Sunday, 26 January 2014

Quiet: Reflections on Discipleship for Introverts

For a variety of reasons, I’ve not blogged since late last year. In part this has been because I’ve not had much to write about, though the main reason has been the frenetic run up to Christmas followed by a busy January. But in recent weeks I’ve been provoked to thought by Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet, and all the implications it raises for discipleship and church life.

I realise I’m late to this particular party. Cain’s ideas first received widespread media attention nearly two years, as a result of this TED talk which pithily summarises many of the ideas in her book. Quiet’s key argument is that we place too much value on extrovert personality, allowing ourselves to be dominated by talkative, overly confident leaders, to the exclusion of less shouty and more reflective characters. Early in the book, for example, Cain provides an extended description of the teaching techniques of Harvard Business School, with a heavy emphasis on group working skills and confident performance that has bred several generations of mostly alpha male leaders of US corporations.

It’s also interesting to note that the preference for a charismatic and extrovert leader isn’t restricted to the world of business: Cain also writes about the high proportion of outgoing church leaders in US evangelical churches, drawing on the research of pastor Adam McHugh who notes that in such congregations, “The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programmes and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that there not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing as well as l’d like.’ It feels like, ‘God isn’t pleased with me.’”

I’ve been mulling over the implications of Cain’s book with regard to discipleship and the local church. What follows is more a list of questions than answers, a sort of thinking aloud as I work through my own response to these issues.
  1. How can we recover an emphasis on the need to be alone with God in the inner room? How many people in our churches are neglecting time alone with God, in the very place Jesus instructed us to go to pray, because of the need to sustain programmes and go to meetings? Cain notes that quiet times aren’t just needed by introverts for recharging their batteries, but are essential for the creativity of many people, quoting the advice of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak for inventors everywhere: ‘Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.’ I’m not suggesting we cancel all our midweek meetings and encourage a hermit-lifestyle for all our members, but do people in our churches feel they even have the permission to spend time by themselves?
  2. What does this mean for the expectations we have of our leaders? I’m often aware of the desire of some people in church that I be available to give them my time and attention, but I wonder how many people appreciate my need to be alone on their behalf. Isn’t this part of my calling as well, to be the person who spends time studying and reflecting on behalf of those he serves? If you haven’t seen your minister recently, it may not be the case that they’re taking it easy, they may actually be doing a far better job for you than you could ever imagine. Sermons can’t be hurriedly produced with a few spare hours grabbed here and there, they need to be gestated and then carefully birthed, all of which requires seclusion.
  3. Have we traded in meaningful dialogue for group work? Again, I don’t want to be misunderstood on this issue, especially as I’m someone who believes passionately in the value of multi-voiced church. But I felt uncomfortable when reading of Cain’s concern about the emphasis of group work in education, how introverted children struggle in our schools because they’re forced to undertaken extensive group work, at the expense of learning alone. I cringed when reading her account of the group learning at Harvard, and its tendency to give prominence and privilege to those who speak loudest and most frequently, leaving little or no opportunity to hear from those who may actually have the better ideas. What does mean for many of our churches where one of the primary modes of discipleship has become the house group? Are our conversations dominated by the wisest people or just the most talkative? Could more be achieved by liberating introverts to spend more time in smaller groups of two or three people, where they would have a safer space in which to reflect and share their insights with each other?

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