Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh


I confess I was pretty disappointed in this book.  Which may have been due as much to my unrealistic expectations as to the product itself. McHugh sets out to help introverts thrive in the increasingly extroverted evangelical church--and to help the church better welcome introverts.  These are noble goals, to be sure.

However, he runs into difficulties right from the get-go: nailing down a definition of introversion.  Not all introverts are shy or quiet.  Not all extroverts are loud.  The definition I like best has to do with what energizes you--if you are energized by being around people and sapped by being alone, you are probably an extrovert.   If being with people wears you out and you recharge in solitude, you are probably an introvert.  Any definition more expansive than this tends to cause problems.  So when McHugh tries to make generalizations about what introverts are like, their strengths and weaknesses, I found myself constantly thinking of extroverts I know who are the same way, or introverts who are not.  It's a tough situation to be in--you need to talk about the attributes of introverts in order to speak to the ways they struggle to fit in at church.  But the simple truth is introverts don't have the market cornered when it comes to listening, thinking deeply, or any number of other qualities McHugh highlights.

Then, too, there is the issue of why the introversion/extroversion distinction matters in the church context.  Yes, certain things are harder for some people than others--so what?  McHugh has concluded that this introvert/extrovert distinction is a created difference to be celebrated.  His basis for this conclusion is primarily biological, and makes for interesting reading, but doesn't answer the ultimate question.  After all, there may be any number of behaviors or attitudes to which I am predisposed.  It does not necessarily follow that I am 'allowed' to avoid difficult tasks.  For example, as an introverted Christian, I loathe the 'mingling' that comes at the close of a church service.  The fact that I am a biological introvert does not give me a free pass to duck out.  And just because an extrovert doesn't like solitude doesn't mean he or she can simply neglect personal prayer.

I think a better focus would be determining which 'extroverted' aspects of church are actually biblically required, and which are the result of our cultural bias toward extroversion. There may well be aspects of the evangelical church culture that skew extroverted and are not required by Scripture.  In these areas, introverts may well be free to explore alternatives.  But some facets of the Christian life--like evangelism and community--are biblically mandated, no matter how hard they are for introverts.  The Christian life is full of hard tasks.  It is admirable to reduce the number of unnecessary hard tasks we impose on people, but the mere fact that a task is hard is not determinative.

To his credit, McHugh tries to walk this line--for example, he does not give introverts permission not to participate in evangelism; this is a biblical command, and it applies to all Christians, whatever their temperaments.  Instead, he offers suggestions for evangelism that might be more comfortable for introverts.  But he never really delves into the biblical support for his underlying conclusion that our personality type gives us an excuse for not participating in X activity.

Don't get me wrong--there's nothing wrong with looking for ways to serve or obey that fit with your abilities.  The important thing to remember is a) you still have to obey (in other words, you don't get to ignore commands because they're hard for you), and b) sometimes God will call you to serve or obey in uncomfortable ways.  So maybe you like helping behind the scenes, and that's great, but one day the church may be short on greeters and you may have to bite the bullet and help out, even though it's not something you enjoy.  I may focus my evangelism on friends and co-workers I know well, but one day I may be on a plane with a total stranger and God may lead me to share the gospel, even though that sort of thing is totally unappealing to my introverted sensibilities.

It can be tempting to cast our reluctance in terms of skills or abilities rather than preference--that is, as an introvert, I serve in ways or areas where I can serve well.  It's not so much that I don't like doing X; it's that this extrovert I know does it so much better.  I tell myself I am being selfless, that I am trying to ensure that the best folks for the job are the ones doing it.  Which would make sense, if we took God out of the equation.  Then we would look for the 'best man for the job' every time.  But our ability to serve or obey does not come ultimately from our skill or personality type; it comes from God.  He chooses the incapable worker so that when the task is done, He gets the glory.  So while it's fine to look for service opportunities that line up with our gifts or passions, we're fooling ourselves if we think we'll only be called to serve in areas of personal strength.

McHugh also devotes a significant chunk of the book to introverts in leadership, particularly pastors--which makes sense, given his personal experience.  He notes, for example, that churches often pigeonhole introverts as not possessing leadership material, and observes that introverts can in fact be excellent leaders, and even excellent pastors.  As a lay introvert, however, I did not find this discussion terribly helpful, and it didn't really fit with the 'blurb' on the back of the book.  Still, I suppose it's an important topic, even if he did discuss it at more length than I think was strictly necessary.

One other note of concern: in the final chapter, 'Introverts in Church', McHugh encourages churches to experiment with their worship services.  Some of the ideas are straightforward enough, like incorporating silence or pauses into the service so that introverts (and others) have time for reflection.  Certainly, the manic pace in some church services could benefit from a bit of quiet.  But some of his other suggestions are more troubling--the incorporation of symbols and art into the corporate worship, for example, could come perilously close to violating the Second Commandment if not handled properly.  Yet McHugh encourages this practice without even a passing caveat to be wary of the improper use of images.

Bottom line: McHugh makes some interesting and even helpful points, but the end result is scattered and unfocused.  McHugh relies on anecdotes and scientific studies; the biblical support for his conclusions is never really presented.  As an introvert, there is some comfort in reading about the struggles of other introverts, and some of the practical suggestions may be useful.  But as a treatise on the role of introverts in the church, it falls far short.

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