An introvert in an extroverted church

4 years ago


Last week I wrote a little bit about how Susan Cain's book and how encouraging it was to me as an introvert.  Those thoughts have been rattling around in my head the past few days, especially yesterday as I (like many of the residents of this part of the country we call the bible belt) headed to church.

As I've grown up, my perspectives on church have changed quite a bit (as they should, I would argue, and most would agree, despite the fact that a fair number of them wouldn't support where I've landed spiritually...if I were to tell them.  Which, generally, being an introvert, I don't.). But the past few days I've really been thinking about how introverts function (or do not function) inside a structure that is primarily geared to extroversion.

Please note that I'm speaking very much from my own religious background and experiences here, so the observations could very well be just my experience and nothing that applies to anyone else.  (Writing is part of the process of thinking for me...I'm still thinking this out. Have I disclaimered this enough? Too much? Moving on...)

My perspective on the church that I attend right now (and a lot of churches I've attended since moving here) is that it is a curiously extroverted thing. Emphasis is on service. Emphasis is on events. Emphasis is on connection with people. Emphasis is on small groups.  These are foundations of what seems to constitute "church involvement." And these are, in moderation, all good and necessary things but it seems to me that something is missing. 

Something is very obviously and painfully missing.

Where is the corporate act of contemplation?  Where is the silence?  Where is the, and sorry-please-forgive-me-on-this, where is the space to think and to find God and truth between the noise and the powerpoint and the praise team/band and the thoughts of other people being foisted on us?

Where do we join together, as a group, and just wonder?

I can't help but wonder: what is it about corporate silence that scares us so?  Why are we so afraid of nothing? I'm not suggesting we all move into a world of silence and contemplative thought all the time - but maybe a few minutes, together as a church, couldn't hurt. Those of us who are genuine introverts would thank you for it.

Let me explain to you what this extroverted church experience does to those of us who aren't extroverted.  It becomes a performance. Fake. Inauthentic. The very church environment you are trying to avoid as a church leader - happens for up to half your audience (studies show that 1/3 to 1/2 of all people could be characterized as introverts).

For example when you say "turn to the people next to you and say hello," those of us who aren't wired for small talk; we just shut down.  Then we spend 5 awkward minutes trying to make conversation or stand there awkwardly in silence hoping an extrovert will come along, because we know we can't have any sort of meaningful interaction with someone in five minutes - especially the poor stranger who had the misfortune of sitting in front of us this week.  You might be able to have meaningful interactions in that time, but I, as an introvert, cannot. So now you've got me standing there awkwardly, and the guy in front of me standing there awkwardly while conversations buzz around us.  It's like this internal cloud of isolation descends straight from Mount Sinai and I realize, I am here...but I am alone.  I am deficient.  I cannot connect.   In a religious structure that constantly emphasizes connection, it's this giant sickening blow to the gut, or heart.  Wherever you feel things - it's like being suckerpunched...there.

So from this auspicious beginning we launch into a church service fraught with overstimulation.  And then break off afterwards for more interpersonal and still not authentic conversation with people before we leave. The end result is I have gone my entire morning without really connecting with the biblical narrative, with people, or with any part of my spiritual self.

For introverts, church (the things you want church to be: spiritual encouragement, challenge, genuine relationship) does not happen "in church." And that's okay..but at the same time it's not. It's really not.  Mostly because we declare our corporate centres as a place where this connection happens.  It's what we want them to be, but in so many ways - we're failing.

Don't get me wrong, I do not expect "in church" to change for me.  I come from a religious heritage of 'do-it-yourself'ers' where you are supposed to take responsibility for "getting something out of church" personally.  I'm trying to do that.  I'm really trying.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  More often than not the struggle to do it myself leaves me feeling even more isolated and frustrated.

I hasn't been until recently that I've begun to realize that if I feel this way, and there are others out there who are wired like me, perhaps our voice on all of this is, ironically, curiously silent in the the detriment of everyone.


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