Once they are connected to a group, if we are going to keep introverts beyond the first awkward meeting, our group leaders need to be trained differently. A majority of our training assumes everyone attending groups is ready to talk and begin community immediately. This is definitely not true for most introverts. Just like we need space to make a decision on joining a group, we need space to enter into the conversation once we are there.
One of our campus pastors at Seacoast Church visited a small group that was trying to think outside the box for their discussion. Their study for the semester was finding God in the movie The Matrix. After the normal small talk around snacks in the kitchen, the group gathered in the living room, where the leader took the first twenty minutes to actually act out one of the scenes from the movie, which included him playing every character and recreating all of the sound effects. The campus pastor reported back that the two other people in the group seemed frightened by the whole spectacle. That may not have been the best approach, but at least he was trying.
Food is always a good idea in a group, but especially for easing nervous people into the group. There is something mentally comforting about having a cup in your hand between you and the person on the other side of the conversation. Without the cup of joe, you kind of feel like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights: “I’m not sure what to do with my hands.” It is amazing how a cheese-and-fruit tray will lower the anxiety level a few notches.
It’s natural for a facilitator to attempt to get everyone in the group to talk right away. Most small-group studies are designed with an icebreaker question at the front to warm people up to the sound of their own voices. But introverts may not be ready to open up at the first meeting. They need to feel comfortable with the surroundings and the people before they’re ready to jump into a conversation. The process could be quick, but it could also take a few meetings to reach that point. Forcing an introvert to talk is a sure way to not have them return the next week. Give them some room and they will eventually enter the discussions with precise and honest thoughts.
The best way for a small group to grab an introvert’s attention is to move beyond the surface discussion and allow moments for well-thought-out dialogue. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain says of introverts: “They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.” Deeper discussions can come through giving the group a question to ponder during the week and come back to at the next meeting.
Introverts can be great small-group coaches. Coaching gives them a chance to spend some time with one person, doing more listening than talking, which is a skill that doesn’t always come naturally to a lot of extroverts. When an introvert says she will pray and put some thought into it, you know she will do just that.
Introverts long for community in our churches, but we can’t assume that existing routes will lead them there. Work on creating on-ramps designed for them, and they will be the most loyal members in your system.
Thomas Nelson Inc, Ln: Small Groups for the Rest of Us (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015).