Introverts in evangelical America

By Adam S. McHugh The scowling old man nearly bumped into me as he fled the sanctuary. As I turned … Continued

By Adam S. McHugh

The scowling old man nearly bumped into me as he fled the sanctuary.

As I turned to watch him stomp out to the parking lot, I asked a friend if she knew why he’d left before the service started. She replied, “You know how in your sermon last week you encouraged all of us to be more welcoming to newcomers? Well, after five people came up to him to introduce themselves, he blurted “Can a guy just be anonymous when he checks out a new place? I want to be left alone!” And thus concluded his seven minute survey of our church.

It’s not only cantankerous old men with a flair for storm-off exits who are turned off by hyper-friendly churches, however. As I reflected on that event, I realized that I too would be intimidated and overwhelmed by that many strangers approaching me, no matter how genuine and kind they were. As it turns out, our churches are actually teeming with this species of people called “introverts.” I am one of them, as is 50% of the American population, according to our best and latest research.

Unfortunately, owing to a few antisocial types as well as to a general extroverted bias in our culture, introverts get a bad rap. Mainstream American culture values gregarious, aggressive people who are skilled in networking and who can quickly turn strangers into friends. Often we identify leaders as those people who speak up the most and the fastest, whether or not their ideas are the best.

As a result, introverts are often defined by what we’re not rather than by what we are. We’re labeled as standoffish or misanthropic or timid or passive. But the truth is that we are people who are energized in solitude, rather than among people. We may be comfortable and articulate in social situations and we may enjoy people, but our time in the outer worlds drains us and we must retreat into solitude to be recharged. We also process silently before we speak, rather than speaking in order to think, as extroverts do. We generally listen a little more than we talk, observe for a while before we engage, and have a rich inner life that brings us great stimulation and satisfaction. Neurological studies have demonstrated that our brains naturally have more activity and blood flow, and thus we need less external stimulation in order to thrive.

I saw the need for a book on this topic when I realized that our cultural slant had infiltrated some wings of the church, especially mainstream evangelicalism. As I say in Introverts in the Church, entering your average evangelical worship service feels like walking into a non-alcoholic cocktail party. Evangelicalism has a chatty, mingling informality about it, and no matter how well-intentioned that atmosphere is, it can be a difficult environment for those of us who are overwhelmed by large quantities of social interaction and who may connect best with God in silence. Sometimes our communities talk so much that we are not able to express the gifts that we bring to others. If we are given the space, we bring gifts of listening, insight, creativity, compassion, and a calming presence, things that our churches desperately need.

Even more dangerous is the tendency of evangelical churches to unintentionally exalt extroverted qualities as the “ideals” of faithfulness. Too often “ideal” Christians are social and gregarious, with an overt passion and enthusiasm. They find it easy to share the gospel with strangers, eagerly invite people into their homes, participate in a wide variety of activities, and quickly assume leadership responsibilities. Those are wonderful qualities, and our churches suffer when we don’t have those sorts of people, but if these qualities epitomize the Christian life, many of us introverts are left feeling excluded and spiritually inadequate. Or we wear ourselves out from constantly masquerading as extroverts.

Though I empathize with that old man, I wish he had endured the overwhelming hospitality of our community that day. He would have learned that the Christian life is not about anonymity, and we would have gained another introverted member who contributed valuable gifts to our community and ministry. Both he and our church would have been better for it.

Adam S. McHugh is an ordained Presbyterian minister, a spiritual director, and an introvert. He is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. He blogs at and tweets at @adamsmchugh. He lives with his wife in Claremont, California. See his expert page at Patheos for more information on Adam McHugh and his publications.

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  • BethBuelowTheIntrovertEntrepreneur

    Adam, I really appreciate your words! As an introvert, I can identify with the grumpy old man who felt overwhelmed by all of the greetings. One of the reasons I chose the church I’m going to now is because they DIDN’T pounce on me, invite me to coffee hour, ask me to join the choir on my first visit or otherwise violate my need for anonymity and space in those early weeks. Don’t get me wrong – they were friendly and said hello and smiled – we felt very welcomed. And, we have since joined discussion groups and started to get to know people… at our pace, not theirs.Being sensitive to the fact that introverts have a different way of connecting and reaching out is further complicated in a church setting, when the person (introvert or extrovert) potentially is coming in with a complex and tumultuous relationship with church, religion and God (as I was). In some ways, I see that as an even bigger dyanamic to be aware of as churches seek to be inclusive and welcoming.I also appreciate your point about how all different gifts and expressions of faith are needed. I attended a Jim Wallis event about a year ago with a friend; many of the ideas for action that resulted were outside my “comfort zone” in that they were more extroverted and “out there.” My friend said, “well, maybe that’s not how you’re meant to express your faith.” Hearing that was such a relief! I embrace my quiet faith and know that while I am not outspoken in my beliefs, my actions speak volumes.

  • areyousaying

    Introverts and evangelicals don’t mix because evangelicals think they have direction from God to force themselves in everyone else’s life to evaluate, investigate, judge, condemn, convert and control them.They just can’t leave others alone as evidenced by the political agendas of Glenn Beck Christians who want the rest of us to kowtow to the Holy Scriptures they have carefully cherry-picked to justify their intolerance.

  • olwage

    Africa is by nature gregarious and non-private. But it also contains more or less equal parts of extroverts and introverts. With all respect to American evangelicalism, it is coming over as America’s dominant expression of faith; and the impression is that the louder, the more up front, the more extrovert… the more spiritual. Quiet people are ‘bound in their spirit’, ‘not free’ (the Holy Spirit will set you free, brother!) and less useful. Entire tribes (like the San, who are by nature reticent) feel overpowered, though sometimes someone may imitate the triumphalism. This topic is important, as it identifies yet another of those human attitudes that override the simplicity of the Gospel.

  • msrad47

    Thank you for this article. I am a female evangelical believer and an introvert. One of my inner conflicts is the fact that followers of Jesus are supposed to love people, and honestly, I am uncomfortable around people I don’t know. I am a bit older (53) and can feel that the tendencies to shy away from people have grown more pronounced. Give me a good book any day of the week.

  • jp17

    I think this article brings up an important point. We might remember that the Desert Fathers, if not introverts, certainly did not encourage interaction.I am Catholic. We attempted to install greeters. It just fell flat.I think extroverts coming into churches will find their own ways. Introverts will too. It just might take them longer. Smiles and hellos should be enough to begin with.