intimidated talking to total strangers in an organized setting—even if they’re all convicted felons, homeless people, or international refugees—than when shaking hands and making small talk during the “meet and greet” time on Sunday morning.
There’s also an evangelistic side benefit of being involved in the kind of projects other people avoid. Extroverted coworkers are always trying to find a way to carry on a conversation with their “oddball,” introverted coworker. Everyone at my workplace knows where I go and what I do on Monday nights. Answering the question, “So, what crazy things happened at prison last night?” has led to countless missional conversations—ones that didn’t depend on me summoning up the courage to begin.
I’m more motivated to work past my inhibitions and do the slow and difficult work of building a relationship with someone whom I recognize as a kindred spirit.
Some nonbelievers in my world are unlikely to encounter the good news because they’re in the habit of retreating from human interaction. They’re uncomfortable with the idea of visiting a church where over-friendly strangers accost them with handshakes and curiosity before the extroverted preacher begins shouting at them from the pulpit.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t crave interaction. They just want it on their terms—the same set of ingrained preferences that are familiar to me, the missional introvert. I may be the only Christian who has a chance of introducing that person to the Jesus who loves introverts.
Introverted evangelists bear with their fellow introverts over time, understanding that faith is more of a process than a one-time decision. As their friendships become more intimate so do the questions. They meet introverted seekers in their depth of reflection, and they understand their rhythms of engagement and retreat, interaction and solitude. Introverted evangelists affirm that God embraces introverted seekers just as they are, and they demonstrate a life of following Jesus as an introverted disciple.6
Unlike the story you’ve always told yourself, God made you exactly as you are. He’s equipped you with a unique personality and skill set, designed specifically to enable you to carry out his mission. The best way to do that is to be yourself.
1“Is Evangelism Going Out of Style?” barna.org, Dec. 18, 2013.
2Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Broadway Books, 2013), 269.
3Adam S. McHugh, Introverts in the Church (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 172.
4Cain, Quiet, 237.
5Cain, Quiet, 209.
6McHugh, Introverts, 185, 186.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.