Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review: Introverts in the Church


Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam S. McHugh. InterVarsity Press, 2009.

As I was preparing for ministry fifteen years ago, I can remember people asking "What kind of ministry do you feel called to?" I knew only a few things for certain as I answered that question: 1) God had given me a passion for His Word; 2) God had given me an ability, that others affirmed in me, for teaching and preaching; and 3) I was extremely uncomfortable in the center of attention, large crowds, and most social settings. Therefore, I concluded that I must be called to some kind of parachurch ministry because I would not be able to function as a pastor. Most pastors I knew were very outgoing and seemed to thrive on social interaction, whereas that kind of atmosphere only drained me. I believe that part of discerning God's calling on our lives is being sensitive to His providence in opening and closing doors. Over the years, I have sought several times to move into parachurch ministries or educational ministries, and each time God has closed the doors. At the same time, He has not only opened doors of pastoral ministry, but seemingly has pushed me through those doors kicking and screaming to the point that today I confess (albeit reluctantly) that pastoring a church is what God has called me to do. It often feels like the proverbial case of the square peg in the round hole, to my own frustration and undoubtedly to the frustration of those I serve. Still, we mustn't "kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14), and that means allowing the Lord to do in and through us what seems very unnatural for us to do in and of ourselves. I am grateful for Christians in the congregations I have served who were willing to live with their unmet expectations of me, even as I have had to learn to live with unmet expectations of them and of myself. But it has been a hard and difficult journey over twelve years and three pastorates, and if the Lord had not supplied what I lacked in my own nature, I could have easily walked away many times.

With this background understood, it is easy to see how grateful I was to lay hands on Adam S. McHugh's book Introverts in the Church. Having read much on personality types over the last several years, I did not quite know what to expect from this book. Much of what I have read either vilified the introverted personality and its accompanying spiritual preferences and practices, or else tried to carve out a small, monastic, niche for introverts like me. The message I seemed to hear from other books that dealt with introverted spirituality was either "Repent!" or "Just go sit in the corner and leave us alone!" Thankfully, Adam McHugh has brought a fresh voice into the conversation. This book has the potential to help and heal introverted Christians and church leaders and the churches in which they find themselves.

As an introvert himself, McHugh is able to write from "an insider's perspective" about some of the frustrations that introverts feel in Christian community. I resonated with the personal examples from his life and those whom he interviewed for this book. He writes on page 10, "I knew that ordained ministry required social skills and I wasn't sure I had them. Even when I was able to muster enough energy or warmth to connect with people, I was soon drained and exhausted, ready for a nap. My one hope for pastoral ministry was that my teaching and preaching abilities would mitigate my questionable social skills." Again, on page 28, he writes, "many introverts pay a high cost to be in ministry. They feel unable to meet the social expectations placed on them by their congregations, and they frequently lack adequate boundaries to enable them to find rest and to recharge their introverted batteries." When I read those words, I felt as if someone had slipped McHugh a copy of my own journal, for I have said the exact same thing on many occasions. As one who advocates the church being a place where individuals from vastly diverse backgrounds can come together as one body, I affirmed with a hearty "Amen!" as McHugh wrote, "When the church is led by introverts and extroverts who partner together, each contributing their strengths and offsetting the others' weaknesses, it is a testimony that the Holy Spirit is orchestrating the community, that it is not being run by the cult of personality" (p13-14).

In the book's opening chapter, McHugh describes the "extroverted" nature of the contemporary evangelical church and the history of how it came to be that way. While affirming the value of fellowship and relationship building in the church, he laments that "sometimes our value for community life can become a substitute for relationship with God. ... [F]or some churches spirituality is equated with sociability" (p20, emphasis his). This kind of atmosphere can alienate introverts who prefer deeper interactions with fewer people and the exercise of more quiet and private spiritual disciplines. McHugh provides some encouraging examples of introverted Christians in history, including Jonathan Edwards and the Desert Fathers.

In the second chapter, McHugh brings a much needed understanding to what introversion is. Rather than seeing it as an abberant psychological state or some misanthropic abnormality, he focuses on three characteristics of introverts. The first has to do with "energy source," as introverts are "energized by solitude" whereas extroverts are energized by social interaction (p36). The second involves "internal processing," as introverts "need to filter information and experiences" internally "in the workings of our own minds" (pp37-38). The third characteristic is "depth over breadth," wherein the introvert pursued deeper relationships with fewer people. These characteristics are expounded and supported by medical and biblical evidence. This chapter should go far in dispelling myths about introversion and aiding the understanding of self and others.

McHugh describes a course toward healing in the third chapter which involves journey inward toward self-acceptance, while also journeying outward beyond the realm of self-preoccupation and out of our comfort zones. This portion of the book was extremely helpful to me as it offered both comfort and confrontation. McHugh assures the introvert that nothing is wrong with his or her personality, but warns that it could go wrong if we do not challenge ourselves to move beyond our perceived limitations, or if we use our natural inclinations as an excuse for disobeying the clearly revealed mandates of God.

These three chapters form the foundation of all that follows. Beginning in chapter four and moving to the end of the book, McHugh applies the introverted life practically in the area of several spiritual disciplines. First he discusses an introverted spirituality that includes contemplation and solitude. He proposes a series of questions to aid one in developing a "schedule" that harmonizes with his or her personality. From this, he moves into a discussion of the introvert in the life of the Christian community in the church. This is a challenge for introverts who may want to disregard the biblical teachings on Christian fellowship, as well as a corrective for extroverts who misunderstand introverted tendencies in fellowship. The section practically deals with certain spiritual gifts that are common among introverts and how those may benefit the church as a whole.

