Thursday, September 01, 2016

Church for Introverts

My father asked me the other day what a church for introverts would look like. I found that a little odd, seeing as how I always pictured him as an introvert. Maybe 40 years as a pastor has left him less in touch with his introvert nature, but, but I certainly get why he'd ask me. And I don't think he's really asking what a church "for" introverts would look like, but probably more what a congregation could do to better welcome introverts and make them more at home in communal life.

Let's face it, most congregations out there are not appealing to introverts. Most congregations aren't all that appealing to people under 60 at this point, but that's an entirely different issue. Church tends to be about social convention as much as anything else - it's a place to see people, have a conversation or, on the other ends, a place to slip into and out of quietly. You're either interacting or you're not.

That's part of the problem right there, though. Introverts don't like superficial interaction. The whole "How's work? Some weather we're having..." kind of talk is just not something an introvert wants to expend their social energy on. Interactions that feel like they won't go anywhere are probably non-starters - which is unfortunate, because that's usually where social convention dictates relationships start. It's certainly pretty common to maintain those superficial relationships in a church, because Christians these days (at least US Christians) have a real difficult time getting past those relationships. Christian life is supposed to be one of intimacy and vulnerability - life together is really supposed to look like life together - but it rarely is.

Maybe the first step in making a safe (or desirable) place for introverts is a congregation challenging itself to more depth and intimacy. There are a lot of ways to do that - and no relationships is really "easy" for an introvert to enter - but making it known, by words (and more importantly) by actions, that a congregation is intentional about prioritizing trust and vulnerability would go along way. Congregations have become pretty used to setting a low bar for participation - and I think that's good (a sense of belonging is crucial for inclusion of new members in any community) - but there's a real difference between good hospitality and low accountability. Parsing that out is important.

The first thing I thought of when asked this question, though, was something very practical: embracing a traditional "Passing of the Peace." Growing up, this was always named in the order of service, even though it was really just "greeting time." Lately, many congregations have changed the actual name to "fellowship or greeting," and even those congregations who keep the traditional name have essentially made it greeting time.

That's a natural progression - most people are more comfortable saying, "Hi, how's your week?" than "Peace be with you," or "Peace of Christ." But, as an introvert, having a specific liturgical greeting is both comforting and important. I don't like starting conversations and I don't like having to come up with things to talk about (see above). Having a very specific message and response is helpful. I can interact with people in a predictable way, knowing what to say and what someone else will say. It's welcoming. (Speaking of which, I think specifically saying "Welcome to worship," even for people who are regular attenders is really important theologically - it helps remind ourselves that everyone is indeed welcome. Combining welcome and peace always makes sense to me.)

Yes, it's a lot more formal and less like typical conversation, but I think that's also part of the point. We're forcing a bit of depth and intimacy on each other in this way. "How're you doing" is something you'd say to a stranger in the hardware store - "Peace by with you," brings with it a complex series of issues that Christians should be engaging with together. It encourages the kind of community many congregations struggle to form, plus it helps facilitate interactions with which introverts are more comfortable. #winwin

I know there are more ways in which congregations can adapt and change to better include those who aren't immediately amenable to what's become the typical way of doing corporate worship. There's lots of room for inclusion of people well beyond introverts. It's something important, even vital to think about and work towards. A seminary classmate of mine introduced me to a concept years ago that I've adopted to include along with vision casting - she called it "outcasting," a fitting reminder that we must constantly be conscious of those who aren't in our group, to specifically seek out and consider the opinion of the "other" or the "outcast." This is an important reminder and practice for any congregation looking to be more hospitable and inclusive.

Every situation is different, but hopefully this is a good start down the avenue of consideration - for introverts and others who may have not been traditionally considered in the construction and execution of our communities.

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