That’s a question posed in Susan Cain’s Quiet. Along with that comes the corresponding question: is introversion a sin? It is interesting that the context in which this arises is Cain’s visit to Saddleback Church, at the suggestion of Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the Church. True, no one says either that being an extrovert is virtuous, or that the introverted are sinners or somehow spiritually lacking. Rather, all this is inferred from the ethos of the worship experience-enthusiastic singing, jumbo-tron images, greeting neighbors, lengthy messages. As McHugh and Cain discussed the experience, one of their observations was that it was all about non-stop communication. There was no quiet, no silence, no reflection. None of this was a criticism of the message of Saddleback, or by extension of the evangelical movement. Rather, it was the case that for those who don’t like big crowds, lots of socializing, and who need times of reflection or even aloneness, that the implicit message was that there must be something wrong with you.
Cain would contend that this is a part of a larger cultural trend that seems to celebrate the charismatic extrovert–whether in religion, politics, sports, business, or the media. It is not that she has it out for extroverts, or for extrovert-driven churches. Rather, her contention is that extroverts and introverts are wired differently and that each has a unique contribution to bring. She opens her book with the example of introverted Rosa Parks, whose quiet civil disobedience launched the Civil Rights movement that was greatly enhanced by partnership with extrovert Martin Luther King, Jr, whose preaching and leadership gave meaning and direction to the resistance she began.
My wife and I have spent our adult lives around evangelical sub-culture, and for the most part I would agree with Cain’s characterization. What has often struck both of us is that the church unwittingly tries to turn us into extroverts rather than tries to understand the gift that our introversion brings. In Cain’s much watched TED talk, she observes how many of the great religious leaders from Moses to Jesus to others like Muhammad and the Buddha all spoke out of their wilderness experiences. She movingly describes her rabbi grandfather, a shy, gentle introvert with an apartment full of books who brought to his weekly messages at synagogue a depth of insight and wisdom that shaped a religious community. A breath of life to us in recent years is to have a fellow introvert for a pastor. His sensitivity, his reflectiveness, his love of study and insightfulness into both his own journey and others brings strikingly fresh insights from our scriptures for our lives.
What is the gift that introverts bring the church, and to society? In various forms, it is often a creativity that comes out being someone who listens, observes and reflects. Introverts may bring perspective, inventiveness, and artistry into what is needed, what is missing, out of their times alone. One thing that isn’t understood about introverts is that they actually value community and want to contribute. But often they speak quietly and are not the first to speak. Often, to be heard in a culture of extroverts means to press uncomfortably into conversations where the quick response in word and action is the currency of the day. Sometimes, we need quick responses and actions. But sometimes we also need the considered response and care-full action that comes out of reflection. What might happen if we have more partnerships like Parks and King, or Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs? What could it mean for our churches and other institutions to welcome the gifts that both extroverts and introverts bring? What would it mean to create spaces at work and worship that allow for both sociality and solitude?
Perhaps that is worthy both quiet reflection and considered discussion.