An Introvert Goes to Church

Jul 30, 2010 |Rachel Starr Thomson

In many ways, the church is an extroverts' world. So for introverts to be effective in ministry and get more out of church, it takes some creative thinking.

I have a confession to make: I am a Friendship Focus failure.

Friendship Focus is a time in my church's Sunday morning services when we extend the traditional "good morning" and a handshake to 15 full minutes of getting tea or coffee, saying hello to the people around us, and, ideally, introducing ourselves to new people and getting to know them.

I am great at the getting tea or coffee part. The chatting it up with the entire congregation, not so much. Sometimes I try. Sometimes I just take a really long time at the tea table so it will all be over and I can go sit down.

The above confession might lead you to believe that I'm shy. I'm not. I enjoy people and getting to know them. I have no problem with sharing my thoughts and opinions, even controversial ones, and in Bible studies I spend a lot of time biting my tongue so other people will have a chance to answer questions. I perform poetry and narrative with Soli Deo Gloria Ballet several times a year, as well as acting as our spokesperson, and I don't even get butterflies in my stomach when it comes to standing in front of a room full of people and speaking. And ever since I was a kid, I've been the one who went to great lengths to make sure new people were greeted and made comfortable.

I'm not shy. What I am is introverted. And sometimes in church, that can be a problem.

The Introvert Revealed

An "introvert," as defined by the Myers-Briggs personality system, is someone who is more thought-oriented than action-oriented and gets energy from time spent alone. Some people argue that Jesus may have been an introvert: He often withdrew to be alone with His Father; He related to crowds in the way a purpose-driven introvert would do (teach, reach out one-on-one, withdraw to be alone or with close friends).

While the defining characteristic of introversion is a need for alone time to charge our batteries, introverts share a lot of other characteristics. They are often slow to speak. They think things through. They're artistic and sensitive. They form close, deep friendships. They're terrible at small talk. And they don't do well in crowds.

Which brings me back to Friendship Focus. I am not a failure at this because I don't care about the people. It's just that after 17 years of concertedly working on my people skills, I am still liable to make new people feel awkward because after I've introduced myself, I run out of things to say. We will stand there ummming and errring for the remainder of social time, though I try really hard to be friendly and relatable. It doesn't help that the crowd and its noise is physically overwhelming to me — I do much better at making conversation when I'm not in the midst of 300 other people doing the same thing.

Friendship Focus is only one tradition among many that make it hard for introverts like me to participate fully in church life. In a Huffington Post article called "For Shy Worshippers, Church Can Be Overwhelming," grad student Daniel Perett says that in the modern evangelical church, the expectation is that "if the Holy Spirit were working in your life ... you would be an extrovert."

Much of our common church life is geared toward extroverts. We're encouraged to talk openly about everything God might be doing in our lives, pray out loud for long periods of time, shout out answers to questions asked from the pulpit, get involved in many different activities, "reach out," mix 'n' mingle, and enjoy goofy games with the singles group. In many ways, the church is an extroverts' world.

So what's an introvert to do?

Don't Panic (or Quit)

First, what an introvert isn't to do: apologize for being or excuse him or herself from responsibility.

Introversion, as a personality trait, was created by God just as much as extroversion was. And Paul makes it clear that diversity of gifts in the church is a good thing:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.... If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? (1 Corinthians 12:12–17)

We all need each other; to feel guilty over being what we are is a waste of energy. And in fact, Scripture promotes several practices that come more naturally to introverts than to others: waiting before we speak (Proverbs 17:28), praying in private (Matthew 6:6), and searching out a matter carefully (Proverbs 18:130), just to name a few.

On the other hand, we can't use introversion to excuse ourselves from responsibility. As introverts, we do need to share what God is doing in our lives to encourage others, reach out to our communities, get to know new people, and step outside of our comfort zones in many and various ways. Yes, it's uncomfortable. But "in the fear of the LORD one has strong confidence" (Proverbs 14:26).

That said, trying to make a foot behave like a nose is also a waste of energy. If we really want to be effective in ministry — and get more out of church — there are some very practical things introverts can do about it.

