Introverts in the Church

Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Way In An Extroverted Culture
By Adam S. McHugh
Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009
Review by Carl McColman

Why wasn’t this book published thirty-some years ago? Reading it now, even at the hoary old age of 49, has been a journey of healing, recognition, and validation. At the risk of hyperbole, this one book has given me tools to rethink numerous passages in my troubled relationship with institutional religion. If I had access to the wisdom and insight contained in this book when I was 16 or 17 years old, I can confidently say that my life would have taken a different path — and my experience as a Christian would certainly have included less angst.

Okay, enough about me; let me tell you about this book. Like introverts in general, it seems unassuming and, well, rather quiet in its scope and message. But like all introverts, there’s a lot going on beneath its humble exterior. The premise is simple enough: God creates and loves all of us just as we are, which means that, for introverts, our very introversion is part of “God’s plan.” But in its social and institutional form, religious Christianity tends to privilege and reward extroverted behavior: not explicitly, of course, but in all sorts of ways — from the expectations placed on clergy to be highly engaged people persons, to the centrality of Sunday morning coffee  hour to the life of the community. Church is social, and to a great extent, we equate “social” with “extroverted” in our culture.

Presbyterian minister (and unapologetic introvert) Adam S. McHugh wisely never attacks extroversion; on the contrary, his ecclesial vision calls for creative partnership between extroverts and introverts. He simply calls for greater balance and a greater willingness for Christians, both individually and communally, to honor and value the particular gifts that introverts bring to the table. Since introverts are more naturally thoughtful, meditative, slow-paced, and comfortable with silence, the vision that McHugh offers is that of a church where contemplative spirituality is more central than marginal. How I wish that all the Christians who attack contemplative spirituality would read this book.

McHugh considers the role of introverts in the church in general, but pays particular attention to introverted leadership styles (where the emphasis is on mentoring and spiritual direction rather than showy socializing) and — what I think is the best and most important chapter in the book — introverted evangelism, which eschews “selling Christ” for a humbler, quieter emphasis on building relationships and then exploring mystery together. At this point, McHugh’s vision for a holistic, introvert-friendly Christianity is not only deeply contemplative, but even touches on the silent frontier where Christianity embraces the mystical. As someone who has always inhabited the sacramental (rather than evangelical) side of the Christian world, I’ve never had much interest in the “Hi, are you saved?” approach to Christian outreach. But McHugh’s lovely description of evangelism as a gentle, respectful, mutual apprenticeship to the Mystery makes even me excited about the idea of sharing my faith.

Richard Rohr loves to tell the story of how years ago he led a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, only to find out that the monks were not particularly fond of Thomas Merton, who had lived at that monastery for over 25 years. When Rohr asked one of the monks why, he received this telling answer. “Merton told us we weren’t contemplatives, we were just introverts!” I’ve heard Rohr tell this story once in person and have heard it on more than one of his CD programs, and it always elicits laughter from his audience. And it’s true that being an introvert is not the same thing as being a contemplative. But perhaps if we learn to value the natural and unique gifts and talents of the introverts in our communities, they will be liberated to become more than “just introverts” — and, likewise, they can help all of Christ’s followers to grow more deeply in the riches and splendor of a truly contemplative approach to spirituality.

That, at any rate, is my hope, and I think Introverts in the Church is a wonderful means to that end. This book is a gift to the entire Body of Christ. If you’re an introvert, “read it and heal,” as John Ortberg says in his endorsement printed on the front of the book. But I think this book isn’t just for introverts. If you’re an extrovert, read it to raise your consciousness a little bit. Maybe you’ll learn to see the quiet folks, who come to every meeting but never say a word, just a little bit differently. And maybe in that new way of seeing, you’ll find a bit of healing yourself.

Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Faith, Doubt and Perseverance
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Linda Nicola

    I’m in the middle of this book, and kept thinking of you the whole time. This book describes me so perfectly and show’s how I can use my ‘gifts.’ (I always thought I was a bad Christian because I’m so bad at Bible thumping!)

  • Infinite Warrior

    to a great extent, we equate “social” with “extroverted” in our culture.

    Oh. I thought that was ‘entirely’. :) “You should be more outgoing.” “You should talk more.” “You should be”… pretty much anything other than you are or desire to be. One wonders how many “introverts” have felt a little snicker welling up when the hymnal was turned to “Just as I am”.

    Perhaps more importantly, though, introversion is also associated with “fearful”, “untrustworthy”, “calculating”, and/or the more baffling “possessing no social skills”, which actually translates as “gullible”. How Freudian, but that’s finally the point. We actually live in a culture in which pretty much everyone is either knowingly or unknowingly an amateur psychologist thanks primarily to its predominantly analytical character but, while introversion may not equal introspection, it is an important prerequisite for traversing what Stephen King once termed “corridors lined with mirrors where people seldom look”, an important task historically overlooked by the establishment of all our many “disciplines”, though that appears to be rapidly changing.

    his ecclesial vision calls for creative partnership between extroverts and introverts

    It’s about time.

