By Elizabeth Reid
Over the last several years, personality labels have become incredibly popular. My Facebook feed has quizzes almost every day claiming to unlock personality secrets and to tell you who shares your personality. (As an INTJ, it seems I share a personality type with King Solomon.) Books like Quiet by Susan Cain have shown how the introverted are undervalued, but there are many in the church who still don’t understand why these personality differences matter.
Church Body: All Parts
While various studies show that anywhere from 30-50 percent of the population of the United States identify as introverted, my personal observation suggests that the church is overwhelmingly steered by extroverts. Our preaching pastors, worship leaders, youth ministers, and, in many cases, our volunteers, are extroverts.
What difference does this make? Although I’m an introvert, it doesn’t make much difference to me. My grandfather is a preacher, and my parents were missionaries. I went to Bible college, seminary, and plan to work in a faith-based nonprofit. I’m not going anywhere. For me, the church is like family, and we love our family, even when they talk to us while we’re watching television.
But what if you don’t have a family connection and personal investment in organized religion? Is there space for introverts in a church designed for extroverts? Can introverts do more than attend? Can they serve and lead?
The apostle Paul had many metaphors for the church in his epistles, but one of the most memorable is the metaphor of the body that he used in 1 Corinthians 12. Although Paul used this metaphor to clarify his discussion of gifts of the Spirit, it says something important to us as we think about personality differences in the church. Like Paul wrote, “Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” and “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” and “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 22, 26).
I’ve been told in the past that to extroverts, introversion seems like a weakness. My friend was apologetic but blunt as he told me, “I know I’m supposed to think that personalities are neutral, but I just can’t see any advantage in being exhausted by being around people.” But just as Paul wrote, introverts are indispensable to the body of Christ. Introverts do not need to mimic the way extroverts are involved in church. Rather, introverts must learn to join in the life of the church in a way that honors their unique perspective and way of interacting with people. If they fail to do so, the church loses something vital and the body of Christ is diminished.
To this end, I offer three suggestions for introverts who want to get involved in an extroverted church but don’t know how. These suggestions have encouraged me as I have struggled to belong, and I hope they encourage you as well.
Recognize: the church needs you.
First of all, recognize that the church needs you. Growing up in the church, I saw plenty of extroverts volunteering with youth, children, and adults, but I can’t name one introvert. The lack of introverts contributing to my formation as a Christian hurt me. In many ways I felt isolated from the church because I couldn’t connect in the way extroverted church leaders thought I should. As an adult I now have a unique ability to impact young adults who are learning to develop their gifts for service in the kingdom of God.
I lead a weekly Bible study for college-age women. There is a running joke that my group is the “introvert’s group.” No one has ever accused me of being exciting. If you come, I’m not going to make you play a game that involves dancing, and I’ll never let you throw a pie in my face for fundraising. So why do students come?
When I started this group, my boyfriend told me, “You don’t have to be someone they would like. You just have to be someone who likes them.” Students don’t need leaders who are outgoing or exciting. At this stage in their journey, they just need to know that someone likes them and cares about them. I know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in new groups, so I make sure that new students feel at home. I offer students space to share when they’re ready. Because I am patient, students are able to open up and say hard things that take time to share. This means being comfortable with silence.
As an introvert looking in, you might think that you could never volunteer in a specific vibrant and exciting ministry in your church. Trust me: there are introverted people in your church who aren’t being reached by typically extroverted ministry. Schedule a conversation with your minister. Ask what the church is doing to reach the introverted members. If your minister has never considered the idea, offer to help form a plan. After all, you have firsthand experience!
Do one thing.
American culture glorifies busyness—work, school, after-school activities, volunteer programs, and church could easily fill every minute of our lives if we let them. Even within the church it’s difficult to know where to give our time. The temptation, of course, since we can’t do everything, is to do nothing: we may show up and go home without attempting to make connections or contribute. But the church needs you. How can an introvert, overwhelmed with options for involvement in the church, contribute so in a healthy and effective way? My second suggestion: you only need to do one thing and do it well.
Whether you choose to get involved in the youth group, an afterschool program, or the hospitality ministry, pick one thing you’re interested in and commit. Introverts work best when they can focus and not spend their energy trying to adjust to something new. This is a strength of an introverted personality. Extroverts enjoy getting to experience new and exciting things; introverts prefer familiarity and stability, making them the perfect long-term volunteers.
Show up and chillax.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with this pop culture term, “chillax” is a portmanteau of “chill” and “relax.” No matter what you choose as your one thing, there will be a moment of panic when you think, What on earth am I doing here? This is terrifying, but it’s not the end of your involvement with your church. Take a deep breath and chillax. Remember: the church needs you. Look around. There are definitely some other introverts in the room who feel the way you do.
For me, this What am I doing here? moment happens almost every week at Bible study. My tiny apartment is filled to the brim with exuberant young women, excited to be off campus and having fun. They are wonderful women; it is a blessing to host them. Even so, it can be overwhelming. These are the moments when I’m reminded why I do this in the first place. I don’t volunteer because I have natural leadership abilities or because I’m awesome and college students love me. I volunteer because God wants me to. When God calls a person to a task, God also equips that person to fulfill it.
Through God I am able to use my strengths and weaknesses to minister in a unique way. I don’t minister alone, but with God. When I remember this, I can take a deep breath, chillax, and participate fully in the body of Christ.
Elizabeth Reid is a recent graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.