Introverts and the Church

16946_1164186276564_5785124_nFor those of you interested, this is what I shared in church a few weeks ago. I’m so grateful for a community that engages in the discussions about how church can be difficult and life-giving for different types of people. For all of you introverts, I’m just saying, “Me too.”

Most American can be placed into one of two categories: those who love taking online personality quizzes and those who don’t. The first type of people proudly declare their INFJ status, Enneagram number, or Top Five strengths. The second grumble about being put into boxes, being labeled. They proclaim they are more than a term or an acronym.

The grumblers are right, of course. None of us can be distilled to one or two words; the fact that we are modeled on a transcendent and everlasting God rejects any true simplification of self. We are our pasts, our presents, our dreams.

Yet, I’ve always found that those labels that we adopt as we dredge through our lives, trying to find words to explain this muddle of thoughts, feelings, and ideas inside us called “personality,” can be a tool for understanding and relating. Some of the most powerful words in the English language are “Me Too,” and when we describe ourselves as energetic, mellow, outgoing, shy, introvert, extrovert, and then explain how those terms have bled into our experiences, we start to understand each other. And realize we are not alone.

Words themselves are fluid. When I call myself an introvert, my brand may look differently than yours. For example, I am (up) here speaking to you, doing something a traditional introvert would never do. I kind of expect that someone’s going to seize and suspend my Introvert Club Card. But I’m putting personal comfort aside in hopes that someone will be able to say “Me Too” and not feel so alone—in our culture and our church.

I’ve been an introvert my entire life. I’ve always preferred the company of books and words to unfamiliar people, and I spent most of my childhood alone or with my siblings, walking up and down South Dakota country roads. I was blessed to grow up in a wonderfully supportive evangelical pastor’s home. My siblings and I never had to be cajoled into going to church; we wanted to go. The church was our community, composed of the people who we loved and who loved us.

In my memory, those years are marked with great joy and love, but also an overwhelming sense of always present and occasionally crippling anxiety. I dreaded and feared any large group gathering, down to every Wednesday AWANA Bible club meeting and Sunday night small groups. I have fond memories of camps and retreats, but even into high school, as the church van pulled out of the parking lot I cried quietly from the front seat as I headed into the socially exhausting unknown. None of those events were “required,” but I felt like I needed to participate to be a group player, to be a true Christian.

As a Baptist, being a true Christian meant water-baptism. When I was nine, I decided to take this step. This was important to me, a personal step toward a personal faith. The only problem was that my dad (my pastor) said in order for me to get baptized, I had to go forward during the end-of-church alter call and announce my desire to take the plunge, so to speak, in front of the whole church. It was non-negotiable. At a head level, I understand why: the idea is that baptism is a community act, and Pastor Dad wanted to make sure I was serious. This was my first encounter with feeling spiritually torn between wanting to follow what I perceived as God’s instructions and also feeling my entire self rebel against the means that would get me there. How I dreaded the altar call, but how I so desperately wanted to be baptized!

When the day arrived, I couldn’t concentrate. I felt sick during the entire service. Finally it was time as Pastor Dad wrapped up the sermon; my legs shook and my stomach sank. Pastor Dad said the magic words, inviting people to come forward, and I ran up under all of those eyes to whisper in my dad’s ear, yes, I want to be baptized. No longer Pastor Dad, my papa hugged me close and the tears that sprung to my eyes were not of joy, but of relief. I can only imagine the pain of any introvert sitting in the seats who wanted to know more about loving a stranger named Jesus and finding out to do so meant standing and walking in front of hundreds of Christian eyes. I hope those introverts realized they could find Jesus another way.

The way that evangelicals do church is not often kind to introverts. It’s based on a reading of the Bible that focuses on loud and exuberant Christian lifestyles—a reflection of what our larger culture values. And those lifestyles make interesting stories. Peter is a good example: defiant, brash, and fiercely loving, he was the Rock on which Christ built the church. But sometimes we forget that the church was also built on the backs of Zaccheus, who observed Jesus from a tree before engaging, and Mary, who quietly sat by Jesus’ feet in rapture. Even Jesus’ mother spent a lot of time “pondering things in her heart,” a traditionally introverted quality.

Was Jesus himself an extrovert? We’ve been taught as much, and he did spend a lot of time talking to people in large and small groups.  Our faith culture tends to bypass the fact that Jesus surrounded himself with twelve friends that he spent all of his time with, investing in the relationships that would be necessary for growing his church after he left, and instead we focus on Jesus’ big grand speeches and miracles in the sight of all. It’s this that we’ve branded “evangelism,” because somehow we’ve learned that shouting the good news from street corners is better than whispering it in the ear of someone next to you.

I was in high school at the tail end of the big evangelism push, and I recall conferences where we were set loose on the streets of Portland with tracts and expected to cold-call convert those we met on the streets. I was terrified, both to approach strangers with this personal faith I struggled to express and to come back to the conference session with leftover tracts, obviously a failure who didn’t love Jesus enough to save those heading straight to hell. As I stuffed the tracts in every available pocket to hide them from view, I felt torn; I knew I was made to be quiet, to love being alone, to crave routine and familiarity, but my faith was supposed to be dynamic! Loud! In your face! Intense! Could I really love Jesus and be reserved?