Be Alone First

My great temptation is to sleep really late on Sunday mornings, roll out of bed, and head for church 15 minutes after waking up. But lately I've been starting a new practice: getting up early enough to spend half an hour in the Bible and prayer myself before I go to church.

What's the point of pre-church church, you may ask? The point is getting my focus. I can find crowds so disorienting that I'm totally unable to enter into worship or focus on God once I'm in them. If I fix my focus first, before I'm in the company of anyone else, I'm more able to carry that focus into church with me — and with my focus on the Head of the body, I'm much more able to participate in the body.

Tag Team

Recently I had an idea that signaled the end of my Friendship Focus failure: tag teaming. I have a good friend at church who is thoroughly extroverted. She excels at making conversation. She's great at thinking on her feet and spotting new people. I, on the other hand, am far better at contributing to a conversation once it's already rolling. Many times, purely by accident, we've ended up being a great team. She starts the talking and puts the new person at ease; I take it from there.

My idea? Doing this deliberately instead of by accident. Who do you know who's extroverted? How could you team up to capitalize on each other's strengths? When you're in a crowd, why not go meet people together? Talk to your extroverted friends about your struggles, and see how you can help each other out. You might even learn a few things from each other.

Get Thee to a Retreat

I am fairly certain that even if you could give me a million years' worth of Sunday morning gatherings, I would never connect significantly with anyone in them. If I'm going to make friends and enter into church life, I have to take steps to get to know people in a smaller and more up-close environment.

Retreats are great, especially when you're bunking with a roommate you don't know and sharing a dinner table with strangers. At home, small groups or specialized ministry teams can serve the same purpose.

As introverts, we need to deliberately put ourselves into situations where we can get to know people and learn from them — and where, conversely, they can be ministered to by us.

Take a Breather

I love people, and I am related to a lot of them — over a hundred in my close extended family alone. Sometimes, a lot of them come over to my parents' house and we all mingle for hours. I love it. And it completely overwhelms me. I love big conferences and gatherings, too, and I spend half the time looking for a way to escape.

The secret, I have found, is giving myself breathing space. Linger at the tea table for a few extra minutes. Go to the bathroom more than you need to. Sit on your bed with the door shut for five minutes in the middle of the party. Pray. Blank out if you need to.

Then get out there and back to the people. Pacing yourself can help you avoid crowd-exhaustion and be a better participant. And don't always go alone. Sometimes, invite someone else to step out with you so you can connect outside of the crowd.

Ask for a Role

Once upon a time, I visited a small local ministry for the first time. It was tremendously awkward, but I lived through it. Several more visits intrigued me with the place, and slowly I got to know a few people.

Then they gave me a role — a few of them, actually. Assistant to the Director of Food Ministry. Fill-in Worship Leader on Wednesday evenings. Filling a role, with a specific purpose and visibility, made it far easier for me to interact with people. I am fine when I know what the point is — when I have a job to do and can interact while I'm doing it. I thrive on what I see as meaningful work — far more than I thrive on goofy games or purely social get-togethers. Visibility meant that more people approached me, allowing me to minister to them in ways that probably wouldn't have happened if I'd stayed in the chairs.

Does your church have a role you could fill? Can you pour coffee, stand at the door and shake hands, sing with the worship team, man the library, help lead a Bible study? Ask where you can serve. It will help.

Be — to the Glory of God

When I think about my introverted friends, I smile and wonder at how carefully God crafted each one. I can see the gifts that come with introversion at work, and I'm blessed by them. I'm blessed by their artistry, their sensitivity, their deep and often controversial thought processes, their dogged determination to live by their values. I hope that I can be like them.

Introverts have a special place in the body of Christ. It may take some extra effort, but get yourself positioned where you can participate and contribute to community life. Get to know more people so you can communicate what's on your heart. Bring your deep thoughts to Bible study. Mentor others one-on-one. Sing, dance, paint, write. Teach. Become a prayer warrior, spending your alone times interceding for others as well as reaching up to God. Temper and balance the extroverts, and thank God for them — we need them, too.

In the end, the body of Christ is a many-splendored thing. By being who we are in alignment with His will, we can honor, glorify and enjoy the Lord — and His people.

Copyright 2010 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.

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