I’ve grown up in church my whole life, but if I’m being totally honest, I never really felt like I fit there. Don’t get me wrong. I’m good at making myself fit. I could show up every Sunday morning, help with setup and tear-down, come again on Wednesday night, sign up to volunteer for the different programs, etc.
But at the end of the day, I never really felt like myself when I was doing those things.
I could make myself go through the motions—and even look really happy and enthusiastic while I was doing them. But when I got quiet with myself, when I settled down to fall asleep at the end of the day, I knew something was off. I wished I wanted to do the things I was doing. But the God-honest truth was:
I was forcing it.
For a long time, I felt really guilty about this. I mean, profoundly guilty.
I would fluctuate back and forth between rebelling against the “system” of church (“Who needs these people? They don’t understand me. I’m out of here.”) and acquiescing to what I felt like church needed me to be (“Okay, I suppose I should really help out with the kids ministry… that’s the mature thing to do.”).
I would go back and forth between idolizing the people in the church who served in a way I felt like I could never match and also feeling furious with them—because they were a constant reminder to me of what I could never be.
This whole back-and-forth, flip-flop thing tortured me.
Until a few years ago, when I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who pastors a thriving church. We’ve known each other since we were kids, so despite the fact that he is a pastor, I felt comfortable enough with him to tell him what I had been thinking. I explained how I always felt like a failure for not giving enough, not being enough, and not serving enough at church.
I never felt like I was participating in enough of the programs, like my attendance was enough, like my tithe was enough. I told him I always felt a little bit like I was forcing it.
His response really surprised me.
He said: “I don’t think you’re lacking in service or participation. You’re serving people–and participating in the Kingdom—every day. Programs are just programs. They’re a way to organize people and help them go where God has already called them to go and what God has already called them to do. You’re in a season of your life where you know what God has called you to do. And you’re doing it.”
“Let yourself off the hook,” he said. “That guilt you feel is not from God.”
I couldn’t believe the relief I felt when he said that. First of all, what had once felt so daunting now felt painfully obvious. I didn’t have to work in a church or be a pastor or spend my whole life in a church building in order to make a difference in the world.
I was making a difference by showing up in my marriage.
I was making a difference by using my gifts and skills as a writer, being kind to my neighbors and friends, sharing and opening my home, investing in my friendships, and even being kind to the cashier at the grocery store.
Second, I realized the guilt I had been feeling was driving me to act in really crazy ways.
It was causing a huge amount of anxiety, which was driving me to live outside of my gifts, to try and one-up people who were my friends, to hide and pretend, and to feel animosity toward people who were different from me, rather than celebrating their strengths.
When my friend let me off the hook—when he reminded me my life was my ministry, whether it happened inside a church building or not—suddenly the pressure lifted.
Suddenly, I felt like I could be myself again.
And I don’t have to feel angry or jealous about people who give in different ways than I do or who have different strengths.
I don’t have to worship them or reject them.
I can actually celebrate all of us—the way each of us are participating, uniquely and individually in the body of Christ.
And when I can see the work I do outside of a church building as just as important as the work I might do inside, I give myself to it more completely, more sacrificially, more joyfully than I ever have before.