Saturday, June 2, 2012

Off the List: Introverts in the Church

Content notes: this post reviews a work of non-fiction. There's nothing to "spoil" here, so read on. I would normally put a warning here about how if you find discussions of faith to be uncomfortable, you may want to give the post a pass, and I suppose if you find the very concept of faith disturbing, that may still apply, but I'd encourage pressing forward for all but the most hostile unbeliever. This was a very important read for me, and if you're here because you're interested in what I have to say, well, this is something I'd really like to share. I will warn you, however, that this post is long.

I grew up in a variety of churches (my family moved through several as I was growing up) but they were always fairly similar doctrinally. My family attended a lot of Evangelical Free and non-denominational churches, one Assembly of God church, a Free Methodist church, and a couple of Bible churches. These churches had some common themes to them - they shared an informal and gregarious type of worship, they tended to reject mainstream scientific and intellectual thought, they believed in Christian Exclusivism (the belief that humans are inherently "lost" or damned and therefore consigned to Hell until they consciously and possibly even formally accept Christ into their life) and that Christians were inherently "nice" people - saccharine, grinning, always-cheerful, and outgoing.

Like many people raised in the church, I experienced a crisis of faith in my twenties. I ultimately concluded that yes, I do believe in God, that Jesus was the Messiah, and that through his sacrifice sins are forgiven, but I had some real difficulties with church culture and the way modern churches operate. I (and my wife, who had similar concerns) eventually withdrew almost completely from the church until about three years ago when she started feeling a gnawing need to get back into the church and started researching different denominations "from scratch." Her searching eventually led us to a small United Methodist church in our town, and about the same time, I reached the depth of friendship necessary to start discussing matters of faith with my good friend James, a Catholic turned Unitarian.

It was with considerable relief that I found that my concerns were far from being unique to me and my wife. In fact, there were huge swaths of Christianity practicing what I found to be a far more authentic faith than that of my youth out there, just waiting for me to stumble into them, much like a person looking at his feet can stumble into the wall of a huge building without noticing it. In particular, a sermon series from Rev. Adam Hamilton called When Christians Get it Wrong really galvanized me and propelled me into far more reading and thinking on my faith than I have done in over a decade.

This, in turn led me to start reading to "catch up" on what I'd been missing, as it were. Suddenly being a Christian was exciting and, dare I say it, intellectually satisfying again. I read and worked through with our small group the book version of When Christians Get it Wrong, and I realized that being a Christian didn't translate into anti-intellectualism and that (to my shock) Genesis is far more consistent with modern scientific understanding of the origin of both the universe and life on Earth than I'd ever have thought. I read Wild at Heart and No More Christian Nice Guy and breathed a sigh of relief that I could be a bit more rough and gruff as a Christian man and probably wind up as a more authentic and effective (if controversial) Christian for it. I read Love Wins and while I don't agree with everything Rob Bell has to say, I at least have come to believe that the Bible is far less eager to condemn people to eternal torment than most modern American churches are. I read, I thought, I compared to scripture. Things rang truer than what I'd experienced as a child and a young man. Suddenly I understood why Paul could say he was "not ashamed" of the gospel.

All of this has been wonderful for me, but I still had the gnawing feeling that as an introvert, I somehow didn't measure up, that my being drained by social situations and deeply valuing solitude and time to myself like I do, feeling occasionally "not up to" going to church and so forth were at the best, disappointing to God and at worst, outright sinful. And it was at this point that I had a conversation over a meal with my Evangelical, but deeply introverted, parents and I became aware of Adam S. McHugh's book Introverts in the Church. I sat on the recommendation for quite a while until I remembered it one evening while wasting time on the internet. I popped open a browser tab, pulled the book up, called my work (I work for a bookstore) and had them special-order me a copy. The book came in on Tuesday, and despite having to work, take care of various other business and share the book with my voracious reader of a wife, I have finished it.

The contents of that book were, to put it bluntly, profound, at least to me. (It bears noting, by the way, that the author is only about two years my senior, so his language and experience are not that far removed from my own in some ways). McHugh described in great detail not only the behavior of introverts in the church (spiraling into involvement, then retreating for a while) but the tremendous value that they can have to the church. Introverts are, as a whole, a more contemplative and slow-thinking group of people, more inclined to the internal and cerebral than the external and exciting. McHugh calls out examples of deeply introverted individuals including Mother Teresa, Jonathan Edwards, and none other than Moses(!) who were incredibly valuable to God not in spite of their introvertedness, but arguably because of it.

McHugh also outlines why the more traditional "heritage"service that my wife and I pry ourselves out of bed (entirely too) early on Sunday mornings for is so much more meaningful to us, and outlines a number of other things that can be done to make worship more comfortable for introverts.

Most importantly, however, McHugh points out that a lot of what introverts have to offer is incredibly meaningful and important, rather than just "look, I'm helping!" tasks you'd give to a toddler and that (to my great and surpassing relief) that the "sales pitch" form of evangelism that's always made me deeply uncomfortable and embarrassed is far from the only form of witness, and indeed may be (as I've often suspected) more harmful than helpful in many contexts. Direct from the book:

After a hasty introduction, the Christian student asked a question to the other student about his religious background, and before he had time to give much of a response, the Christian had launched into a rambling presentation of the gospel. He preached and testified his way through the two-and-a-half-hour flight, much to the chagrin of his fellow student who only managed a few sentence fragments during our soporific trip-not to mention everyone in the surrounding rows. As I disembarked from the plane, I remember drowsily praying "God, please don't let this interaction forever close this guy off from the gospel."
McHugh's sentiments there could have been extracted directly from my own memory, and in fact, I've actually been confronted with the behavior of rude Christians by unbelieving friends and had to stammer my way around a denouncement of what I like to call "Sledgehammer Christianity" that attempts to (thankfully usually verbally) pound people into the kingdom. Never mind that other reading I've done seems to make this "turn or burn" mentality erroneous on its own. That kind of approach shouldn't be used to sell children's toys or cars, much less belief systems. People need to accept what they believe, not capitulate to it if it's going to have any lasting value. McHugh instead argues (and I agree with him) that introverted evangelism more closely follows St. Francis of Assisi's "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." That is something that is both easier and far more difficult at the same time.

 It should come as no shock that I'd recommend this book to pretty much anyone. If you're an introvert and a believer, this is a valuable, healing, validating read. If you're a believer and an extrovert, this book will solve a lot of mysteries about the introverts in your church and your life. Finally, if you're an unbeliever, you may take some comfort in knowing that there are a lot of Christians out there, some of whom you may not even realize are Christians in the first place, who would much rather be kind to you and help you through difficult times than try to bash your ideological head in.

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