How to be an introvert in a noisy church


Type 'introvert' into a search engine and you are offered 10.5 million web pages in just over half a second. That is mind-boggling, but it is just one example of the rapid rise of interest in introversion that there has been over the last few years. In 2003 Jonathan Rauch wrote an article in 'The Atlantic' which sparked wide debate. Susan Cain published 'Quiet' in 2012 and it rapidly became a best-seller. People have begun to recognise that not everyone is energised by being in company all the time, and this is healthy. Insights about introversion are precious to some, irritate others, and challenge society at many levels. They raise questions in businesses, education, families and leadership theory, to name but a few examples. We love shared space, and often veer towards the kind of group-work which is disabling for introverts. Most communities are challenged by hearing 'the introvert voice' from within.

What, though, do such insights about 'personality type' have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church? Jesus died 'once for all' and both introvert and extrovert need salvation just as much as each other. The world is crying out for the hope that Jesus brings, and doubtless some would argue that this gospel priority means we should not be distracted by supposed insights into the human personality. Be careful, though! People differ. Variety is part of the created order. We each engage with others and with God uniquely, and the Church responds to this. A foreign evangelist in France learns to speak French. A youth worker dresses and behaves differently to a bishop. In just the same way, we need to take account of introverts (and extroverts) in the church if we are to grow healthy community.

Introverts are ordinary people. They are not necessarily shy or awkward or self-obsessed. They are often socially able, popular people who are alert, responsive, energetic and creative members of teams. The difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that one is energised by the inner life and the other is energised by company. Extroverts 'buzz' after being at a party. They need someone to talk through an upsetting incident with. Introverts might love the party but they need to find some quiet space afterwards. They might need to talk through something that has upset them in order to find reassurance, but they won't settle until they have taken some time to reflect and sort their thoughts in their own mind. In general extroverts think out loud, introverts process internally. Introverts might enjoy being in a team to share resources but they work well alone. Extroverts need others to bring the best out of them. Somewhere between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of people are introvert so, if you reflect your community, between a third and a half of the people in your church will be introvert.

The trouble for introvert Christians, particularly in livelier churches, is that we often 'buy the myth' that the extrovert way is the best way. So, for example, introverts don't necessarily mind being in a crowd if they are there for a purpose, but it takes energy and time to engage with new instructions. When a community demands instant participation in joint activity, 'let's all wave our arms for Jesus', extroverts might find it fun but introverts will want to watch and process why they might want to join in. Extroverts tend to think externally, so they are operating within their comfort zones doing new things in public. Introverts usually want to know what is being asked in order that they can reflect and then respond.

This 'extrovert drift' is increasingly apparent in the way we pray and study scripture. I was brought up with a daily 'quiet time', reflecting Jesus' apparent habit of getting up early and praying alone in desert places. Today's teenagers are far more likely to be taught to pray in groups and study the Bible in discussion. Some love it, others really struggle because company is draining; their energy is spent joining in with others rather than engaging with Christ.

Extrovert bias is seen in the way we organise ourselves, too. Most churches have some kind of church committee, but few of us have given much thought to the way we draw introverts into discussion well or engage with the gifts of wisdom, reflection, and insight that they bring.

I discuss all of this at much greater length in my book, but let me finish this short piece by offering two observations for those who would like to care for, and reach out to, introverts better.

Firstly, writing in this area keeps reminding me that we Christians need to listen to each other better. None of us knows what another is feeling until we listen carefully and prayerfully. Thinking about introversion, for example, is not a magic window into understanding someone. Love often starts with listening.

Secondly, we need to learn to accept ourselves as we are in order to allow God to work in us. Introverts often wish they were more outgoing, and extroverts wish they were deeper. In truth, Jesus loves and accepts you as you are; salvation is His work, engaging with the reality of who you are not the pretence of who you would like to be. If you are introvert, don't be ashamed. This is a gift for you to explore, and a gift for you to offer to the Church of which you are fully and rightfully a part in Christ.

Mark Tanner is Warden of Cranmer Hall in Durham (UK), training men and women for mission and ministry in the UK and around the world. His book The Introvert Charismatic (Lion Hudson) is out now.