Now that I’m working as a hospital chaplain, I’m able to attend (rather than lead) worship on Sundays. My partner, Peter, and I have begun regularly attending church again.
The experience has reminded me how hard it is for introverts to ease into church life.
At the vast majority of our congregations, getting into the sanctuary on Sunday morning requires running a gauntlet of well-meaning greeters. Oh, the plight of the greeters! The church world is filled with stories of irate extraverts who arrived at church for the first time “and nobody even talked to us!” These stories are related like campfire ghost stories to hospitality committees across the nation. The result is often an over-eagerness to smile, greet, talk, invite, inform, and welcome every possible new arrival. If Sunday morning is a blind date between the congregation and first-time visitor, then greeters often exude the desperation and awkwardness of the more-eager party.
If only introverts and extraverts could enter through separate doors. Extraverts could be greeted by a cadre of enthusiastic conversationalists, while introverts could be welcomed by one quiet person murmuring a warmly dignified “Good morning.”
Peter and I tend to treat church arrival like a race to see who can get through first. No matter what time the service starts, I can guarantee you that on Sunday morning, it takes quite a bit of effort for us to make it to church at all, and what we want is to get inside, sit down, and enjoy some (hopefully) quiet time together before worship starts.
Our next dreaded moment is the “greet your neighbor” or “share the peace” time. Not all our congregations have such a moment in worship, but many of them do. I have always disliked this component of worship, even as I understand that worship is about being in community together. I have been at churches where, during this time, the people in front of me and the people behind me all turned to greet people in a different direction, so I was left with nobody to greet me. It also seems that the time frequently goes on too long, so instead of just having time to say “good morning,” we are left trying to make conversation, introducing ourselves by name, as if social hour has started.
With the close of worship comes another gauntlet of people to be faced, another race to exit the church. It’s not that we’re unfriendly (though I understand it may sound otherwise). It’s that we’re busy. Until I settle into my new work schedule, I’m not ready to deepen my involvement in the church community. For now, like so many people, we are Sunday attendees, and that’s all.
It doesn’t help that coffee hour after worship is overwhelming. At my home church, my friends and I clustered in one area on the patio, the same spot every Sunday, so we knew how and where to find each other. Without a set of friends to latch onto, coffee hour is an introvert’s nightmare, a cocktail party where you don’t know a single person.
My lazy internet research concludes that introverts make up somewhere between 25-50% of the population. (You can read more about introversion and extraversion here.) Whatever the numbers, it’s a huge amount. We can’t afford to repel 25% of our church visitors, or count on them to hang in there through the awkward getting-to-know-you phase of congregational life. I have always been attracted to large congregations, where I can enjoy a certain amount of anonymity and invisibility until I am ready to join in. But the majority of our congregations have fewer than 150 people attending on Sunday morning, and anonymity and invisibility isn’t an option.
I don’t know what the answer is. Usually after three or four visits, people begin to remember that they’ve seen Peter and me before, and he and I feel less new and start to relax. Maybe that’s just how it is. I appreciate it when there’s something structured after worship, a talk maybe, or a petition to sign, a table to go visit. Something to DO feels good to an introvert (which is what eventually makes us GREAT congregants, by the way). Small group ministry is a wonderful entry point.
At any rate, the next time you notice first-time visitors sneaking in and out of the sanctuary without a word to anyone, the folks who hurry out the door instead of turning toward the coffee and snacks, have a little sympathy. The energy of congregational life can be overwhelming. Hopefully the many blessings of what we have to offer outweigh the many challenges to receiving it.