Spiritual Formation and Extroverts

Over the last few years I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about spiritual formation and how it happens in an educational environment. It’s a fascinating conversation, and in the process I’ve had the opportunity to look at what a number of other churches and institutions do in that area.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that much of what is being practiced (solitude, silence, Scripture meditation, journaling, prayer practices, etc.)—all good things, mind you—seem to be best suited for people who are introverts (see this helpful article for more insights).

Now, I understand that reflective practices are, by nature, quiet and personal. They are ways that we center our consciousness toward God in order to be present to him. I’ve done those kinds of things and found them very helpful.

But they’re also not easy for me. I suppose that’s why they are called spiritual disciplines.

I am an extrovert, but I have come to recognize that I do have an introverted aspect to my personality. As I get older, I appreciate time to be alone more than I did when I was young. But I’m not energized there. I am energized with others, and I think most of my extroverted friends would find that to be true for them as well.

My friends who are introverts say that being with others for too long drains them of energy, and they find that they recharge by being alone. We extroverts are just the opposite. Being alone can be good for us, but being with others is where we come alive.

In education, learning theory takes seriously the differing learning styles of people, recognizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to education. Perhaps, in a similar way, we can look at how we are spiritually formed—formed by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit—in ways that take our mental wiring into consideration. I know that I struggled for years over my apparent inability to remain focused in prayer for extended periods of time (still do—you can take the boy out of his ADHD, but you can’t entirely remove the ADHD from the boy. Or something like that). But I’ve become more comfortable in appreciating what is natural for me and what must come through disciplined intention and action.

Some years ago, a friend and I spent a couple of days at a Catholic retreat center. We ended up being the only ones in attendance at a morning mass, and the priest was gracious enough to allow us to partake in all aspects, including the Eucharist (imagine!). After we shared the Scripture readings for the day, he said, “Let’s talk about what we’ve just read. I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in community.”

That worked for me. I was energized by that.

I like it that, along with Jesus’ admonition to pray in secret (Matt. 6:6), there are lots of “we” and “us” statements in the New Testament. There seems to be a place for both introverts and extroverts in this journey of being formed in the likeness of Jesus. But one size does not fit all.

Mike McNichols