I wish I were an extrovert. My wife, Tiffani, is an extrovert. She has so much energy, enough for two normal humans and probably enough for three or four low-functioning ones. She thrives in group settings. She is magnetic. She can plan big, fun gatherings and parties. She is intentional with our kids. She seems to draw energy from this intentionality.
I wish I were an extrovert. But I’m not. I have energy, but not like Tiffani and not like my extroverted friends. I can navigate group settings. I even enjoy them. But I must bookend social gatherings with alone time. For years, I worked for a church, teaching every week. I enjoyed both and still do, but without fail, my favorite part of every class and sermon was the closing prayer, the moment I knew it was over and I could exhale.
For a long time – most of my life – I despised these things about myself. I thought I was weak. I thought I lacked courage and strength. I thought something was wrong with me. A good father, a good husband, a good leader should be extroverted. And I was not.
What’s worse, for most of my life, I wasn’t sure God liked me because I wasn’t sure God liked introverts. Looking around the churches of which I have been a part, they valued things like expressive faith and community. Your commitment to your faith (and your church) was often tied to how many programs you signed up for or how willing you were to share your faith with non-believers. If you did not love God out loud, did you really love him? If you were not comfortable with displaying your faith publicly, did you really have faith? These are questions I have wrestled with as long as I have been around the church, which is all my life.
In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain says the American church, the evangelical one in particular, has taken the Extrovert Ideal “to its logical extreme.”
What is the Extrovert Ideal? “The omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight.”
Many American churches, she says, equate sociability with godliness. Extroversion is more than a personality trait. It’s an indicator of virtue. We assume the loudest voices in the room are also the most authoritative, the most correct. We elevate qualities like charisma and devalue others like introspection and self-awareness.
My experience tells me she is right.
Introversion and extroversion are temperaments. They describe the particular ways people look at and interact with the world. They say nothing about identity. They are not fixed, either. Though most people gravitate one way or the other, most of us a mixed bag of both. I want to say this now, so you don’t assume I am making these words out to be more than they are.
I do think, however, temperament matters. It matters particularly in a culture that elevates one side of the spectrum – the extroverted one – and tells everyone else they are flawed or broken.
In this type of culture, a personality issue can easily become an identity issue.
The truth is, though, when the Extrovert Ideal becomes the ideal, everyone suffers, not just introverts. With extroversion, there is a lot to be desired. I’ll grant that. I’m grateful for Tiffani (and all the extroverts I know) and her influence on my life. Her magnetism and energy push me to do things beyond my comfort zone, things I might not have pursued without her presence, things like leaving engineering for full-time ministry. Her extroverted presence has helped me grow spiritually.
Is that not the point of this whole thing, to become more and more like our Creator?
If so, then not only do introverts need extroverts, but, friends, the inverse is also true. If wholeness is the goal, extroverts also need introverts.
And our extroverted cultures, like the church, need the positive aspects of introversion. Their health depends on it. Let me give you a few ways examples of what introversion can bring to the table.
Contemplation and solitude.
Are these not hugely important components in the journey of our Savior? Our Savior, Jesus, often retreated by himself to solitary places. He spent 40 days in the wilderness, by his lonesome.
All this noise and talking, it’s exhausting. It’s not sustainable. And it’s unhealthy. Introverts understand the importance of solitude. Why are these disciplines hardly mentioned in our churches? Why are they not recognized as integral practices in the life of healthy, thriving Christians?
Maybe some churches do mention and encourage solitude and contemplation. But even in these settings, are these practices given the weight as, say, community?
Something else extroverts can learn from introverts?
The importance of the inner journey and self-awareness.
Introverts value reflection and thoughtfulness and authenticity. They aren’t afraid to look inside and examine themselves. I once heard someone say that the only sin is unconsciousness. The author of those words was surely an introvert. But was he also right?
We are overcome with going and doing. But what type of people are becoming? Who we are, our integrity and our motives matter at least as much as what we do.
The sacred “I don’t know.”
In general, introverts are more comfortable with uncertainty than extroverts.
One of the great sins of the American church is that it has pampered to the ego’s obsession with certainty. We have been too quick to provide answers. Transformation lies in the unknown, in life’s liminal spaces, where we don’t know and we can’t understand and we are forced to lean into something larger than ourselves. In these spaces, there are no answers. There is only the Divine.
Please understand this: I am not interested in dismantling extroverted ideals. I am interested, however, in dismantling the Extroverted Ideal. There’s really no place for it. It’s an unhealthy ideal for the world. It’s a dangerous ideal for the church.
If you’re an introvert, particularly a Christian introvert, I want you to know nothing is wrong with you. You are not broken or flawed. You just happen to live in a culture that idealizes – and at times idolizes – extroversion. You have much to offer the world. You have much to offer your families and your faith community.
I pray we begin to value introverted ideals and in doing so become more healthy and whole, both as individuals and as a collective.
Grace and peace, friends.