I started to believe yes in later high school, as I began to find my place in a community and had people seek me out for who I was, how I listened, and how I responded in conversation. For example, one afternoon, a friend and I sat in the auditorium seats, house left, as she stared at the wall and expressed her fears about feeling attracted to girls and conflicted about her faith. Instead of debating with or preaching at her—two acts that would stress me out under normal circumstances—I told her I didn’t have all of the answers, but I knew that Jesus loved her, loved her so much, and thought her beautiful. I didn’t debate her, because that’s not what she asked me to do. She didn’t want to know she was wrong; she didn’t even want to know she was right. She wanted to know that she wasn’t disgusting and that she was loved.

I’ve changed and matured a lot since I cried in the front seat of the church van. I know my introversion is not an excuse to pull back or unplug, and I’m not off the hook for sharing with others how Jesus impacts my life. But I’ve learned the difference between being silent and being quiet. I am more comfortable and confident in this skin I’ve been given. I love to get to know others and share my life with them. And I’ve learned to hide my social anxiety, store up social energy, and compromise by engaging people in my own way.

I’m starting to feel I’m allowed to believe in a Jesus who preached to thousands and flipped tables but was quiet too, who loved to study and retreat and spend time with those closest to him. This Jesus understands me, even if I’m still unsure of where I fit into this culture. And I understand him and that he has created me to be one who will share her thoughts in front of dozens (with some trepidation) but would prefer to do so over tea, one-on-one.

In Psalm 46, after God is called our refuge and our strength when the world is melting and crumbling around us, God tells his people to “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” God will be exalted in the calm, in the stillness, just as much as the crashing waves. And maybe it’s a different type of exalting, not so much a boistorous outflowing of awe, which God does deserve, but rather a constant state of being, not dependent on the events around us.

God asks us to be still and know—introvert, extrovert, ambivert. The being still part I’m pretty good at. The knowing part, I’m working on.

One last story: when I was a senior in college at George Fox University, I skipped out on Serve Day (a campus-wide day of service). I think Serve Day an amazing and valuable experience, but I was a commuter, so I would have been in a group of people unknown to me doing something unknown in a place unknown. That was a few too many unknowns for me. Also, I was in deep turmoil: friends moving on and getting married, graduating in four months, no clear future. God wasn’t speaking to me.

So I went away, unintentionally following Jesus’ example. I drove out to Mt. Angel and spent a gorgeous fall day wandering around the monastery by myself. I’m a Baptist in origin, a Quaker in training, with a Catholic’s love for ritual, and so I did the Stations of the Cross backwards (accidentally), and then forwards. I found myself spending silent hours in the cemetery, reading the simple headstones and being grateful and awestruck by the legacy of Christ’s servants.

In the cemetery, there was a tiny chapel. It was empty inside save for the Suffering Christ and his suffering mother. I knelt in front of them, and felt Christ stir inside me as I begged for a place in his kingdom here on earth, to find myself as I am within his good news. I’ve always believed with a childlike faith that he came to save my soul for all eternity; now I wanted to believe that he was pleased with who I was becoming, a glowing ember instead of a burning flame, and that he had a plan for my life. As usual, he did not speak to me in a thundering shout, a blast of light, or even much of a whisper. He gave me quiet: to think, to listen, and to be.


10 thoughts on “Introverts and the Church

  1. Sara, I am always stirred by your writing. This was no different. You are an amazing woman with a heart for God. You give me a lot to think about. God is using you in a might way…just the way He made you. Only you can be the Sara that God created in His image to share His grace to those He has chosen you to impact. Bless you, my dear~please keep writing and thinking and impacting your world. Love you!

  2. Hi Sara. We met at the Faith and Culture Writer’s Conference at the lunch table. I’m the one who just finished the Degree Completion Program at Multnomah. I wanted to tell you that Sara does indeed have something to say. I really enjoyed your post. Keep up the good work.

  3. Sara! Again your writing and thoughts were amazing! You, my friend, have an incredible gift and it really does not matter that you don’t prefer to “shout it from the rooftops”! Whisper it, write it, but keep doing it! So happy I know you!

  4. Thanks for sharing this Sara! I think a lot more people fit into the introvert category than they think. There’s no need to conclude that you’re not a “classic Christian” if you’re not an “out there” extrovert! It seems that we live in a time where people want to be around others who are truly authentic. Quietness seems to be closely tied to humility, which is an essential step in our salvation.

    I like Isaiah’s record of what God says in 30:15 “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved.
    In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.”

    1. Laura, thanks for your comment! That is an excellent verse to keep in mind as both introverts and extroverts (just all of us in general) try to find our places within the church.

  5. You are so gifted with words, Sara! Thank you for blessing the world with your gift. (I remember the day you were baptized!)

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