Roommates are interesting, and an extreme extrovert rooming with an extreme introvert can be even more interesting, particularly when the extrovert is a relatively new Christian in a leadership position who wants to see lots of rapid spiritual growth. That happened my sophomore year of college. There’s nothing quite like being told (among other things) that not having meals with more than ten people weekly means you are limiting your ministry opportunities. But it can indeed be frustrating for an introvert to sit down and compare the number of people he or she knows to the extensive social networks of many extroverts. It isn’t that close friendships aren’t more rewarding. I tried to expand my friendship network at school in response to my roommate’s urging, and I ended up feeling stretched and ineffective. Still, there’s something magnetic about the idea of moving about in an ever-expanding circle of friends. Maybe it’s caused by the American ideal of perpetual growth, and maybe not. Anyway, introverts are left with an awkward situation—to choose between having their preferred few friends (and feeling ineffective because of cultural pressures) or forcibly developing a large circle of friends (and feeling ineffective because of their introversion).
In Introverts in the Church, Adam McHugh describes how American churches can be unfriendly places for introverts. Often they tend to couple unceasing activities with an overemphasis on extroverted evangelism methods. A person’s spirituality, or at least their personal maturity, may be judged by how forthright they are in discussing their feelings about God, or even by the size of their social circle. (I was once passed up for a leadership role at my Christian college solely because of my introversion. Oddly, the role was such that it focused mainly on one-on-one relationships, in which introverts are more likely to excel.)
Under the pressure of my roommate, I tried to behave in a more extroverted way, and did, but only for a time. The next year, she (in typical extroverted fashion) had moved on to form newer friendships, and I (in typical introverted fashion) mostly reverted to my old patterns of behavior, trying to deepen the friendships I already had. For people with strong tendencies in either direction, attempting to act as if we had a different personality is not an effective long-term solution.
But what should you do if you are an introvert who realizes that the American ideal of a “model Christian” will never fit? First, focus on your strengths. Face it—your social network will not be as broad as that of an extroverted Christian. Use that. Cultivate depth in your relationships. That saying—“To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world”—is particularly relevant for introverts.
Second, develop a servanthood mindset. You can become a good leader, but you will never be a charismatic leader. Nor should you try to be. Lead by serving, whether that puts you in the pulpit or in the church kitchen. Reach out with a purpose—focus on meeting the needs of others, not on merely being known by others. Anonymous service is still service.
Third, learn to listen. This isn’t an easy skill for anyone to learn (I have to be careful not to let my inner dialogue block out what other people are saying), but many introverts develop it into one of their greatest strengths. Don’t interrupt other people because you feel the need to “counsel” them. Encourage them to talk. Listen. Ask relevant questions. Your advice will be more on target if you get the whole picture first. And also realize that sometimes other people will feel you have ministered to them even if you offer no advice at all. Sometimes people just need to talk. Let them.
Finally, evaluate your attitudes toward evangelism. Do you tend to consider only extroverted methods “real” evangelism? Don’t. Paul had no tracts. And what he did excel at—synagogue debates—may be an unrealistic model for many introverts. We think deeply, but we don’t do it on our feet. And that’s all right. Remember Timothy, Paul’s introverted ministry partner and “son in the faith.” Paul was certainly the more visible witness, but nowhere does the Bible record Paul telling Timothy that if he really cared about souls, he would spend more of his time arguing with Jewish rabbis. Acts 17 records how Paul’s very visibility shortened his ministry in Thessalonica. When the Jews stirred up the people, Paul was forced to leave, while quiet Timothy remained behind with Silas to continue Paul’s ministry. In the Body of Christ, both extroverts and introverts have a place. Later Paul would remind Timothy to boldly exercise his spiritual gifts, but the Bible doesn’t record Paul trying to change Timothy’s personality.
How should an introvert approach evangelism? McHugh offers some good suggestions. Focus on people you already know. Don’t try to be the all-knowing Christian; approach people as another person who is also struggling to understand spiritual things. Humility, and a willingness to ask questions, can reach places that the greatest interpersonal skills cannot. If you aren’t sure how to respond to someone else’s legitimate questions about God, ask if you can get back to them about it. Be careful about the environments where you witness—never debate just to debate. Rather, try to launch discussions. Encourage people to ask the important questions. And don’t be afraid to partner with extroverts who may be more effective in initiating encounters with others. In the Body of Christ, we not only compliment one another’s strengths, we also cover for one another’s weaknesses.
The refreshing truth is that there is no such thing as a “model Christian.” And Christ—our true model—is a God who delights in diversity. That includes diversity of languages, of class backgrounds, of cultures, of genders, and also of temperaments. We can all improve, becoming more like Christ. But we won’t all look the same. Our very existence as humans places limits on what we can do or become. And–in contrast to American ideals of limitless growth–our very limitations glorify God. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.