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In defence of Christian introverts

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Do you find excuses not to join a care group at your church, or go on a church retreat?

Do you like to leave quickly after a service so you don't have to talk to others?

Do you get nervous when the person leading a church meeting decides to break the congregation into small groups to discuss a topic?

If you answered yes to those questions, you might be a Christian introvert -- and now there is a book just for you.

Called Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, the book examines what it's like to be introverted in churches that place a high value on being extroverted.

"The extroverted bias of our larger culture has crept into church practice, especially those churches that associate with the evangelical tradition," says author and admitted introvert Adam McHugh.

The result, he says, is that some churches "unintentionally equate faithfulness with extroversion." This, he says, can lead to the idea that the ideal Christian is someone who likes to share openly and deeply, is gregarious and eager to participate in activities, and is willing to take on leadership roles.

That, says McHugh, sounds "suspiciously like an extrovert" to him.

Add in the "talkative, mingling informality of many churches" and you've got an environment that can be intimidating for introverts, he adds.

As an introvert, I can identify with McHugh. Like him, I sometimes find going to church to be an intimidating experience. I don't like sharing about my spiritual journey, or other personal issues. I find it hard to talk to people in the foyer after a service. And heaven help me if the worship leader or preacher is moved to ask the congregation to break into small groups to pray; it's all I can do not to find the nearest exit.

Of course, it's not just church where introverts might feel uncomfortable; society, as a whole, seems to favour extroverts. For example, when someone is outgoing, they are praised for being a people person. But if you are quiet and reserved, you might be considered a loner, or worse, to be arrogant.

For introverted church-goers, the added twist is that it can lead to questions about the quality of your spirituality. How deep is your faith if you don't open up to others? Are you really be committed to the church if you don't like to participate in church activities? Can you truly be a Christian if you don't like to talk about your faith?

McHugh's goal is to help introverts feel more at home in church, and to help extroverts understand people like himself better.

"Many extroverts assume that introverts need to be constantly 'drawn out,' and that if we are alone, we are just waiting for someone to come over and chat us up, because we are languishing in self-pity and isolation," he says.

In fact, "one of the hallmarks of introverts is that we find energy from solitude, and that even though we may enjoy social interaction, those experiences drain us," he notes.

He also wants to help church leaders make sure they don't overlook introverted members.

"Many churches reflect our society as a whole, valuing gregarious, action-oriented, assertive people," he says. "But introverts are relatively quiet, often hovering around the fringes, preferring to observe and reflect before entering into the action. We generally do not have the same 'presence' when we enter a room as many extroverts do. We are not likely to share our opinions until we have considered them and we are uncomfortable interrupting others to make our voices heard."

Finally, he hopes churches will see and value the gifts introverts bring to the church, such as the gift of listening.

"People in our culture so rarely have the experience of being truly listened to--having not only their words taken seriously, but also having their feelings, questions, and doubts underneath those words paid attention to," he says.

Introverts, he suggests, "have a head start on listening. Because we process internally, and take up less social space, we can offer a nonjudgmental posture that frees people to open up to us."

It's McHugh's sense that other religions, "especially of the eastern tradition," may be friendlier to introverts since they have "a quieter, more contemplative bent to them." He hopes that churches that prize a more assertive approach to Christianity might also adopt contemplative practices to make introverts feel more at home.

Since it is estimated that between 25 to 30 per cent of a given population are introverts, there may be a lot of people looking for a little more quiet when it comes to religion. Or, as McHugh says, "churches need to acknowledge a diversity of personality types, patterns, habits, and experiences. I want for extroverts, especially those in leadership, to acknowledge that are different, and equally valuable and viable, ways of following Jesus."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 6, 2010 H13

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