The Personality of Worship: Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to understand worship preferences
Things are not going smoothly at First Church. Everything was quite peaceful and predictable until the new pastor arrived. He hadn't been on the job for more than a few weeks before changes started creeping into the liturgy.
Members of First Church are now expected to participate in written litanies and responses instead of listening, as they are accustomed to. They're also expected to look in the bulletin for hymn numbers—this pastor doesn't announce them. And he has the congregation standing when they expect to be sitting and sitting when they expect to be standing. This pastor's innovations have torn holes in the familiar pattern that the congregation grew to depend on during the eight years of their previous pastor's service.
Many members of First Church are unhappy. They want to return to their old, familiar style of worship.
Down the street, Second Church is experiencing a similar struggle. When their popular organist and choir director retired, they hired a younger person with the hope of attracting youth and young adults. But they failed to anticipate the changes this new minister would bring with her.
After she had been with the congregation for only a few months, the new minister of music began replacing the traditional and classical organ preludes and postludes with contemporary songs—sometimes even played on an electronic keyboard. She also serves as organist and has the tendency to hit the tremolo on most hymnsówhich annoys many of the members.
As friction grows, church leaders discover that, amazingly, many of the younger people are as opposed to the new musical tastes as they are. Equally bewildering, they discover that some of the older members actually prefer this new approach.
The above vignettes will seem familiar to most of us. Although the variations are legion, these stories reflect the experiences of many who serve in the church. They are reminders that when God's people gather to worship, they do not always concur on the nature and style of worship.
Discovering the Real Issue
Sadly, many of these conflicts become quite nasty. Invariably people attack each other and make accusations about a "wrong" method of worship. Often they believe the issue centers on theology, when in reality it could be a matter of personality.
The problem is, we often forget that God has not created us generically. Just as there is a wide variety of spiritual gifts and functions (1 Cor. 12), so too there are many different personality types and preferences. As we discover and sample the smorgasbord of possibilities, we can grow and assist others to mature in wholeness in Christ.
Insights from Personality
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a helpful tool for grasping the effect that personality has on worship. Basic to this approach, developed by Katherine and Isabel Briggs from the earlier work of Carl Jung, is the idea of preference. Just as we tend to favor either the right or left hand, so too we exhibit a particular direction in the way we view life, God, and therefore, worship.
The chart on the previous page provides a brief overview of the four combinations that comprise the MBTI. Each person has characteristics of all eight components; however, we usually prefer one function over its partner in each of the four categories.
Implications for Worship
How does one's personality affect worship? Let me suggest some preferences that are reflected by each of the eight aspects of our personality.
Extroverts, who receive their energy from people, will tend to enjoy greeting others rather than meditating during the prelude. They appreciate passing the peace and sermons that are full of enthusiasm. With their strong people orientation, some extroverts may have a greater desire to meet others than to meet God in worship.
Introverts, who receive their stimulation more from ideas, will normally find it easy to focus on God. They are particularly fond of reflection and prefer sermons with great depth and well-rehearsed words. When introverts attend another church, they rarely identify themselves as visitors.
Sensors, who enjoy details, often desire to be guided through the service. They focus most easily on the immanence, or here-and-now character of God, and they are most at home with the familiar and routine. Sensors, who typically hold a more literal view of Scripture, are more likely than intuitives to bring their Bibles to church and follow along during the sermon.
They are interested in sermons that include specific and practical applications which frequently remind them of traditional values and the proper ways to believe and act.
For sensors, neither silence nor symbols have the same meaning as they do for intuitives. Occasional use of silence is acceptable, but it must be kept to a minimum. And while these individuals enjoy the beauty of a symbol, they will tend to view it in a concrete manner. Therefore a cross is a cross on which Jesus died and perhaps not much more.
Intuitives, who enjoy possibilities, value innovative services. They dislike unnecessary chatter from worship leaders and find announcing hymn numbers or other information printed in bulletins redundant. Their view of God is more transcendent, and awe and majesty are key to their experience of worship.
Intuitives take a more figurative approach to Scripture than sensors do and will often find it easier to concentrate by listening rather than by following along in the Bible. These people prefer sermons that employ images and metaphors, and that leave the application to the individual listener. Symbols take on a great deal of significance, often suggesting a deeper meaning or connection to another insight of God or life.
Governed by Thinking
Thinkers value logical and analytical knowledge and normally have a great concern for truth and justice. They are particularly careful about choice of words and will often find written liturgies meaningful. Their tendency is to perceive God as one who reveals wisdom or new insights.
Thinkers appreciate sermons that are rational and that contain carefully developed ideas that provide new insights. They enjoy well-rehearsed and technically accurate music and are often more focused on text than tune.
Governed by Feelings
Conversely, those more influenced by feelings enjoy a friendly atmosphere and warmth of devotion. Echoing John Wesley, they wish for their hearts to be "strangely warmed." For such people, God is best perceived through a personal and intimate relationship rather than through the facts that thinkers appreciate. They look for persuasive sermons with emotional appeal. They like music that evokes deep feelings and warmth and are often more focused on tune than text.
Judgers often have a strong need for order and structure. They are concerned with the total flow of the worship experience and are sensitive to beginning and ending on time. They appreciate systematic and structured sermons that have been carefully crafted.
Perceivers have a free spirit and enjoy a more open and flexible approach to worship. Spontaneity, variety, and a willingness to "go with the flow," regardless of where it might lead, are characteristic of these individuals. Sermons that reflect this function will often be less organized and may start and restart and go in a variety of directions.
What Does It All Mean?
This rather brief tour of personality and worship preferences reminds us of the need for sensitivity and understanding in dealing with others in our congregations. Many of the skirmishes and struggles within the church could be resolved if people realized the issue was not centered in theology, but was rather governed by how one perceives life and God. Such awareness will come only as we dialogue and discover people's likes and dislikes in worship.
I am not suggesting that the best way to plan and lead worship is to determine the basic personality style of your congregation and create a service which reflects that style. Such a strategy produces an unbalanced liturgy. Any service that caters to one or two personality styles will necessarily exclude others within the congregation.
What is important in planning is remembering that each of us is a composite of all eight characteristics. When we emphasize only our dominant preferences, we ignore the "hidden" components of our own personality. That is to say, we reduce the full range of possibilities for ways in which we can perceive and respond to God. Jesus challenges us to seek such a balance when he reminds us: "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). If we investigate and occasionally introduce new styles of worship, we will mature in our experience of God and worship. Balancing our worship in such a manner will not only enable others to worship God more effectively but also acquaint us with the fullness of God.
I have spoken to many people who have either left their previous church or feel extremely frustrated in their present situation. Usually they feel something is wrong with them personallyóthat somehow they have failed. In reality the issue is often traceable to a lack of sensitivity to how our personalities and preferences affect our ability to worship. An appreciation of personality can increase our awareness and reduce the friction that all too frequently afflicts public worship.
For Further Reading
Harbaugh, Gary L. God's Gifted People (Augsburg, 1990).
Keirsey, David and Marilyn Bates. Please Understand Me (Gnosology Books, 1984).
Michael, Chester P. and Marie C. Nor-risey. Prayer and Temperament (The Open Door, 1984).
Oswald, Roy M. and Otto Kroeger. Personality Type and Religious Leadership (Alban Institute, 1988).