Monday, December 28, 2009

Introverted Missions

Pictured above is a corner of the bookstore at Urbana '09, currently taking place. To have my book sandwiched between Henri Nouwen books is a little surreal. 

Strong introvert that I am, I still find myself wishing I were at Urbana, the colossal international missions conference put on by InterVarsity every 3 years in St. Louis (it used to be in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois).  I had hoped to be invited to lead a seminar on introverts and missions, but it didn't happen this year.   

Urbana '03 was probably the most extroverted conference I have ever been to.  Around 20,000 people flood the convention center - most of them very energetic college students - and the week was absolutely packed with events, seminars, communal meals, Bible studies, and corporate worship with an international flavor. Urbana culminates with 20,000 people celebrating the Lord's Supper at midnight on New Years Eve, which had to be the most incredible worship experience of my life.  I couldn't help thinking that it was a preview of the supper of the Lamb. 

I went as a college pastor, and I found myself begging off a few events to find some introvert time.  Probably the most brutal element of that week was that I had to share a room with a stranger.  He was a great guy, but he was an extrovert and wanted to review the day with me in the evening.  There were very few places of sanctuary for me, and it probably took me a week to recover from the conference. 

But I am deeply grateful for that conference, because it came at a pivotal point in my life and ministry.  I was there to help 20 college students from my church to discern God's call in their lives, but early on in the week, I realized that I too needed to hear from God.  My position at my church was ending and I had absolutely no idea what was coming next.  As I opened myself up to listen during that week, I heard a distinct call - confirmed in several ways - to join InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as a staff member at my alma mater, Claremont McKenna College.  God's hand in that decision has only been confirmed over the years, as through that ministry I was ordained by the PCUSA and I also developed relationships with editors at InterVarsity Press, which led to the eventual publishing of Introverts in the Church.

I really wish I had been asked to lead a seminar at Urbana this year, because I would love to interact with introverts who are considering, or currently participating in, world missions.  While I served for 3 years as a pastor-missionary with InterVarsity, serving a group of Christian college students and partnering with them in reaching out to the seekers around them, my international missions experience is limited to a summer in college, when I spent a few months trekking through Mexico City and Chiapas with a few other Claremont students.  In my book I talk about how draining that time was for me.  This was before I had acknowledged and embraced my introversion, and I couldn't figure out why I was tired pretty much the entire summer.  I thought it was poor diet, the heat, or illness, but I realize now that I had, and took, very little time to recharge on my own during those months.  I found Mexican culture to be tirelessly extroverted, and people often mistook me for being "enojado" (angry) because I wasn't as expressive as the extroverts in our group.

My friend Kent Annan is a missionary in Haiti and just wrote a fantastic book called Following Jesus Through the Eye of a Needle (seriously, this guy can write - Brian McLaren put him in a category with Donald Miller and Lauren Winner). Actually, as a quick aside, Kent and I lived on the same floor in seminary for an entire year, about 75 feet apart, and never once talked.  Can you tell we're both introverts?!  But now we've connected through IVP and exchanged a few emails.  Kent is reading Introverts in the Church right now, and he sent me this email recently:
Haiti is not a place for introverts. I love it here, but it is intensely social from rising to sleeping--and, now that I think of it, also while sleeping since the roosters go all night, apparently never getting the "sunrise" cock-a-doodle-doo memo.
In the book I give all kinds of strategies for helping introverted Christians and leaders to navigate Christian community, and to worship, lead, pray, relate, and evangelize as themselves. But I wonder if those same strategies are effective for introverted missionaries? In cultures that are even more extroverted than the United States - I'm thinking of Latin America, India, Africa, etc - how do introverts survive? Are any of you in missions out there? What are your experiences?

Monday, December 21, 2009

A rare honor

Last week, Introverts in the Church made Scot McKnight's list of the best books of 2009.  Scot McKnight is a New Testament scholar, prolific blogger and author, and an expert on church and culture, so I am deeply honored.  My friend Jim Belcher's book, Deep Church, also made the list.  You can find Scot's list here:

Jesus Creed Best Books of 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Introverted Interviews

Mark Roberts posted the second of a two part interview with me today, and will be reviewing my book tomorrow. Among others questions, he asks me whether introverts can be effective evangelists and what advice I would give to introverted seminarians considering the pastoral ministry. 

