An Introvert in the Church
Is the LDS church compatible with everyone’s temperament, or does it cater to certain kinds of personalities?
I’m currently reading Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. As an introvert, it has been an interesting and helpful read. It discusses what makes introverts unique and successful, and how we function in a world that tends to cater to extroverts. One of the questions the books poses is: how does religion cater to introverts and extroverts. I’m running off a definition of introverts drawing energy from being alone, preferring to work independently, and feeling uncomfortable with crowds and people they don’t know and extroverts drawing energy from others, preferring to work in groups and enjoying spending time with and meeting new people. Because introversion and extroversion are only one aspect of our personalities, we can’t say that church is good or bad for all introverts or extroverts. But I think it is an interesting discussion to have; how does the church cater to introverts and extroverts?
Cain uses the example of evangelical Protestantism to suggest that some religions cater to extroverts, leaving introverts feeling less worthy or useful in their churches. Some of what was said rang true for my experience in the Mormon church. Adam McHugh, an introverted evangelical pastor Cain interviewed said:
“The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion… The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that their not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like.’ It feels like ‘God isn’t pleased with me.’”
After reading this, I started to consider what aspects of Mormonism cater to extroverts. The first example I thought of was the expectation that all young men serve a mission. With the change in the mission age, there seems to be higher expectations for women to serve as well. For an introvert, the call to serve a mission can be terrifying. (At least it was for me when I was considering it.) The notion that you will spend your time talking to people you don’t know, knocking on doors of strangers that probably don’t want to talk to you makes me squirm. But the policy that all young men must serve a mission puts introverts in a quandary. Either they spend years in a state of high anxiety, or face the stigma of not serving.
McHugh said of evangelical church services “Everything in the service involved communication… Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing. There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation.” This descriptions of worship also reminded me of LDS services. Often walking into Sacrament Meeting is slightly stressful for me. All I want to do is sit down quietly but instead I have to make small talk with the greeter and people who approach me. When I haven’t attended church in a while, this pressure to talk to people is even worse as people go out of their way to talk to me. They are trying to be nice, to fellowship as they have been taught, and it stresses me out. I rarely find God surrounded by other people; instead I find God when I’m alone with a book or music. So Mormon church and temple worship is not the best place for me to feel connected to God, although it does happen.
Other ways that Mormons might cater to extroverts include the emphasis on activities and ward functions for people of all ages, on “every member a missionary”, on worthiness interviews with near strangers. I see it in assigning all members to speak or pray in Sacrament meeting at least once in their lives, regardless of how comfortable they are with it. I see it in callings being assigned based on the needs of the ward rather than the needs and comfort of the members being called. I say this because often the bishop makes a calling without asking about the member’s circumstances or feelings, and there is a big taboo against refusing a calling. So introverts may be asked to be in leadership or teaching positions that they do not feel suited for and that will give them extreme anxiety, and they may feel they can’t say no even if saying no is in their best interest.
On the other hand, there are aspects of Mormonism that cater to introverts. Home and visiting teaching are chances for interaction in small groups. The church encourages personal prayer and scripture study, a process that could speak to introverts, allowing them to find God and spiritual fulfillment by themselves. The emphasis on family time allows introverts to spend time with those they feel comfortable with and not feel guilty about it.
In my experience, I feel the church leans towards catering to extroverts, with its expectations of public and social involvement. It can, of course, be good for people to learn new skills if they wish to. Learning to speak in public and to interact with strangers can be helpful. But is church the best place to learn those skills? Can fear brought on my certain expectations make it hard to worship? Is it right to expect all members to function the same way when Gad gave us widely different personalities? Does God want us all to turn into good speakers and cheerful small-talkers? Or is there value we are missing in the introverted members of our wards when we ask them to function like extroverts?
What is your experience? Are you an introvert or extrovert? How has that affected your experience at church? In what ways do you feel the church leans towards introversion or extroversion?