Church of the Merciful Exit

Posted on February 2, 2012


“You just travel around visiting churches?  By yourself?”   The college freshman who sat beside me at Holden Fellowship Church last Sunday was surprised I had the nerve to enter these places without some support.  This was her first visit  and she was mortified that the friend who promised to accompany her did not show-up.  She had no problem with the worship service; it was dark and she was anonymous.  But getting in and out of that dark room required dodging awkward questions from trolling evangelists.   She was an introvert in an extroverted church.  I doubted she would return.

I wrote a mostly positive REVIEW of my experience at Holden Fellowship.  I liked the preaching, the brochure, and the free T-shirt.  I was critical of an awkward praise band, eerie lighting and preachy prayer.   But my greatest insights came from this very brief encounter with a Worcester Polytechnic University bio-chem introvert.  The Reform Presbyterian from Philadelphia had visited four evangelical churches and did not feel comfortable in any of them but could not put her finger on why.

The 2009 book Introverts in Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture offers clues about why this young woman may yet find a home in one of the two-dozen large mainline churches she passed in Worcester on her way out to the suburb with her likely extroverted, evangelical friend.  Author Adam S. McHugh is a former college chaplain who finally embraced his introverted nature and settled more naturally into hospice chaplaincy instead. McHugh visited a rapid-paced contemporary service spewing an endless stream of words and reflected, “Never have I needed a nap so badly after church.”   He continued:

Introverts often feel more freedom in worship services that feature traditional liturgy than they do in ones that feature more open, informal, unstructured styles.  [In traditional churches there is] less expectation from worship leaders that participants will offer outward, emotional responses (190).

McHugh suggests that churches have bought into the myth, based on a reading of Acts 2,  that spiritual maturity is best expressed by constant togetherness (“everybody should be in worship and in a small group”), decisive responses to polemic arguments, and a willingness to share a personal testimony.  The WPI student felt safe in the anonymous dark and she likely appreciated that few participants of the Holden Fellowship Church raised their hands, clapped, or otherwise reacted externally to the experience.  But she dreaded the possibility that she would be stopped and questioned in the bright cafe.  And I suspect she disliked the pace of this service.

What can church leaders do for introverts?

  1. Sensitivity:  Worship leaders should make it clear that there are many acceptable ways to participate in worship ranging from celebration to contemplation.
  2. Scripture Lesson as Lectio Divina:  The congregation can be given better spiritual preparation for hearing the lesson and then offered the reading two or even three times, followed by space for contemplation.
  3. Open-Ended Questions:  Rather than teaching and preaching polemic messages, embrace mystery.
  4. Incorporate Silence:  Some churches offer up to two minutes after the sermon.

Finally, what can be done about the entrance and exit to worship?   My son came home from school recently and asked us if we knew how to dance.  Fearing an embarrassing set-up we asked him for more background.  His world geography teacher always plays music on the class computer between PowerPoint presentations and expects his 6th grade students to get up from their desks and dance.  The teacher decided to make a contest of it, so our son needed to step-up his game.  Was participation mandatory, we ask?   “Yes.”  He is an extrovert and was glad to perform the Bollywood routine gleaned from YouTube the night before.  But it should not be a mandatory exercise. ‘

It is not a failure for adults to attend worship and then dart out the back door without shaking  a single hand.  Hand-shaking and life sharing are not mandatory spiritual exercises.  In spite of so much advice around hospitality suggesting we position greeters at every door, priming every member to engage every new participant, perhaps we should label one door “Mercy” and let it swing freely, gracefully, for introverts.




Posted in: Changing Church