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Introverted Christians…an Oxymoron? (Pt. 2)

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.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

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Introverted Christians…an Oxymoron? (Pt. 1)

I just got Adam McHugh’s book, Introverts in the Church, as a birthday present. It was my fault—I asked for it. Quite literally.

My teenage brother thinks that the gift is hilarious. He’s very much an extrovert, although he insists that he isn’t an extreme one, because when he goes to social events he likes to wear dark glasses, stand to the side, and freak people out.

Right.

I’m rather sensitive about being an introvert and would prefer for him to be quiet about the whole subject. But—because I’m sensitive about being an introvert—I haven’t broached the subject. What my brother doesn’t understand is that being introverted, particularly in the Christian community, can cause a lot of pain.

It seems appropriate that the third chapter in McHugh’s book is titled “Finding Healing.” All too often introverts feel inferior—sometimes because of an implicit sense that other people disapprove of their preferences, and at other times as a result of being confronted about their failures to be extroverted enough.

As a young teen, I spent several years in a church that heavily emphasized evangelism. “Heavily”—as in, the pastor said that it didn’t matter if the kids in the church memorized much Scripture, so long as they knew a few key verses that mattered for witnessing. (Witnessing was also more important than prayer.) Witnessing meant putting gospel tracts in restrooms and handing them to random strangers and passing them out door-to-door.

I hadn’t encountered that sort of pressure before, and I began to think that I needed to witness everywhere I went, to strangers, to be a “good Christian.” If I couldn’t pass out tracts like candy at a parade, then I was a spiritual failure. So I tried to pass out tracts everywhere I went—and still felt like a spiritual failure. If I was being a “good Christian” by doing that, why didn’t it make me feel closer to God? Why would I feel worse after passing out a tract?

God got my attention several times, reminding me that I was essentially trying to work for His favor when I ought to be resting in His work on my behalf. But it wasn’t until the last two years that I really began to understand what went wrong. I was trying to witness as an extrovert when I am not one. In other words, I was trying to act like someone God didn’t make me to be. And I found that my introverted tendencies gave me opportunities to show God’s love that I would not have if I were an extrovert.

Yet I’m still recovering from the wounds that period of time left. My mother—also an introvert—spent an even longer period of time in a similar sort of church when she was a child. Her wounds go even deeper than mine, and they have not yet healed.

It’s very tempting for me to hole up in my bedroom and rehearse anti-anti-introversion rants, directed against anti-introvert extroverts in general or certain extroverts in particular. But that isn’t healing. That’s brooding–which, according to the Myers-Briggs system, is typical for my personality. Typical, but not very healthy, particularly when the brooding extends into a long-term resentment.

Healing begins with me, not with the people who warped my early teenage spiritual growth. It would be nice to go back and tell certain individuals that what they actually did was unhelpful at best, no matter what their intentions were. But I’m not likely to have that opportunity.

McHugh emphasizes that it’s important that injured introverts don’t turn into yet another victim group for the church to deal with. Healing is important. Playing the victim is not. Our primary identity must be found in Christ, not in what circumstances have done to us.

Neither is introversion an excuse for spiritual atrophying. Being a Christian is about being “stretched” as clay in the hand of our Potter. Christian extroverts may have to slow down, think about what they say before it comes out, and learn to listen. Likewise, Christian introverts may have to focus more on ministering to other people, even when it tires or intimidates us. “Servant leadership” is important for both groups–putting the needs of others before our own.

In the end, it’s that servant’s spirit that is most likely to bring about unity between extroverts and introverts. We may not immediately understand or appreciate one another, but in Christ, we are one. In the words of Paul: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2012 in Nonfiction, Spiritual Writings

 

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The Blessings of Introversion

This feels like a confession, but I’ll confess anyway. I checked out Susan Cain’s recent book, Quiet, from the library two days ago. It was a little embarrassing.

Sure, I know that introversion isn’t something to be ashamed of, or I wouldn’t have been getting the book in the first place. But our culture generally sees it as something to be ashamed of. In any case, I felt as if I was advertising my brain chemistry to the librarian.

I shouldn’t have felt so awkward. The librarian—a library volunteer, actually—was also an introvert. She noticed the book and exclaimed about the title.

“I’ve heard a lot about it,” I said.

She smiled. “We introverts have to stick together.”

I didn’t think about the irony of her statement until later. Introverts? Stick together? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Susan Cain’s TED talk on introversion. Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.

Not according to Susan Cain—who is also an introvert. Since she used to be a corporate lawyer, Cain knows full well how difficult life can be for an introvert in an extravert’s world. She came from a rather quiet family, where reading separate books in the same room was considered a social activity. Summer camp was a wake-up call. She brought books to camp, but when the other campers purposely excluded a cabin mate who was reading, Cain did not bring out her books for the rest of the summer. Instead, she did her best to fit in with the “rowdie” camp spirit, determined to hide her introversion. (Listen to her description of the incident in her TED talk, found here.) Cain continued trying to appear more extraverted than she was into her years as a young adult, feeling uncomfortable about her desire for quiet.

But Cain came to realize that wanting to be alone with a book was not a bad thing. It simply reflected a difference in temperament between introverts and extraverts, a difference caused by brain chemistry. Spending time with other people energizes extraverts. Left alone, they quickly become bored. Introverts are the opposite—human interaction requires them to expend their energy. Even if they are spending time around people they enjoy, too much human interaction or too many new experiences exhausts them. Thus their need to be alone. It isn’t about being anti-social (most introverts love having deep conversations with other people). It’s about protecting themselves against overstimulation.

Unfortunately, American culture values extraversion more than most cultures in the world, causing many introverts to feel undervalued and misunderstood. Most introverts can probably remember the first time they realized that other people considered their introversion a problem. My first time, rather ironically, was in a library. I hated asking the librarian questions, even when I needed help. I wasn’t the most painfully shy seven-year-old on the planet—a year later I chose to go to summer camp and was not at all homesick—but I did not want to speak to that librarian. The adult that my sister and I were with (an extravert, I think) became disgusted with my refusal to talk to the librarian, so he had my four-year-old sister (also an extravert) go up and ask the question instead. In a mixture of shyness and stubbornness, I didn’t budge.

Cain agrees that there are times when acting like an extravert can be necessary for introverts—if they want to succeed in our heavily-extraverted business world, for example. But she also contends that extraverts should sometimes act like introverts. Both introverts and extraverts have important strengths. Extraverted strengths are obvious—they are assertive, can think on their feet, are not easily upset by conflict, begin jobs quickly, and can be a lot of fun.

But what about introverted strengths? Cain contends that we often do not hear about these strengths, but that they are extremely important. Good listening skills, for example. Creativity. Conscientiousness. Deep thinking. All important traits, vital to the stability of our culture.

Susan Cain’s book isn’t perfect. It focuses a lot on the business world—natural for someone with Cain’s background, but not for many other introverts—and comes from a decidedly secular perspective. (She did interview Adam McHugh, however. McHugh is an evangelical who wrote a book several years ago called Introverts in the Church. I’m adding his book to my to-read list.) But Cain’s book is one of a very few books on introversion written for a popular audience. It is comprehensive, well-researched, and easy to read. And for many introverts, especially those who have grown up feeling as if they have a malformed personality, reading Quiet may prove a breakthrough experience.

If you are an introvert, or an extravert who wants to understand introverts, then read Quiet. Like you teacher said in Sunday School (before ordering you to answer her questions in a louder voice), God made every one of us unique. And Cain’s book attests to just how introversion can fit into His perfect plan.

 
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Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Nonfiction

 

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