Discipleship should take account of differences in personality

Russian DollsThe God of creation is the God of grace. In gracious creativity God has blessed human beings with an array of personality types. Our different personalities are gifts to one another. Personality types play a major part in determining how our theology and spirituality are formed. Different personalities warm to different aspects of the Christian story and different ways of expressing spirituality.

A contemplative person may focus on the times Jesus withdrew from the crowds for prayer and reflection, for example, whereas someone with a more activist personality may concentrate on Jesus as a man of action. The contemplative person may love silent retreats, while the activist may see spirituality as doing things for other people.

These different emphases are gifts to the body of Christ. The Christian community is enriched when contemplative and activist people make their contributions alongside each other, complementing one another.

Support for discipleship will be more effective if it takes variations in temperament into account

Individuals can also be stretched by the emphasis of someone who is rather different. An activist may be inspired and helped by a contemplative person to spend more time in prayer, while the latter may be encouraged by an activist to develop the more practical side of their faith. We wouldn't want everyone to end up the same; equally, it would be sad if we couldn't learn from each other.

In today's culture, which celebrates diversity, people are more attuned to individual differences than in the past. Support for discipleship will be more effective if it takes variations in temperament into account. In particular, individuals may find it helpful to explore different approaches to spirituality.

Personality types affect your spiritual outlook

Footsteps on a beachIn his book Who we are is how we pray, Charles Keating suggests that our understanding of and relationship with Jesus is shaped by our personality. Using Myers-Briggs personality types, Keating suggests that in Matthew's Gospel Jesus is an introvert, in Mark a sensing personality, in Luke an extrovert thinker, whilst in John Jesus is an intuitive feeler (Charles Keating, Who we are is how we pray, Twenty-third Publications, 1987, p3).

Keating suggests that each of the eight Myers-Briggs personality types will approach the way in which disciples are formed differently (pp7-13).

  • Extroverts need to exercise discipleship through external structures, visible works and practical activities.
  • Introverts need space for rumination, exploring possibilities and inner reflection.
  • Sensing personalities benefit most from discipleship that relates to the here and now, leads to immediate activity and has the visible support of fellow disciples.
  • Intuitive types flourish in an idealistic visionary community in which dreams are encouraged.
  • Feelers do not enjoy abstract theology. They need to meet God in other people and to feel the acceptance of God and others.
  • Thinkers, in contrast to feelers, love concepts and ideas. They grow by re-examining and rethinking their faith.
  • Judgers (which doesn't mean judging or being judgmental) will grow in an environment that has clear steps to holiness and milestones of progress. Judgers will thrive on discipleship courses that emphasise a clearly defined process.
  • Perceivers have a strong sense of journeying. Sensing perceivers will desire more signposts to guide their journey than intuitive perceivers, who will be happy to go with the flow.

The application of Myers-Briggs to spirituality and discipleship is more complex than this short summary might suggest. Not least, it is important to remember that thinking about personality types can both affirm what is distinctively you and help to challenge any lopsided discipleship ('I must remember that my personality encourages me to downplay some important aspects of being a Christian'). Yet despite its limits, might this summary suggest some possibilities? In particular, it may help to remind you how different some of your emerging Christians are. Different aspects of being a Christian will resonate with different people.

Different aspects of being a Christian will resonate with different people

Maybe someone appears not to be growing in Christian maturity. It's not that they lack interest or motivation. Perhaps it is because your personality type has encouraged you to emphasise certain aspects of the faith which fail to connect with their personality type. You're a 'thinker' possibly, emphasising Christian concepts and ideas, whereas the other person is a 'feeler' and struggles with abstract theology.

Might you ask someone who is qualified to introduce your emerging Christians to Myers-Briggs (if they are not already familiar with this), and oversee a Myers-Briggs test for them so that they can discover their personality types? This, together with Charles Keating's book (or an equivalent), might form the basis of a discussion about how personality affects spirituality.

Might different types of prayer suit different personalities?

Hands clasped in prayerFor instance, some people have suggested these differences:

  • Ignatian prayer, which follows the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola, encourages the user to imagine that they are in a biblical scene, to note the sights and sounds, to picture Jesus speaking to them or healing them (if the story is about him) and to discover afresh Jesus' love for them. This might appeal to someone with an imaginative temperament.
  • Augustinian prayer, which follows the spirituality of St. Augustine of Hippo, is less structured than Ignatian prayer. You might read a psalm, replacing the word Israel with your own name. You might note your feelings of peace, consolation, protection and security as you imagine Yahweh addressing you. This might appeal to someone who relies heavily on intuition and feelings.
  • Franciscan prayer, which follows the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, might involve going into a garden, feeling the beauty and freshness of nature, looking carefully at a leaf and admiring the way God has created it, and praising God in prayer for this gift of nature and all that the person is experiencing at this moment. It might appeal to someone who relies heavily on their senses.
  • Thomistic prayer, which follows St. Thomas of Aquinas, is more logical and applies the cause and effect principle to the truths of our faith. You might take humility and ask a series of who, why, what and how questions: What does it mean? Why is it important? Who is a good example of this in the Bible? How can I be more humble in this situation? This might appeal to people who rely heavily on reason.

How might these different approaches affect the way you introduce emerging believers to prayer?