Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Just as we are, or so we wish: Introverts in your church

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

So goes a verse of the well-known hymn, and, in a sense, this verse could be the anthem of Christian introverts everywhere.

In the book by Susan Cain, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, a software engineer learning that his introversion has a physiological basis making him just as he is, is quoted as exclaiming, “This is how I am! I don’t have to try to meet anyone’s expectations anymore! I don’t need to feel apologetic or defensive in any way!”

I’m an introvert and a Christian.

For Christian introverts, being accepted “just as we are” is exactly what we long for in our churches.

Sometimes it’s just noise

I’ve always enjoyed music, but sometimes, not so much.

In church recently, the drummer on the worship team started a song with an especially loud beat. The rest of the worship team joined in exuberantly as members of the congregation “got down” in their very loud praise.

I looked over at a mother holding a toddler; he was burying his head against her chest and had his hands over his ears. This is typical behavior for a child who is introverted.

The sharp whacks of the drum intro had startled me, too.

This was not a Pentecostal church. But I grew up in one where a raucous ruckus was the norm. And if you were at all spiritual, you were expected to join in with the clapping, bobbing, weaving, and shouts of joy, all ye people.

This is not a great milieu for an introvert.

Introverts, generally speaking, don’t do well in noisy, raucous, crowded, outgoing, bustling, fast-paced, highly-interactive environments. Such an environment can feel overwhelming, causing us to shut down.

And yet, this is often what one encounters in evangelical churches, even those that are not particularly Charismatic or Pentecostal in doctrine.

In these churches, to be accepted, we are often required to act just as we aren’t: Extroverted.

What’s wrong with me?

Introverts often feel like something is wrong with us as we try to muddle through the culture of extroversion with which we are surrounded.

Growing up, I was certain that everyone else in the world was in on a secret that had been kept from me. That secret would unlock the world that it seemed nearly everyone else, all extroverts, inhabited.

It was a world where chit-chat came easily, speaking in public was a breeze, performing was a blast, socializing was as easy as pie, parties were actually fun, and success was just a kiss away.

Instead, to borrow and paraphrase from the Rolling Stones, “it always felt like a storm was threat'ning my very life every day, and that if I didn’t get some shelter, I was gonna fade away.”

Another verse in “Just As I Am” goes:
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
This is especially poignant for introverts since we tend to long to be accepted just as we are and to have the “one dark blot” of whatever it is that makes us different erased.

Church should be an escape from the knocking around of the world, but it may not be much of one when you’re an introvert.

Bearing the image of God

An oft-cited chunk of Scripture is Psalms 139:13-16, a paean to our God-created humanity and uniqueness:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (NIV).
We often tie this to Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (NIV).

These verses underscore that each of us is uniquely created by God with a specific God-ordained personality and temperament.

In other words, being an introvert was God’s idea and is a good thing! Introversion is, in part, a reflection of God Himself.

So what is the make-up of an introvert?

In her excellent book, Susan Cain explains that introverts, among other things:
  • “dislike small talk”
  • “have difficulty when being observed.”
  • “[are] often sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, pain, and coffee.”
  • “[taken] to a party they aren’t very pleased about it.”
  • “tend to have unusually strong consciences.”
  • “[are] acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior.”
  • “[as children] liked to daydream and play inside, and whose feelings were easily hurt.”
Introverts also are often viewed as being in their heads too much, being too quiet in group settings, taking too long to make decisions, and coming across as aloof or smug or standoffish.

Any one of these traits can bring pressure on introverts in non-church settings. Carried into the context of a church environment, the negative impact can be magnified many times over.

Surviving church to grow in faith

It wasn’t unusual in my childhood church to be gently pressured to give testimonies. This is a part of the service when individuals stand up and publicly talk about how they’ve experienced God’s blessings over the prior week or so.

Other times there was the expectation to pray out loud, go down to the altar, raise your hands, and generally behave like an extrovert. If you had any special talent, you were expected to use it on the platform in front of everyone, whether singing or playing an instrument.

I did all of these things, each time with my heart pounding and my pits dripping. Introverts tend to sweat more than extroverts, often for no particular reason.

Being an introvert I think a lot about everything. It’s part of our nature as introverts! But I didn’t always understand this.

There are a lot of aspects of being an introvert and growing up Pentecostal that I’m still coming to grips with.

And, yes, I’m coming to my point.

Here it is:

It’s perfectly okay to be an introvert!

Understanding this is very freeing. However, it doesn’t end the pressure we face to be more out-going, up-beat, demonstrative, and “on.” Still, knowing it is helpful.

Now, in our own quietly tenacious way, we need to get the word out to others that being an introvert is perfectly normal, and for those who are, this is the way God wants us to be.

For the rest of you, here are some tips for interacting with introverts:
  • Empower. If you see children who shy away from being put on stage and are hesitant to mix it up in groups, don’t force them. Avoid making them feel “wrong” by merely being different if they choose not to participate. Allow them to be how they are.
  • Ask. If you want to draw introverts (teens or adults) into active roles in the church, ask them, quietly, and don’t wait for them to step up. Introverts often shy away from anything that smacks of self-promotion.
  • Wait. If you invite an introvert to take on a leadership role, let them take time to think – a lot of time to think – about how they want to participate. If they say no for now, then, ask them again several months later. Don’t pressure them and don’t hurry them, but don’t sideline or ignore them.
  • Act! If an introvert comes to you and asks to be involved in or start something specific, listen carefully and be quick to give them a green light. They've already been thinking, mulling, and praying about it for weeks or months and are ready to act. Putting them off and making them wait for an answer will be a huge demotivator. If you must say no, be sure to give them clear and detailed reasons for your no, even when they come back days later to ask more questions.
  • Listen. In meetings, when someone you know is an introvert finally speaks up, listen carefully and patiently. In fact, slow meetings down and insert mini-breaks to give the introverts time to process what’s happening. Their insights can be game-changers if heard.
  • Involve. While introverts generally avoid being on stage, this doesn’t mean we don’t ever want to be involved in more up front roles such as giving announcements, singing a special, taking up the offering, helping with communion, serving on the board, teaching a class, leading a small group, or even delivering a sermon. Usually, all you need to do is ask in advance so we can be prepared. While an introvert probably won’t volunteer for a lot of these kinds of tasks, they may feel snubbed and overlooked if never asked.
Please know that introverts in your church are longing to be accepted just as they are and to say with that engineer, “This is how I am! I don’t have to try to meet anyone’s expectations anymore! I don’t need to feel apologetic or defensive in any way!”

But really, isn’t this what we all want?

If you want to gain more insight into the God-created differences and strengths of introverts and extroverts, as well as how each style can complement the other, check out these two books:

You can also read more here:
Are you an introvert? If so, can you offer additional tips and insights to help extroverts understand and interact with us better? Are you an extrovert? If so, how do tend to view and treat introverts? Are you patient with them or frustrated by them? Please sound off in the comments section!
And now, various musical takes on the "Just as I am" theme....

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