What Place for Introverts in the Church?
What we can learn from the example of Jonathan Edwards
Studies have shown extroverts were more likely to experience mental health problems during the lockdown. Thankfully we’re beginning to return to normal life.
Yet this brings new challenges — particularly for many introverts less enthusiastic about returning to the social aspects of Church life. But we can bring other gifts to the community. I will look to the example of Jonathan Edwards for inspiration on how introverts can contribute to church.
Introverts, extroverts and revival
God has always used people with a range of personalities and backgrounds. The Great Awakenings of the 18th Century were no different. John Wesley, a British evangelist and founder of the Methodist church, was an extrovert. He was cheerful and talkative to everyone he met.
He spent his life on the road preaching up and down the country. He drew large crowds with his storytelling and vivid illustrations. The thought of being settled in one place for him was intolerable.
Jonathan Edwards, on the other hand, was quiet and withdrawn among strangers. He was most comfortable in his study. His introverted personality enabled him to thrive spending long hours writing, thinking and preparing for sermons.
Edwards, like Wesley, was an effective and authoritative preacher but with a completely different style. Edwards’ gifts were the relentless logic of his well-crafted sermons. He was a deep thinker with a passion to see his congregation remain spiritually alive.
The “folksy” style of Wesley was key to his evangelistic success. But, according to the theologian JI Packer, Wesley’s writings were “not in the same league as Edwards’ exact explorations.” (Packer JI. The Glory of God and the Reviving of Religion. In, A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The legacy of Jonathan Edwards. Piper J and Taylor J)
Depth of Experience
Edwards has a reputation for writing dense theological works. This can make him seem like a distant and intimidating figure, a famous name from the past but of little relevance in our time.
But for Edwards, the heart was as important as the head. He thrived on experiencing the presence of God. As we have less difficulty engaging in extended reflection, introverts can often find it easier to carve out time to meet with God.
Edwards spent extensive time in prayer and meditation on the Scriptures often during walks or horse riding in the beauty of the New England countryside:
Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health… I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God… This grace, that appeared to me so calm and sweet, appeared great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception…I have several other times, had views very much of the same nature, and that have had the same effects. (A Personal Narrative. Works of Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings (Ed. George S. Claghorn), Volume 16: p801)
Working through depression
When we read these spiritual reflections we can get the impression that worshipping God came naturally to a spiritual giant like Edwards. But Edwards spent his life learning and practicing delight in God — in part because this was something he had to constantly work on.
As a tutor at Yale University, before his marriage and the start of his pastoral ministry, he wrote in his diary of a period of depression lasting three years. We know little of his spiritual struggles after he began his ministry in Northampton but he was known to have experienced periods of depression throughout his life.
As an introvert, I can identify with the delight of spiritual reflection that Edwards found, but also with the struggles of overthinking — that can lead to depression. John Stott (also an introvert), the late Rector of All Souls Langham Place, quipped about the influence of the Gospel on personality:
The Gospel doesn’t change our personalities. If you were an extrovert before you were converted, you’ll still be one afterwards. But you will be easier to live with!
If you were an introvert before you were converted, you’ll still be an introvert. But you will find it easier to live with yourself! (Sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:7–12).
Depth of relationships
The social networks of extroverts are often wider than introverts. But, introverts can be effective at cultivating deep relationships. Jonathan Edwards was loved dearly by those who were close to him. His last words were of love for his wife:
He whispered to one of his daughters… give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue for ever: and I hope she will be supported under so great a trial, and submit cheerfully to the will of God. (Marsden GM. Jonathan Edwards: a life. New Haven: Yale University Press, p495)
He was also known for hospitality and developed strong friendships. For example, David Brainerd (the famous missionary to Native Americans) was nursed through illness and exhaustion at the end of his short life at the Edwards home.
Challenges of Diplomacy
Edwards was by no means an easy man to get along with. As a Yale student, he was an outsider not widely liked by his fellow students. His intellectual gifts, combined with strong conviction, led him to be perceived as proud and intolerant by his opponents throughout his life.
His dismissal from the Northampton church, where he spent most of his life, displays both sides of Edwards’s personality. He was admirable as a man of principle determined to be faithful to the word of God but also stubborn and lacking in diplomacy. Although he was to point out only Christians are take communion, he announced this policy abruptly and without tact. The congregation responded by firing him.
This was not an isolated incident. The turning point seems to be six years earlier, when Edwards offended prominent families with clumsy handling of an incident involving the church youth. According to the historian and biographer, George Marsden, conflict and protests immediately ensued along with lingering resentment.
Relations between Edwards and his church gradually became ever more strained as regular questions (unfairly) were raised about his salary and lifestyle. Much of the influence he had earned, through his preaching and the times of revival, had sadly been lost for good.
Edwards is a one-off. We can’t repeat his life. There are also aspects of his life that we should not want to repeat. Yet I think there are several lessons fellow introverts can learn from him:
- God made our different personalities: Just as He used Wesley’s extroversion He also used Edwards’ introversion to further His Kingdom. He will do the same with us.
- Enjoy encountering God: Being able to spend time alone is an introvert superpower! We’ve learnt that from the lockdown, but we can also use that gift to grow deeper in our knowledge and experience of God.
- Fewer but deeper relationships: We don’t have to compete with extroverts for who has the largest social network. We can enjoy the relationships we have and work on being a blessing to the people we are close to.
- Not allowing problem relationships to fester: extroverts are fantastic at proactive problem-solving. Introverts can get stuck in our thoughts. So let’s try to learn this from our extrovert brothers and sisters.