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Features

Celebrating the introvert

Mark Tanner

With its impulse towards community and mass social action, Christianity could be seen as an extrovert's faith. But that would be a mistake, believes Mark Tanner, who cherishes the often-overlooked gifts of the introvert.

 

The word 'introvert' is often used as if it were a handicap or disability, implying self-obsession or overly-focussed introspection. We hear 'introvert' and think 'shy', 'withdrawn', or 'awkward'. This is not, though, what the word actually means.

Writer and self-professed introvert Susan Cain says it is hard to find a single water-tight definition, but she draws on Jung's insights that 'Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling'1 and she is the source of my preferred description of introverts, that they 'recharge their batteries by being alone'2.

Cain's work, her writing, her speaking (not least in her TED talks), and her 'Quiet Leadership Institute', is having an extraordinary effect, and this is not surprising when you consider the range of implications she highlights of introversion in today's world. Chapter 7 of 'Quiet', for example, asks 'Why did the Wall Street Crash and Warren Buffett Prosper?' Here she argues that introvert processing of risk is vital for the health of the financial sector. The call to engage with, and celebrate, introversion is about re-establishing patterns of health and balance which are vital to every part of our lives.

 

A VOCAL CHURCH

But what about the church? It would be easy to assume that the church's most dynamic moments are intrinsically extrovert because they reach outwards. Whether it's Trussell Trust Foodbanks providing for thousands of families or the remarkable rise in Credit Unions sparked by Archbishop Justin's famous stand against Wonga, there's little doubt that vocal Christians are making the world a better place by standing with the poor, the outcast, the voiceless, and the oppressed.

Moreover, much of the positive development in the church over the last 50 years seems extrovert. Alpha courses (and others) gather people in groups to discuss faith. Enthusiastic conferences, like Soul Survivor, Spring Harvest, Easter People or New Wine inspire tens of thousands of Christians each year. Home groups have blossomed, Cell Church flourishes, and the influence of the highly relational 'renewal movement' is vast. It is true that Cathedral congregations, and some other contemplative settings, have grown, but it can be hard to be an introvert leader in an missional church. I remember one young leader learning about introverts saying, in an astonished tone, 'I never realised they were introverts: I thought they just had no friends!'

I am convinced that healthy introverts are essential to a healthy church and needed by a hungry world. Some years ago, as we led a conference together, a friend told me she felt sorry for introverts, and the conversation which followed sparked my recent book: 'The introvert charismatic'. We introverts inhabit a rich and precious place, and introversion is nothing to be ashamed of.

Here then, is my own manifesto in celebration of introverts - some good reasons why the world needs a church that values introverts.

 

THE HEALTHY INTROVERT

A healthy introvert… is one with a strong and sustaining internal life. We have discovered that our energy is replenished in the quiet and deep place. We love to reflect and we need to withdraw. We need rhythm to sustain us, and often find that it is only in order and balance that we can survive in the chaotic socially tidal world we inhabit.

We fear the exhaustion that ensues when there is no respite from others, and the flattening experience of being swept along by an extrovert friend or community who unwittingly and uninvited trample freely on holy ground. We are wary of the shallowness and apparent insincerity of the world we are so often invited to inhabit…

Introverts live deeply and are drawn to wisdom. We wrestle and are not easily satisfied with half-answers. We notice the excluded and seek compassion. We are drawn to the quiet place of prayer and the silent battle of faith.3

The world desperately needs confident and healthy introvert Christians for a number of reasons. None of these is exclusive to introverts, and not all introverts will be able to do all of this. [Indeed, as Myers Briggs tests illustrate, we are not polar opposites, but all sit somewhere along a wide spectrum.] We should remember that introvert and extrovert can operate well in each other's sphere of comfort. It is simply that introverts bring these emphases, because this is how they tend to be 'wired.'

 

GOOD LISTENERS

In a complex and busy world, most people need a listening ear.

As Christians, we have a vital message to proclaim, but our message of grace, forgiveness, hope, freedom, and love cannot be heard by those who do not know themselves to be heard. Simply 'transmitting' the gospel (either in word or deed) at another person will not do; we are called into engaged relationship with real people when we share the love of Christ. Jesus challenges the deepest core of our being with a radical message of acceptance and transformation. The extraordinary transaction of grace that takes place when someone encounters Christ is not something that is received in monologue. People find Christ as they are compelled by His love and goodness, and this is usually accompanied by the simple grace of a Christian drawing alongside them and giving serious attention to the reality of their life.

Introverts incline towards listening well and paying attention. They don't need the stimulation of another person to validate their existence or recharge their own batteries. When they engage with another it can be uncluttered and altruistic. When intro-verts shake off the extrovert models ubiquitous in the Western world and rediscover the freedom of listening well, a remarkable door is opened for the world to withdraw far enough from the clamour of the every day and begin to notice the persistent knocking of the Christ at the door.

