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.