The young man talking to me was angry and highly frustrated. He felt ignored and ostracized only because he was socially awkward. He was not gregarious or outgoing. Conversation did not flow easily for him. It was not because he was dull-witted. On the contrary, he had an abundance of thoughts. He loved God and he loved people, but most people expected him to communicate that love along well-defined social paths. But his personality was built more for tracks than highways.
Adam McHugh has written an entire book addressing this problem. Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture thoroughly explores the world of the introvert. The evangelical church has become an inhospitable environment for the introvert. “Versions of the word introvert are indelicately used in evangelical thought to refer to an ingrown, self-centered version of the church.” I have a hunch that you would describe an introvert as shy, withdrawn, antisocial or even socially handicapped.
A 2004 study conducted at a Christian college asked students to rate Jesus according to the categories of temperament used by the Myers-Briggs profile. One discovery of the study revealed a strong tendency to classify Jesus with the same characteristics that the students possessed. The one clear exception came in the extrovert-introvert scale. Ninety-seven percent of the students rated Jesus as an extrovert, while only fifty-four percent saw themselves that way.
The professor doing the study surmised, “The perception of an extroverted Jesus might reflect a tendency in American culture to value extroversion over introversion…. Making an assumption that Jesus was extroverted based on a cultural bias might make it difficult for introverts in such a culture to accept and affirm their own behavioral preference as legitimate and valuable; not something to be overcome or even tolerated, but something to be appreciated and blessed.” Jonathan Rauch, writer for The Atlantic, has said that introverts are “among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world.”
McHugh points out that all of us are built with a capacity to look outwardly, interacting with the world around us, and inwardly, responding to our own thoughts, feelings and ideas. Everyone’s personality moves in both directions, but to varying degrees. Some are more comfortable with the external world, but have difficulty concentrating in solitude. Others thrive in the internal world, while communication with the outside world exhausts them.
Using three criteria, McHugh gives us a helpful way of distinguishing the personality that is natural to each person. The first is energy source. “Introverts are energized by solitude.” It is not that they do not like people, but social situations simply drain them. Extroverts, on the other hand, “need other people, interaction and various kinds of stimulation in order to replenish their energy.” Too much quiet yields anxiety and restlessness and sometimes depression.
The second characteristic is internal processing. Introverts have a need to process the barrage of stimuli, information, data, images and experiences in order to integrate them into their lives. “We need to filter information and experiences, allowing the good to take root in us and transform us, discarding the bad or irrelevant.” Extroverts process primarily through interaction and conversation. They tend to think out loud, clarifying their thoughts through dialogue. They rarely experience stimulation overload, a common complaint of introverts.
The third characteristic is that introverts prefer depth over breadth. Although introverts appear quiet and dull in group situations, they actually excel in relationships because they are comfortable with deep levels of intimacy. They also do not fear self-examination, which leads to self-discovery. Extroverts can handle a great diversity of information, acquaintances and experiences. Their sphere of influence runs much broader.
McHugh carefully distinguishes healthy introversion from shyness or aloofness produced by fear or insecurity. He does not defend the recluse. Introversion is not an exemption from the command to love your neighbor as yourself. “It means that whatever context we are in, we are predisposed toward what is happening inside of us more than we are in what is taking place around us.” In fact, he argues in one place that “the introverted trajectory of growth is toward relationships with others and relationship with the outside world.”
The value of McHugh’s insights goes beyond a mere description and defense of the introverted personality. He challenges the American evangelical preference for extroverts and disdain for introverts. This disorder has disabled the church by overlooking the immense contribution that introverts can make. God has created the inward parts of the introvert just as he has the extrovert. He has gifted them in ways that greatly benefit the rest of us, if we choose to value them for who they are and not merely tolerate them as second-class citizens.