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?