  • Ted

    Today’s post struck me with two different thoughts. I can relate wholeheartedly with the sentiments you express, being an introvert myself. The “if only I had read this…” feeling is one familiar to me, yet I am also challenged to gently recognize how even my angst and struggles can be somehow a part of the immense tapestry of love and existence being woven by the Hand of Divine Mystery. Though not one to believe God brings ill upon us, I nonetheless strive to trust that there are perhaps unseen and unknown larger purposes at work when I encounter difficulties in my own life, in those dear to me, even in those whose sufferings I only hear about or see from a distance.
    My other observation is an insight as to why much of what I have read about Celtic spirituality and the flowering of Christian communities in Ireland following the missionary work of Patrick and others resonates with me. The emphasis on relationship, soul friendship, intimacy with Christ and with others (by definition, one cannot be intimate with a crowd) strikes me as being in harmony with a more introverted way of being.

  • Jan

    Being well read and well-”therapied”, I wondered about buying this book. However, I have been validated and challenged with the insights on introversion. As I am an introvert, it helps me to feel recognized.

  • noel a light bearer

    depends on the activity
    spiritually introvert
    self employed extrovert
    this looks a good read
    have you read f**k it
    its very good
    i bought a copy for a friend in n.jersey

  • dFish

    I’m thinking: what if extroversion is largely socially constructed because Christianity in particular has encouraged more noise than silence? And so is introversion as a social construction because “introverts” are more attuned to their inner wounds inflicted by a noisy world outside them?

  • Infinite Warrior

    what if extroversion is largely socially constructed …. And so is introversion a social construction

    I tend to think of introversion and extroversion as natural tendencies which, as all other personality tendencies, are somewhat of a balancing act. Noel’s “depends on the activity” (or lack thereof) strikes a chord. Neither is problematic in and of itself unless taken to extremes, in which case both can become narcissistic pathologies. As for “inner wounds inflicted by the noisy world outside” us, I’m slowly learning to master the art of simply not allowing it. Though I suspect the concept of “free will” doesn’t hold water, consciousness includes a center of being the Hindus call Anahata (“unstruck”, “unhurt” or “unbeaten”) and, as the sayings go, “home is where the heart is” and “home is anywhere you are”.

    In one of Hanh’s dharma talks, which was included in the Peace Is Every Step documentary, one will find this:

    A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha (or the Christ) on, we are the Buddha (or the Christ). If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We cannot let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty. When we sit down peacefully, breathing and smiling, with awareness, we are our true selves, we have sovereignty over ourselves. When we open ourselves up to a TV program, we let ourselves be invaded by the program. Sometimes it is a good program, but often it is just noisy. Because we want to have something other than ourselves enter us, we sit there and let a noisy television invade us, assail us, destroy us. Even if our nervous system suffers, we don’t have the courage to stand up and turn it off, because if we do that, we will have to return to our self.

    There’s no question in my mind that our culture encourages (and rewards) extroversion. Extroversion is, after all, associated with gregariousness (and who doesn’t like “friendly”?) while introversion is associated with narcississm and self-involvement by the dictionary. I don’t think the emphasis on extroversion is a direct result of “Christianity in particular encouraging more noise than silence” as much it is the superficiality of our primarily consumerist society. I was honestly beginning to think that would never change, but the tremendous upsurge of interest in spirituality, “mysticism”, contemplation and community is, among other things, an indication to me that we are slowly awakening from the “spell”, taking stock of the truly precious, and beginning to tap into our inherent potential.

  • barefootmeg

    Though Introverts in the Church is definitely more in-depth, you may also appreciate the book Soul Types by Sandra Krebs Hirsh and Jane Kise. (I’ve written a review here, if you’re interested: ). I think what I found particularly interesting about the book was that the ways that I spent my time during “quiet times” fit right in with my personality type (INTJ) even thought I’d never realized that my personality type might affect the way that I interact with God. And when I got to my husband’s personality type, it also really closely matched his preferences as well. Just because I prefer one means of worship and my husband prefers another, neither is “right” or “wrong.” They’re clearly preferences and there’s value in appreciating and even in learning to try out other people’s preferred styles.

    Another “intersection of personality and spirituality” book is What Is Your Church’s Personality?, by Philip Douglass. (I’ve read it but not reviewed it.)

    whew! sorry about being so tangential, but one of your opening sentences, “At the risk of hyperbole, this one book has given me tools to rethink numerous passages in my troubled relationship with institutional religion.” got me to thinking that you might appreciate these other books as well. :-}

  • jodiq

    Bravo, thanks for the post!! This is long overdue to hear…and so many need to hear it! Bless you, McColman, bless you!