Introverts in the 'Imago Dei?'

Our churches often confuse sociability for spirituality.

Note: this article is excerpted from our resource Leading as an Introvert.

Most people are aware of Jung's typology of introverts and extroverts. What you may not be aware of is that trait affectivity is highly correlated with these types. Specifically, positive affectivity is significantly associated with extroversion and negative affectivity is associated with introversion. That is, extroverts tend to be energetic and enthusiastic while introverts tend to be mellower or even melancholic.

So here's the question I want to ask you: Do introverts fit in at church?

The answer, obviously, is that it depends upon what kind of church we are talking about. In liturgical churches I expect introverts and extroverts fare about the same. But in non-liturgical churches they may fare differently.

A Look at Churches

Specifically, non-liturgical churches tend to be more sociable churches. So, let's call them that. That is, there are liturgical churches and there are sociable churches. Sociable churches tend to emphasize relationality among its members. For example, a large part of the sociable church experience involves lengthy greetings (being greeted and greeting others), adult Bible classes that are conversational and oriented around fellowship (e.g., in my church we sit at tables drinking coffee, eating donuts, and chatting), and the in-depth sharing of personal prayer requests.

This is not to say that liturgical churches aren't sociable or don't have sociable facets to them. It's just the simple recognition that going to a Catholic mass (the prototypical liturgical experience) differs greatly from my day at church at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. My experience is heavy on the "visiting," as they say here in Texas.

In these highly sociable churches there is an implicit theological theme that marries sociability with spirituality. That is, being sociable—visiting intensively and being willing to "get into each other's lives"—is highly prized. To a point, this is understandable. A sociable church is going to rely on extroverts to make the whole vibe work.

But introverts fare poorly in these sociable churches. The demand to visit, mix, and share with strangers taxes them. Worse, given that these social activities are declared to be "spiritual," introverts feel morally judged and spiritually marginalized. As if their very personality was spiritually diseased.

Consequently, the "issue of the introvert" is one of the big overlooked problems in these sociable churches. For example, church leaders often want to make church more "meaningful." What they mean by this is that they want to create an atmosphere were deep human contact can be made. This is a fine goal, a worthy goal. However, to pull this off in an ordinary church setting demands a degree of sociability that introverts just don't have. Take a typical church service, communion service, small group service, or Bible class. Let's say, to make it more "meaningful," you ask the participants to find someone sitting close to them to have a spiritually oriented conversation with—a time of sharing. Well, the introverts are just going to HATE this activity. They may hate it so much that they just might stop coming to your services. In fact, I know introverts at my church who purposely come in late to avoid the perfunctory meet-and-greet that occurs right at the start of our services ("Find someone close to you and say hello!").

A Look at Spirituality

Now, you may say that these introverts just aren't relational people. But you would be wrong. Introverts are very, very relational. They just aren't sociable. And to confuse the two is a grave theological and ecclesial mistake.

But many churches fail to make this distinction. They tacitly set up the following equation for church life: Spirituality = Sociability.

For example, I was once visiting with a church leader at my church who was making a recommendation that, to make our adult classes more "meaningful," we would need to share more of our lives in these classes. I stated that such a recommendation would drive the introverts crazy. The response was, "God is about relationships and church is about relationships. Thus, if these people aren't going to be involved in relationships they will just have to change."

The problems with this formulation are obvious:

  1. From a psychological perspective, introverts don't change into extroverts (or vice versa). To expect this is ridiculous.
  2. From a moral perspective, you are moralizing aspects of personality: Extrovert = Good and Introvert = Bad.
  3. From a pastoral perspective, you are confusing relationality with sociability. That is, your pastoral intervention, although well intentioned, demands a kind of personality to work well. It is true that deeper relationships are needed at church, but the route isn't always best achieved by throwing strangers together into forced conversation.
  4. From a theological perspective, you are insinuating that introverts are not created in the Imago Dei, in the Image of God. (In fact, the etymology of the word "enthusiasm," that trait of the extrovert, means "filled with or by God." The association, then, is that introverts are NOT filled with or by God.)

This last is the most worrisome. For years, sociable churches have ignored the introverts in their midst. Worse, they have sent a consistent message that they were less spiritual than their extroverted brothers and sisters. That to be like God was to be extroverted.

In my opinion, the damage this subtle message has caused has been enormous.

— Richard Beck is associate professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University. Adapted from the blog Experimental Theology, © 2007 by Richard Beck. Used by permission.

Discuss:

  1. 1.Do you agree with Beck's classification of liturgical and sociable churches? Which category would your church fit into?
  2. 2.Give some examples of times you've seen churches equate sociability with spirituality.
  3. 3.To what extent is it appropriate for churches to pull introverts out of their relational comfort zones? How might churches need to pull extroverts out of their comfort zones?

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