Chapters six and seven deal with the issue of spiritual leadership. McHugh begins by setting forth the expectations in our society that the best leaders will always be extroverted. He challenges this assumption and provides biblical and historical examples of introverted spiritual leaders. He also challenges introverts who would shrink from leadership because of their natural inclinations and the influence of these popular ideas about extroverted leaders. He states, "Just because we lose energy doing soemthing does not necessarily indicate that we are not a good fit for it. I am convinced that calling, not personality type, is the determinative factor in the formation and longevity of a leader" (p137). He concludes these chapters on leadership with practical ways the introverted leader can care for himself in the midst of the demands and expecations of others and practical ways to lead others from our areas of strength and giftedness.

Chapter eight deals with "Introverted Evangelism." This was the portion of the book I most anticipated reading. As McHugh says, "In all circles, Christian and non-Christian alike, the word evangelism has incredible power to conjure negative images." Perhaps introverted Christians have the most negative images associated with evangelism, for we are led to think that being a faithful evangelist means that we are constantly sharing the Gospel with others, from our best friends to perfect strangers, and have a long list of "converts" to prove our faithfulness. Every introverted Christian will chuckle as we read, "Typical evangelism books always seem to locate airplanes as the most advantageous setting for evangelistic encounters" (p171). In a profoundly timely statement, McHugh says, "I do not think that introverts are ill-suited for evangelism; I think that our prevailing evangelistic methods are ill-suited for introverts" (p172). In the pages following, McHugh presents "a different model of evangelism that is a better fit for introverts. Instead of a salesman peddling our spiritual wares, I propose that we explore mystery together" (p172). Most refreshing and unique in this chapter, compared to much of what is written on evangelism elsehwere, is his final thought: "If introverts aren't persuaded that evangelism is an essential part of our discipleship, if they aren't convinced that they should wade into the extroverted waters of witness, or if they won't accept that there are introverted ways to share our faith, then perhaps they can be won over by one last claim: introverted seekers need introverted evangelists" (p184, emphasis his). The introverted Christian is thus encouraged to see himself as an agent God can use in reaching others who are wired like he is, who may not be able to be won to faith by an extroverted person who cannot relate to him.

In the book's final chapter, McHugh describes the elements of church life that are challenging for introverts, some signs of hope for the future, some pointers for introverts seeking a church, and some pointers for churches who would reach introverts. In the Epilogue, he revisits the idea of movement in two directions: internally in solitude and externally in fellowship. Thus, the book ends by calling us all into a balanced and biblical model of spiritual maturity that includes, but exceeds the boundaries of, our personality types.

On the whole, I found this book to be a great comfort and help. It comforts me to know that the frustrations I have felt as an introverted Christian and pastor are not unique to me. The old saying, "Misery loves company," may be hyperbole here, but it is always good to know that, like Elijah, we are not alone. The biblical and historical examples and testimonials that are shared in the book are greatly encouraging. The scientific, psychological, and sociological data are also helpful as we seek to understand ourselves as introverts. The book is also helpful in how it challenges us as introverts to get beyond ourselves. We need to understand ourselves, but not use our "wiring" as an excuse for disobedience and irresponsibility. The book does not coddle introverts, but comforts and confronts introverts. I would like to think that the book will also be read by many extroverts as well, helping them to understand their introverted brothers and sisters and adjust certain expectations accordingly.

I must also point out that the book is not without its shortcomings. They are not many, thankfully, and they are of the sort that come with the territory of dealing with subjects like this. The shortcomings I perceive all involve the inevitable generalizations and blanket statements and assumptions that are common in the discussions of personality types. "Personality types" are helpful categories in understanding people, but they are not exhaustive. People are individuals who are like and unlike others within their categories in specific ways. Just using the Myers-Briggs categories, introversion/extroversion is only one aspect of personality. Thus, using that framework alone, there are eight different "types" within "introversion." An introverted person who happens to be INTJ (as I am) will be different in many ways from someone who is ISFP (for example), perhaps even more different than compared to an extrovert who is ENTJ. So, we must be careful assuming that introverted spirituality is "one-size-fits-all" introverts. While McHugh recognizes this at several points in the book, there are other places where it seems that these variations within introversion are minimized or overlooked.

The section on introverted evangelism contains many of the book's stronger and weaker points side by side. While I would assume that all introverted Christians find personal evangelism challenging, I have also observed that very few extroverts are "comfortable" with the task. Some of what McHugh proposes as better alternatives for evangelism must be challenged by asking, "Better than what?" Certainly coming to the task as an evangelistic listener or spiritual director is better than not coming to the task at all. Using approaches that go beyond proclaiming and hearing only is better than using no approach at all. But still, even given introversion, there are explicit promises in Scripture that cannot be ignored. One of these is Romans 10:17, which says that "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." There must come a point in evangelistic interaction where the message is presented clearly and the hearer is challenged to believe the Gospel. This is challenging for introverts and extroverts alike, but we must remember that the power to be Christ's witness does not come from our personality, but from the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).

Even with these shortcomings, Adam McHugh has given the church a precious gift in this book. We ought to all be grateful to him for this work and the potential blessings it may bring to the church as a whole. It is my hope that introverts will read it and find comfort and challenge, and that extroverts will read it and find understanding and compassion. I pray that God will use this book to foster acceptance and deeper fellowship among all of His people whom He has sovereignly created, called, and equipped for His glory.

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