by Tina Boyd
Editor’s Note: This post is a product of the Communicating the Gospel to Youth class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary.
The leader closes out the worship service in prayer. As he prays, the lights are gradually brought back up from dim to full. He says “Amen,” and everyone opens their eyes, blinking to accommodate the lighting change. The leader makes announcements about activities that are coming up for the next week, and finishes with the same words he says every week: “Thanks again for being with us; dessert is in the back!” Thus the room erupts in a sea of energy and activity. People beeline it to get the sweet stuff and spend anywhere from another thirty minutes to a few hours talking, catching up, making plans, and dissecting the sermon.
One girl, however, is not buzzing all around the room talking to people. She stands on the outskirts of a group here and a group there, timid and awkward and helpless. She tries to hold out as long as her friends, smiling and making eye contact with people and muttering phrases out of courtesy to pass as active listening. But before long, she ends up finding herself retreating to the safe confines of her home not far away. Yet she comes back week after week. Why?
Well, I might be able to shed some insight here, especially seeing as this young woman was me. Oh, and if you thought this story was from my youth group days, well then you’d be wrong. These gatherings were the worship services for the college campus ministry in which I was involved. And the reason I suffered, sometimes gracefully, other times not, through the social time at the end was because of how much I loved the music and teaching of the service itself. Yet, there was this expectation set forth that if you were going to be at the worship service, then you would participate enthusiastically in the social time after the service as well, and that, I think is where I find reason to pause.
The Slow Destruction of Introverts
What do a group’s programmatic demands, stated or unstated, communicate to its participants, in ministry in general, but specifically in youth ministry? How can our programming styles in ministry in fact be miscommunicating the gospel, or neglecting opportunities for its participants to truly encounter the Gospel, specifically with regard to a group of quietly prevalent people that our culture would classify with the title “introverts?”
Why do we feel like we have to make time in the middle of a service to turn around and greet the people around us? Why is it normal to have snacks out after church to create a space for people to congregate and spend time talking to one another? Why is it that people are either the big personality in the room or wish they could be the big personality in the room? Why is it that you have to preach at a worship service or do something on stage during worship to really be respected as a leader? How come we are expected to never run out of things to say? Why in ministry are we expected to be around people all the time? Susan Cain offers us an answer: she argues that we are living in a society that is governed at every level by the “Extrovert Ideal.” It wasn’t always this way, she explains. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Cain walks her readers through history, shedding light on a previous era that focused more on character and inward qualities, and then reveals to readers how this attitude evolved over time to what we have now.
After reading her description of what the Extrovert Ideal values, and the ways that has formed the way our society operates, I found myself struck with what she exposes. As an introvert myself, so many of my struggles growing up came to make sense in light of things such as a school or work day being surrounded by people and collaboration. Of course I wanted to spend evenings after a long school day vegging out in my room instead of continuing to be around people. And yet I often felt guilty about doing the very thing I needed to do to be present with people at other points in the day. Cain reveals how in everything from the way classrooms are set up to the extracurricular activities and skills that are most valued, extroversion, gregariousness, and confidence are the cream of the crop.
We pack schedules full of as much opportunity for interaction as possible, and even provide classes for those who find this area to be a weakness, such that they can resolve their “issues.” And when it comes time to apply for various job positions, you better have the personality to back up your credentials. Introverts can easily get lost in this, and yet they shouldn’t especially since about a third to a half of the people in America are introverts, (Cain 3-4). So essentially, what we’ve done is created a culture where for one out of every two or three people it is socially unacceptable and inappropriate for that person to embody the core of who he or she is. We’ve made introversion into something of a sin to be hidden behind plastered smiles and forced excitement. And it is slowly destroying introverts and the creativity and leadership they bring to the table.
Making Space for Introverts to Encounter God
For those of us in student ministry, Susan Cain’s work contains an important message we would do well to listen to. I feel pretty confident in making the blanket statement that most youth or student ministries hope for students to encounter God somewhere in the midst of their ministries: a particularly meaningful small group meeting, a worship service, a mission trip, a sermon, a dinner after an intense game of dodgeball. However, as I’ve poured over the marks of the Extrovert Ideal, I’ve come to notice how this has seeped into even how we design our programming. I find myself asking a possibly scandalous question: where in our ministries are introverts supposed to encounter God? Do we make that space? How are our students supposed to hear the still small voice of God with so many activities happening and so many people around all the time? What is at stake when we don’t provide space for students, introverted or extroverted, to practice being alone with God? What are those students going to do 10 years later when they are no longer surrounded by their community, when they are in a new city alone, and have no idea how to hear the voice of God in their midst?
We have a pastoral responsibility to minister to students and families as they are, as God created them, not as our society tries to make them to be. Part of the way we can begin to transition in to this way of thinking is through discerning what our youth and students are passionate about, and what, if anything, we are doing to foster those passions. Susan Cain advises parents of introverted kids to “be alert to [their] enthusiasm and cultivate them,” (Cain 347). She explains that introverted people tend to be created with intense passions that they stick to. While it is of course important for parents to do this, there is a word of wisdom for youth ministers, too. We have a responsibility to be looking and listening for the perhaps muted passions of our students, and locking in on them to be cultivated and encouraged as well.
I have come to learn that every ministry is different, that the essence of a given ministry flows out of the personality of the man or woman who runs it. However, no matter what your personality, I would suggest a careful reading of Susan Cain’s, book, or at least a listen to her 19 minute TED talk as you begin to re-imagine your ministry as a tool to subvert this Extrovert Ideal and revolutionize the programming we offer our students. It could be as simple as a place for a quiet time each day on your overnight or extended retreats. Not “go play in your rooms so the leaders can nap” quiet time, but time where the students have a devotional book and Bible and take time each day to spread out on their own and study and meditate on the scripture, pray, reflect, listen, etc. These were always a major formative part of trips for me, and where I heard (and hear) God the most clearly. This even points back to the character of Jesus as he often withdrew away (or at least tried to withdraw away) to interact with God more personally.
Maybe we could also be more intentional about grouping students into twos or threes instead of big massive groups where introverts might instinctively draw inward. Maybe we can somehow make space for students, in those smaller groupings to meet together and discuss the deep issues that are important to them. Maybe we can be gracious and not force people to talk when they don’t want to talk. And maybe we can stop treating the introverts in our lives like they have some sort of issue, or (my personal favorite) that they “don’t like being around people” (they do like being around people, just not ALL the people). Let’s instead begin orienting our ministries towards treating our introverts as beloved children of God who have incredible gifts and passions to offer the world, if the world could just stop talking for a minute and listen.
Tina Boyd is a 2015 graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and Memphis Theological Seminary. She is the youth minister at St. James Episcopal Church in Greenville, SC.