by Elle Berry | 20 March 2018 |
A few years ago one of my favorite YouTube personalities, known as Ze Frank, created a widely viewed video entitled Sad Cat Diary. With over 26 million views, it is likely you’ve watched the three minute imagined internal monologue of a feline who is forlorn due to various detailed offenses made by the authorities (aka his owners). These offenses include such things as moving a pair of pants that were the cat’s preferred sleeping place, or allowing the food dish to become half-empty (the cat lamenting clearly being subject to imminent starvation.) As a long-time cat owner this narrative rang comically accurate. About half-way through the video the narrator notes this violation: Dear diary, yesterday I put in a simple request regarding the door to the garden. But … seemingly out of sheer spite, the authorities refused to hold the door open long enough, for me to decide whether to go outside… or inside … or outside …or inside. Anyone who has ever had an indoor/outdoor cat knows this ritual well.
It is, however, this vexed emotional-fence-sitting, frequently embodied in my feline friends, that describes well how I often feel as an introvert in the church. On the one hand, in its highest form the church idealizes the community I long for most. Likewise, as Jesus followers, the church represents the embodiment of the kingdom life we are called to live. Yet, in practicality, walking through the church doors usually leaves me wanting to be on the inside… and then outside… and then inside… and then outside…
Before we can really discuss introverts it’s prudent to define some terms. While introversion has become a popular enough topic in recent years that most understand what it means there is still a frequent crossover of terminology that can lead to some confusion. I have on more than one occasion had friends insist that I cannot be an introvert because I’m talkative when I’m with them. However, I can also be a quiet person and so I have had people assume that my quietness means I am shy.
Shy, quiet, and introvert, are not synonymous. While introverts can be quiet or may be shy, it does not follow that being an introvert will mean you are shy or quiet. Rather, introversion is about energy. Introverts may enjoy social situations, however afterwards they require a time to recharge their social batteries. This is in contrast to extroverts who find social situations to be the source of their recharging. Some exist betwixt these binaries; the people in the middle are known as ambiverts.
Shyness, on the other hand, is typically a learned behavior. It is generally the consequence of a negative social experience that creates apprehension and timidity about how people may react to us. It is generally situation dependent.
Highly sensitive people, often confused with introverts, tend to be unusually aware of other people’s moods and their own inner feelings. With this high sensitivity to emotions, there also comes a hypersensitivity to sensory information such as sudden noises or bright lights. Highly sensitive people may be introverts, but could also be extroverts.
I am an introvert. I have at times been shy, and I am also a highly sensitive person. This has led me frequently to ponder how I can best live in alignment with my beliefs, both honoring my need for solitude while also fulfilling my role in the church.
Introverts in the church
I’m sure there are introverts who feel completely at home in their church. But for every one of those, I can name five others who struggle. There are a number of reasons for this and I would argue that many of these reasons have more to do with our expectations of what church should be, rather than what the church is biblically called to be. This is not a uniquely Adventist problem, but expectations tend to vary between cultures and denominations. A few years ago I visited a Saturday night service at a local evangelical church that is somewhat popular in my community. I was in a tough emotional season and thought the worship would be good for me, but I was also curious about this church. As I approached the building the greeter stood at the door and bellowed, “Good evening! How are you doing?” I summoned my inner representative (that’s what I call the version of myself that I present in social interactions) saying, “I’m doing okay,” and smiled lightly as I shook his hand. “Okay” was honestly a massive overstatement, but I’m not generally one to emotionally vomit on a complete stranger—like most introverts I’m a pretty private person. But he grasped onto my hand even tighter saying, “Only okay? Not good?!” As if my lack of chipper enthusiasm was sacrilege itself, in need of a full-scale intervention.
Americanized Christianity (which is what I know best) seems to particularly value a specific presentation of Christian: cheerful, yet modest, and always eager to share the gospel. As John Weirick wrote, in the Huffington Post, “Churches sometimes unintentionally equate faithfulness with extroversion; we draw up a composite sketch of the ‘ideal’ Christian: gregarious, with an overt passion and enthusiasm, eager to participate in a wide variety of activities, shares their faith with strangers regularly, assumes leadership positions quickly, opens up their home to others often—and this ideal person starts sounding suspiciously like an extrovert.” Likewise, as Adam McHugh noted in his book, Introverts in the Church, many churches tend to measure spiritual progress by participation in what are, frequently, very extroverted activities.