 

WISE THINKERS

In a shallow, demanding, and immediate world, we have a desperate need for wisdom.

Wisdom is the greatest and most overlooked of the spiritual gifts - that deep and applied knowledge of the ways of God. It is the holding of the Creator's hand and understanding the beating of the heart of creation. It is the mind of Christ and the living application of truth. Wisdom is speaking with the accent of the Father and seeing from the perspective of a child on his shoulders.

Wisdom understands and probes understanding. Wisdom makes knowledge look like an impatient upstart and delights in the nature of being… Wisdom is precious, and when faith can find security out of the limelight it can be nurtured. However, wisdom doesn't flourish in the glare of immediacy. It, even she, is precious and yet illusive. Developing wisdom takes time and desire, yearning and discipline. It is to be cherished where it is found.4

Introverts are drawn to the inner space and the search for wisdom. They process internally rather than in the cut and thrust of debate. They shape and hone wisdom, and whilst they might not offer it often, they are to be encouraged when they do. Plato is reputed to have said that 'wise men speak because they have something to say, fools because they need to say something'. Our world has enough of the latter. This brings me to my next observation.

 

CONSCIOUS OF LIMITS

The world needs people who know their limits and who trust the One who is without limits.

Introverts are overwhelmed with simple, and simplistic, responses to life's problems. Every day social media tells me how I can lose weight, grow more hair, or deal with debt. Pub conversations drip with certainty about everything from global warming, to education, to the faults evident in refereeing the match currently in progress.

We do certainty: people are convinced by it, wallets are opened by it, lives are changed by it - but it doesn't always work. Talk to the doctor who has to argue a patient out of a diagnosis found online, to the client mis-sold PPI, or the parent whose children need love not a 'solution'. We are enthralled to the armchair critics who have never so much as kicked a metaphorical football let alone hoisted a symbolic world cup.

Introverts are, it must be noted, in danger of creating their own inner worlds. However, when it comes to engaging with others they are always conscious that they are limited, and this self-aware limitation is vital. It is only in Christ that strength is found to engage with the issues of the world. We need more such Nouwenesque wounded healers who offer hope beyond themselves, love with a heart that is bigger than their own, and proffer a gospel centred upon something other than the latest ecclesial fad.

 

NOT SWEPT ALONG

Such a wounded healer knows the pain of the wound and the futility of false hope, which brings me to my final observation: The world needs those who are not swept along. Introverts are not all-wise, but because they process internally they are cautious about being drawn into space within which they have no control and where they do not know the boundaries. This is why introverts can appear intransigent in an argument, for example, and then emollient later. In the heat of discussion they know what they have previously processed and decided upon, and this conversation is an information gathering exercise. Alone, later, they will process what you have said to them, and their thinking will develop and change.

We need such 'brakes' in our society, particularly when everything is as urgent as it seems to be at the moment. Take the current debates about welfare, for an example. I am not going to pretend that I know the answers, but I am struck by the apparent polarity and the constantly adversarial nature of the argument. I know, from first-hand fellowship and observation in some of the parishes I have been privileged to serve, the terror of plummeting without a safety net, and the extraordinary honour and dignity of many who find themselves drawing on the resources set aside for their particular need.

 

BRAKING POWER

I also, though, know the reality of the 'benefit trap' with its dehumanising pressure simply to rely on others. I don't have a solution for the welfare state, although I am deeply grateful that we have it. What I am sure of, though, is that we will never find a compassionate and just solution by shouting at each other. We can believe everyone drawing benefits is a 'scrounger' if we choose to be swept along with one side of the debate; but in so doing we dehumanise and belittle 20.3 million UK families (2013 figures).

Alternatively we can write off those who have to balance the nation's books as 'heartless' and 'uncaring', which some of them might be, but they are still promulgating one of the world's most comprehensive systems of social security.

What we need, it seems to me, is those who refuse the power of rhetoric, particularly when that rhetoric dehumanises others, and engage instead with the reflective and prayerful process of truth-seeking. By the grace of God most of us are not forced into major decisions that grab the headlines, but how vital it is that we have reflective Christian thinkers even there.

Introverts often make very good orators. Others will be unnoticed, which is often the best place to be as a follower of our foot-washing Lord. Rarely will they be alone, for the world is nuanced and complex, and no two of them will be alike… but the world is a much better place because of introvert Christians; we need more of them, and they are to be celebrated.

 

Mark Tanner is the warden of Cranmer Hall, Durham University and author of The Introvert Charismatic: The Gift of Introversion in a Noisy Church (Monarch).

 

NOTES

1 Cain, S: Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking (Viking: 2012: Kindle Edition) Loc 225

2 Cain, ibid, Loc 227

3 c.f Tanner, MSA: The Introvert Charismatic (Monarch: Oxford: 2015) pp. 40-41

4 c.f. Tanner, ibid, pp. 165-167