Christian Community for Introverts

“Outside the Church there is no salvation,” wrote John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed Christian movement in Geneva in the sixteenth century.  In this statement, the reformer emphasizes the communal nature of those who belong to the Christian faith.  Salvation, for Calvin, was not a private matter between the individual and God but a communal life carried out in the Church. Calvin’s emphasis comes from his reading of scripture.  Looking through the Old Testament we see God’s continued call to the people of Israel as a covenant community which far exceeds individual callings (Genesis 28:10-15; 2 Chronicles 7:13-16; Isaiah 43:1-4 to list a few).  That communal emphasis continues strongly in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Paul, where the apostle describes the Church as a body (1 Corinthians 12:12, Romans 12:5, Ephesians 4:4 to name a few places).  Each member has a unique identity and role, but that role can only be carried out in the context of the larger community.  The other popular image for the Church is a family (Galatians 3:26, 1 Timothy 3:15) which is also a communal image, one built on relationships across generations and genders. What does this mean, therefore, for introverts, those for whom social interaction is more draining than life-giving, where reaching out and meeting new people produces deep anxiety, where being told you need to start attending a Bible study or coming to more fellowship events elicits feelings of guilt and shame?  Even more poignantly, what does this mean for those with diagnosed social anxiety “disorders” (not a great name by the way) which necessitate medication and psychotherapy? I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, how a church community can include those who, by the shape of their personality or because of diagnosed conditions, are not able to participate in the hand-holding, hugging and kissing, laughing and eating social structures of the church.  I’m afraid we commit a grievous sin if we continually pull and prod and push these folks into communal religious settings where a deeper relationship with God is farthest from their minds and the nearest exit doors are their primary focus. I admit my struggle to contemplate this truth because I am one who draws great strength, comfort, and energy from the communal elements of Church.  I leave worship or fellowship activities or mission events energized about all the people I had the chance to speak with and hear from.  It is counterintuitive to my nature to leave quiet people alone, trusting that they are comfortable on their own and that my presence is more intrusive than helpful. But my former college professor of theatre theory, Dr. Dave Mason, wrote a recent blog post regarding the struggles some experience when trying to engage the transcendent in communal worship.  Reflecting on his own personality and his experiences among Hindu communities in India, Dr. Mason writes, “The imaginative (re)vision of the cosmos that religion offers does not reside, essentially, in Sunday socializing.  Indeed, often the Sunday socializing and the conformity that it demands obscures the genuine encounter with eternity that religion offers.  The social structure that church imposes on us too often makes us deaf to creation’s music.” (Read more: I will admit that is not my experience.  I encounter eternity in the hugs and laughs and meals and stories and meetings and services of the Church.  At the same time, though, I know for others that those social structures inhibit a true encounter with the Divine, and in the case of mental illness actually drive people deeper into depression or chronic anxiety. And so I confess that I do not know how we hold to a robust theology of Church as a “body,” a communal representation of Jesus Christ to the world and acknowledge the struggle of the quiet ones among us and those struggling with social anxieties.  I’m not sure how we minister together well in that diversity.  For now I’m trying to begin with respect, recognizing that some people need space, remembering that many people need time to process new ideas for themselves, and there are people struggling with mental illnesses that require them to be physically removed from the community for their personal well-being. I would encourage us all to consider how we participate collectively in the community of Christ in such a way that all God’s children find space, welcome, encouragement, and love.