In a recent interview for Scientific American, Susan Cain claims that American society is biased in favour of extroversion. Cataloguing some of the ways in which introverts can be marginalized and their skills underappreciated, she argues that this results in a loss for the whole of society.
Introverts are routinely misunderstood. As Jonathan Rauch observes, in a superb article on the subject of introversion:
In our extrovertist society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence, leadership. Extroverts are seen as bighearted, vibrant, warm, empathic. “People person” is a compliment. Introverts are described with words like “guarded,” “loner,” “reserved,” “taciturn,” “self-contained,” “private”—narrow, ungenerous words, words that suggest emotional parsimony and smallness of personality.
While I have a few social skills that I can dig out when I really require them, I am a fairly extreme introvert. I consistently test as an INTJ, with a very high level of introversion (100% in the last such test that I took). My own personal history, which I won’t bore you with here, has compounded my natural introverted tendencies in several respects. I am extremely self-contained, and can happily go for days without human interaction, provided that I have the stimulation of books and ideas.
As Cain observes, introverts are not anti-social, although we are often labelled as such. Rather we are differently social. Engaging in small talk or in socially or emotionally ‘charged’ group situations quickly depletes the introvert’s energy. However, in a situation with a small group of close friends, or with a single friend, where conversation flows naturally and doesn’t need to be ‘made’ we don’t have the same trouble. While the ideal form of sociability for the extrovert may be the buzz of the larger group of friends, for those of us who are introverts it is more likely to be that enjoyed with a close friend with whom you can share the silences and be alone together. Being introverted doesn’t mean that you will be less invested in your relationships. In fact often it is quite the opposite that is the case: the introvert has fewer relationships, but is more invested in the ones that they have.
Introversion and Evangelical ‘Fellowship’
All of this raises questions for me about how introverts are to fit in within the context of evangelicalism. Being an introvert can prove especially interesting within the context of the evangelical church, with its loud piety, demonstrative and expressive forms of worship, preference for spontaneity over form, liturgical chattiness and lack of silence, and elevation of sociability to the level of a central Christian virtue. I would suggest that evangelicalism’s extroversion rises to the level of a theological and liturgical pathology.
In contrast to perhaps even the majority of other Christian traditions, the evangelical church places a particular form of extroverted sociability at the very heart of its life, practice, and theology. The evangelical Christian is expected to find in the church a readymade social life, a social life raised to the level of a Christian duty, under the name of ‘fellowship’. To abstain or distance oneself from this is viewed with suspicion, as indicative of spiritual vulnerability, disobedience, or failure.
The noteworthy thing about evangelical ‘fellowship’ is that it frequently tends to be identified primarily with the informal and unstructured socializing that occurs after church meetings, and in social get-togethers during the week. Actual liturgical practice can often be conceived of in very individualistic terms. Baptism (as the rite of adoption) is merely the expression of one’s personal faith. Perhaps most ironically of all, the celebration of ‘Communion’ itself is generally treated as a time for private reflection and meditation.
This is not to say that there is no sense of ‘fellowship’ sought in evangelical church services. The evangelical worship service can often present a very charged atmosphere, creating the sort of ‘buzz’ that extroverts seek. This can be seen in the evangelical sacrament of the emotionally demonstrative worship song, in the loud and spirited singing of which a sense of mutual belonging can occur. Evangelical worship is a place of routine public expression of feelings and tends to be very ‘chatty’ in character, with lots of noise and words and little time for quiet and reflection. Evangelical sermons are also typically loud and histrionic compared to those of other traditions.
Although this can be draining for introverts, it seems to me that there are deeper issues here. Evangelical worship, with its heavy focus upon social energy as the site of communion, presents us with a constant need to ‘make conversation’, with God and with each other. The Bible, by contrast, presents fellowship as a fact rather than as something that we have to create with our spiritual gregariousness and energy. The fact that fellowship is a fact frees us to shut up and belong to God and to each other in shared silences, to encounter God in the quiet ritual and habits of the liturgy, without a need to be spontaneous and intense.
Introverts in the Church
None of this is designed to underwrite introversion as the normative form that Christian spirituality must take. My point is rather that the place of introverts in evangelical churches can be difficult in large measure on account of a profound theological misunderstanding of the concept of fellowship. Attention to the biblical concept of fellowship would produce a form of church without such a bias towards extroversion, in which fellowship could be practiced in many forms, catering for the needs of both introverts and extroverts and valuing all personality types for what they have to contribute to the life of the church.
For instance, such a broadening of our concept of fellowship could include a recovery of the practices of spiritual direction, visitation, and of more reflective and meditative spiritual disciplines. Solitude could be given a place in evangelical piety, along with the practices of pilgrimage and monasticism. An evangelicalism that provided more in these areas would also be a far more supportive place for the lonely, the sick, long-term singles, the socially awkward, and the isolated, people who, for one reason or other, often cannot easily enter into the regular social life of the congregation.
Evangelicals frequently think of church in terms of the ‘core’ and the ‘periphery’. The ‘core’ membership of an evangelical church all too often refers to those who are more socially active and visible. This concept of the ‘core’ thus carries a bias in favour of the extroverted. The ways in which introverted persons can be no less engaged in the life of the church, without being so visibly sociable can be forgotten. Introverted Christians may be gifted in one-to-one ministries such as spiritual direction and mentorship, in private visitation, in prayer for the life of the church, in theological reflection, small group teaching, etc. These are ministries that can easily pass beneath the radar, but are no less essential to the life and health of the church. This entails a loss for the church, as introverts can become detached from the life of the church, falling through the cracks (this is perhaps one of the greatest dangers that I have found in my Christian life). The church loses out on the many gifts that they could bring to the table.
Challenging this core-periphery dichotomy (about which much more could be written from other angles) would result in a Church with far less clearly defined edges, and with a redefined centre. Such a church could be less threatening to the newcomer. The evangelical understanding of fellowship can lead to people being expected to engage in ever increasing numbers of social activities. It can produce people who lose their individuality in the group, and with the dulling of the Church’s critical faculties, for instance (prophets tend to be introverts). Within a church that has been reformed in this area, although congregations would be much less aggressively social, they could be significantly more engaging.
I would love to hear any thoughts or personal experiences that anyone might have that relate to this issue in the comments.