A religion for the extrovert?

June 2nd, 2015
by Chris

Last Sunday, I heard a sermon in which was the comment “We have a sign on our door saying ‘No admittance except on party business'”. Had I heard it out of context, my first impulse would have been to walk up to the preacher’s house humming the Internationale.

However, the context was in a sermon around the theme of festivity; the encouragement was always to be in a state of communal celebration.

I’d prefer to be always in a state of cerebration. Actually, I mostly am in that state. The thing is, that isn’t because of any lack of wish to be happy or joyous – I’d love to be able to do that when in company with lots of others. The trouble is, I’m just not constructed that way.

On a Meyer-Briggs personality test, while three out of the four categories are ones which I have historically fallen on either side of the dividing line (I’m currently borderline between INTJ and INFJ, though I’ve occasionally registered as marginally S or P), I always register as an introvert, and where the test delivers a percentage, 85% is usual. This makes me really very introverted, such that contact with groups of people saps my energy quite quickly, and I need time alone to recharge (it’s the other way round for extroverts). As a quite separate issue, I’ve always tended towards social anxiety from an early age (and this isn’t always a characteristic of introverts, though they often go together) and for the last 20 years or so I’ve suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. The result of that is that in the presence of lots of people, particularly if it’s in an unstructured format, I feel ridiculously anxious and, truth be told, threatened. I can be in a group of old friends who pose no threat at all, and I still feel threatened.

This makes it extremely difficult for me to cope with communal celebration. In fact, it makes it impossible for me to enter fully into the spirit of the more free-form types of worship – the closer to charismatic things get, the less comfortable I become. That said, I currently attend an evangelical-charismatic Anglican church, which is a trial I put myself through every Sunday. I have reasons entirely unconnected with the style of worship for that, of course, but in addition I keep hoping that continual exposure will lessen the anxiety and allow me to be more festive, more celebratory in company.

In a previous post I mentioned that I seem immune to the forms of religious experience which are drawn from communal activity; while I suspect that having had a peak solitary mystical experience may have in effect burned into my psyche the pathways for that type of experience to the exclusion of others, a simpler explanation is that I’m very unlikely to have a significant religious experience when I’m very anxious (one of the things I find essential to the mystical contemplative path is the stilling of the mind and the emotions). Celebrations are loud and unpredictable and full of people, and all of those make me anxious.

The trouble is, I feel that this kind of exhortation from the pulpit is asking of me something I just can’t deliver, and making me feel that there’s something wrong with me – and this isn’t limited to church. Time and again I’ve found extroverts wondering why I shy away from large gatherings and encouraging me to be more outgoing, as if I were deliberately making a choice to be antisocial. I’ve become used to terms like “party-pooper”, “stick-in-the-mud” and “misery-guts”. It seems to me that the standard position of the extrovert is to think that everyone should be an extrovert, and if they aren’t either they’re deliberately being unpleasant or there’s something wrong with them. And it also seems to me that in order to be clergy in an evangelical setting, you have to be an extrovert.

And yet, as I understand it, around half the population are introverts rather than extroverts. Granted, I’m probably towards the maximum introversion consistent with actually functioning in society, but it seems to me that a church model which is going to make half the population uneasy and maybe ten to fifteen per cent acutely uncomfortable needs some thought, at the least.

So, why do I continue attending? Well, it seems that for the time being at least, this is where I can be most useful. Or, alternatively, this is where prayer has lead me, and it isn’t yet indicating going anywhere else. His ways are not our ways, it seems…

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