Add into that mix a church with a strong set of social standards for Christian practice and you have concocted a massive stew of expectations for behavior, while socially rewarding the performance of it. And then, once a week, we’re all supposed to meet together (cheerfully) shaking hands (praise the Lord!), requiring most of us to call our inner-representatives into full-fledged theatrical performance. This ideal can create very awkward and conflicting emotions for many introverts, who tend to abhor dwindling their limited social energy away in situations void of authenticity and requiring constant small-talk. And while it may bother some extroverts as well, for many introverts adding yet another performance to a week already full of required performances quickly becomes one request too many.
So, what can we do?
Many introverts I have spoken with over the years end up feeling much like the old Sesame Street song, One of These Things is Not like the Other. They believe that everyone else wants to be there and so they are morally compelled to participate, and consequently feel shame about their lack of enthusiasm, desire, or ability, to meet other people’s definition of the good Christian. So for the struggling introvert (and for the extroverts who love us) here are some thoughts that have helped me.
- Throughout the gospel narratives we have many references to Jesus heading off to be alone and pray. Sometimes these stories involve him being interrupted. However, there are enough of these stories that I believe we can assume Jesus made a practice of being alone often. Scheduling time for solitude may be the best place to start for introverts and can provide a much needed insulation from over-socialization. This, however, also requires us to have people in our life who respect this practice.
- I have found it helpful to differentiate between my ideas of church versus my idea of sanctuary. Many times we regard church as listening to a sermon, singing hymns, or being inspired by a place to worship God. I have noticed, particularly with many of my peers, a popular push back against going to church as we discover we don’t need to “go to church” in order to accomplish the aforementioned activities. For instance, I follow more than one person on social media who references their outdoor adventures as going to church. While I certainly understand what they’re saying, I also think it’s important to remember that biblically church is vastly about using our gifts for the encouragement of others, and about learning to love others well. Church is relational. While worship and finding beauty are important human experiences, they do not remove our need of being in community. As an introvert it’s highly appealing to opt out of church—and if I define it only as a place where I go for sermons, singing, and sanctuary I can get away with this. However, seeing church as community encourages me to focus on the gifts I personally have to contribute. I still deeply value finding places (or sanctuaries) that draw me to the Spirit. However, I do not regard this as church. For me clarifying my vocabulary helps me to recognize and value each component of my spiritual life, without swapping one for another.
- That said, I realize different plants thrive in different ecosystems and different seasons. Yes, I know you’re not a plant, you’re a human. But I think it’s important to realize not everyone thrives in the same environment. The Bible tells stories of individuals who spend what are frequently extended seasons of time in the wilderness, or desert, for solitude. While we are advised as believers not to abandon meeting together, might I suggest that this gathering could take on different, less conventional forms? What we have come to expect from church has evolved over the years based on many influences, some biblically rooted but many man made. Allowing this meeting together to take different forms, in different life seasons, may be beneficial. Sometimes we may need more time in solitude and sanctuary in order to function better in community.
- As an introvert you bring specific gifts to the church body. When we feel like outsiders it is important to remember that those qualities that set us apart are often the gifts we are meant to bring. Both extroverts and introverts are needed, and I have to remind myself the church I am hoping to help create is in fact the wholeness that comes when we bring our differences together in a common symphony.
- Give your inner-representative a break and practice authenticity. For me, many of the most emotionally depleting aspects of church life come when I feel like I have to send my representative to perform as the “perfect Adventist/Christian woman.” The higher and tighter the church standards of living, the harder this becomes, and I think the more important it is for the church to recognize the difference between an ideal versus a doctrine and allow some flexibility in application of ideals. While authenticity is not a particular problem of introverts, I think introverts may be particularly vulnerable here—as noted, adding a performance when one needs rest is out of the question. Sadly, in many congregations this holds a social cost. Of all the places where we shouldn’t have to concoct a representative self, church should be that place. While I will continue to advocate for being authentic, it is also something that the church leadership and its members must be aware of when talking about our standards.
The truth is I feel something like a professor who is explaining the problem to my class, while simultaneously working the problem under the desk. I’m still the introvert who feels inside and outside the church—never quite at ease with either place. I may always be that person. But perhaps this is simply a reality of living in a world where the garden door has been closed? Like so many areas of our lives, learning to live with dichotomy requires constant creativity. Meanwhile, be encouraged introverts. Perhaps it is the reality of our dissonance that is part of the gift we bring.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist, presently putting the finishing touches on a graduate degree from the University of Western States. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com