Interview with Mark Roberts Parts One and Two
Mark's Book Review Part One and Two

Rhett Smith also posted the second part of a two part interview today.  He asked me very different kinds of questions, like what I think about social media and online church for introverts.  Part One includes his review of the book. 

Interview with Rhett Smith Parts One and Two

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent for introverts (and extroverts)

The Ooze let me reprint an article I wrote for their December newsletter.

A Counter-Cultural Quiet

For some people, the Advent season on the church calendar is one of the most anticipated times of the year. For some, there is no other time in which their love of God is stronger, there is no other time in which they are more aware of God’s mercy in their lives and in the world, there is no other time in which their hearts go out to others with such affection, and there is no other time in which their joy is more profound.

I am not one of those people.

For me this time of year has always been a spiritually dry time. There is a line in a Counting Crows song that says “You can see a million miles tonight, but you can’t get very far.” That is my experience during this season. Every year I anticipate it with everyone else, hoping that this year will be different. Maybe this year the earth shattering experience of God will take place, and I’ll be able to take in the seismic joy that should result from the knowledge that God entered the course of human history to reclaim it as his own. But by December 26th, I’m left with disappointment, another year of not getting very far.

I experience a deep division within myself during Advent. My inner world stirs with longings for deep experiences of grace, for moments of pregnant silence, for times of candlelit reflections on the fullness of deity wrapped in a child. But my outer world is harassed by the rampant activity, the hurried crowds, and the consumeristic clutter of the season.

I think my personal division reflects a broader cultural division. I’m willing to suspend my cultural cynicism for a moment and speculate that at the root of American consumer Christmas is a deep seated desire for meaning. I may be way off on this, but I suspect the decorations, the music, the saturated social calendars, the capitalistic flurry, and the caloric overload are attempts at finding something true, something significant. Hopes for discovering community and transcendence. There is a neighborhood near my own that puts on an unbelievable show of lights, music, and decorations for the weeks leading up to Christmas. Cars line up for blocks to meander through the illuminated streets and residents sit in their driveways around firepits and chat with the passersby. Aside from laying a carbon footprint likely visible from outer space, it is a powerful display of community spirit.

The problem, I think, is that our culture doesn’t know how to truly celebrate. Overconsumption and overstimulation are the only ways we know how to mark a special occasion. Even though most of implicitly know it doesn’t work and that we’re going to wake up with a hangover, it’s all we know how to do. When there is a significant event, we commemorate it by scurrying around, spending absurd amounts of money, gathering a crowd, and turning up the volume. If we’re not weighed down by anxiety and insomnia, then it must not be a very important occasion. Our holiday “celebrations” therefore seem destined to only get bigger and bigger, because we have built up such a tolerance.

Many of us in the church live in the tension of this religious and cultural ambivalence. Our Christmas eves are often a confusing recipe of ingredients like these: the onslaught of relatives, massive food preparation, stressful and boisterous dinners, hurrying everyone into the car, attending a hot, packed Christmas eve worship service in which we light candles, and sing lyrics like:

Silent night, holy night

All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Then we rush home, hustle the kids into bed so we can finish wrapping gifts and stuffing stockings, because they’ll be up in 5 hours. Sleep in heavenly peace indeed.

I was asked to write about this topic because I just published a book about Christian introverts, those in the church who prefer a quieter, slower, more contemplative lifestyle and who, for those reasons, often find themselves on the fringes both of the culture and of Christian community. I saw a blog post recently that called January 2nd “Happy Introverts Day” because of the notorious nature of the holiday season for those of us who find social interaction tiring and sometimes stressful. But the truth is that the need for a quieter, less cluttered, more reflective Advent season is not restricted to introverts. The clatter of the holidays has caused people of all temperaments to turn from the inner places of our souls, contributing to the superficiality of our spiritual practice during this season. We need to find a new way to celebrate.

In the early centuries of the Church, celebrating Christmas was a counter-cultural activity. It’s unclear whether the church fathers chose December 25th to co-opt the already entrenched pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun, or whether the pagan holiday was established to rival the Church’s celebration of the birth of Christ. What is clear is that Christmas was a subversive event, providing an alternative to the mainstream culture’s celebration.

In our world, quiet is counter-cultural. I’m not only referring to quiet on the outside, but also quiet on the inside. In fact, it may be easier to shut out the external voices than it is to silence the internal noise. It’s often those inner voices, especially the unacknowledged ones, that compel us to fill our lives with movement and agendas and spending and eating. Our behaviors and hurry are echoes of our inner doubts about our worth. Sadly, in many ways the nature of our holiday celebrations reveal how incompletely we have embraced the actual message of Christmas.

In contrast to the dizzying nature of our cultural celebrations, the biblical narratives about Jesus’ birth speak in hushed tones about simple, unsophisticated scenes. The baby of prophecy, the King of kings, is born in a quiet town in an inconsequential region to unremarkable people and placed in a trough in a barn. Yet by the grace of God this spot becomes the center of the universe, the matrix of hope and redemption and salvation. The quiet, ordinary place becomes the beginning of the dramatic climax of the great Story. The birth of Jesus incarnates the promise that we are not alone and that we are loved beyond measure, recipients of a love that brings peace and stillness to our souls.

The birth of a child is both a time of poignant gratitude and a time of quiet anticipation. I remember how friends of mine described the day they brought their first child home from the hospital. They placed him in his crib, in the room they had been preparing for months, and watched him sleep. For hours they sat in contented silence. My friend said “It was unlike any other moment in my life. It was the greatest moment of love we’d ever experienced, more intimate than even our wedding night. There was nothing else in the world we needed that day - we had everything.” Yet he also said that as he looked into his son’s eyes, he was full of anticipation. Who will my son be? What will he do in his life? Who will he marry? What will be his gifts, his calling? Like Mary the mother of Jesus, my friends stored up these things in their hearts and silently wondered who their child would become.

Advent is not only a season of reflection on events past. It is a season of quiet hope, as we await the second advent of our Lord Jesus, who will come and complete his reclamation project. Our celebration during this time of year is necessarily incomplete. In this season we must prepare small, quiet places in our individual souls and in our communities, still longing and waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus’ work and the rebirth of creation.

I’m still struggling with Advent, still reaching for something that I haven’t found yet. I do know that if there is any chance for deep experiences of God’s grace and love in this season, we need to open spaces for hope and attentiveness in our hearts. We can’t compel God to move, but we can clear away what distracts us from hearing his gentle voice. We can reduce the external clutter of the season by simplifying our celebration. We can slowly savor the biblical prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and the narratives about Jesus’ birth. We can devote time to silence and solitude as well as to corporate celebration. We can learn to say “no” when we find ourselves spinning from all the invitations and seasonal stimuli. We can listen to the voices of people who are not often heard over the cultural shouting – the poor, the hungry, the suffering around the world. We can prepare a quiet place for God to renew his love and rebirth his hope in us.

Adam McHugh is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of the newly published Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture (IVP Books, 2009).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More links

Scot McKnight is leading a discussion of Introverts in the Church on his blog Jesus Creed today: Introverts in a Church for Extroverts

I wrote the feature article for the December newsletter of The Ooze. It's on a quieter kind of Advent and it's called "A Counter-Cultural Quiet."

Are you everywhere but really nowhere? Rhett Smith posts an excerpt of Introverts in the Church about personal technology and identity.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I couldn't resist

This review comes from Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books

Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture  Adam McHugh (IVP) $17.00  Just when I thought that there really couldn't be much else written about the local congregation and doing church, along comes--rather quietly, and belatedly, since he's an introvert---this spectacular new book by an ordained Presbyterian minister who is a spiritual director and introvert.  This isn't a gag or a light-hearted spoof, but a very serious study of community, graciousness, hospitality, and how some among us find it very challanging to be active in a noisy, outgoing, active congregation.  Who knew?  Marva Dawn insists on the back that "this is a book that every church leader should read!"  McHugh explains how we overlook or misunderstand the contributions of many introverted church members.  This is a book for all congregational folks who want to be more hospitable to the Meyers Bringgs T-types [sic - pretty sure he means "Myers Briggs I-types"], and for all introverts who find human interactions each Sunday to be tense and taxing.  A great resource for anyone interested in relationships, parish life, or Christian community.