The Con of Christian Achievement (and learning to find my own path)

I came of age in the era of excellence in the Pentecostal church. Maybe we weren’t explicitly told we had to go out and change the world, but still, the implicit expectations were there – in the worship songs, the rhetoric, the subtle messages, the cult of christian celebrity. We sang about being history-makers, planet-shakers; we were prophesied over and promised great things. We were the Davids and the Esthers, the Pauls and Priscillas of the 21st Century. In a thousand tiny ways our mission was made clear: to do great things for Jesus. We dreamed of being preachers and worship leaders and big-name evangelists, healers and apostles. We wanted to be recognised… for The Kingdom, of course. We knew there wasn’t room for all of us at the top, but that didn’t stop our determination to get there.

I wonder how often we dreamed of being helping hands to the hungry, about compassion for the homeless, about simply loving the ‘others’ in our midst. I know I didn’t. We bought the brand, and we sold the brand, and the brand was go big or go unnoticed.

Don’t misunderstand me – I believe with all my heart that The Church needs passionate preachers and those with the gifts and talents to move congregations with music and song. We need those with healing hands, those with voices of conviction. I know that in doing these things well, recognition is unavoidable, and in itself is not a bad thing. But I think somewhere along the line we became consumed with that recognition, and equated it with status. We elevated ‘the work of the Lord’ above the simple, quiet (often unnoticed) work of living a life well, forgetting the two are so inextricably linked. We bought into a dualism that placed being ‘in ministry’ at the very top of the list of life goals. We placed greater value on the work of those who’s contributions were quantifiable, visible, extroverted, on the platform. We forgot that everything is spiritual, we forgot that there is great worth in noticing the small things, immense value in rest, and that a good meal savoured with great people was a prize to be treasured. We thought everything was a means to an end, we forgot that a spiritual life could be lived without a 5-year plan for spiritual growth. We thought we had it figured out, we thought we were going places.

When I started a family, and when I no longer felt I had the space in my life to offer time ‘to the ministry’, when I resigned from leading in the youth program, and the hours upon hours of behind the scenes work over ten years, when I couldn’t even find the strength to serve on a Sunday in my haze of post-natal depression denial… when all these things happened in conjunction, some bubble burst inside of me. The promises of greatness and of crowns in heaven became dust – ashes falling through my aching hands.

Thinking about the path I thought I’d been destined to take caused the blood to rush to my cheeks, and the bile to turn in my guts. I was filled with shame that I hadn’t ‘made it’ when so many of my peers had. I couldn’t get to church, and eventually I didn’t want to be there. I felt forgotten, alone, and useless. I lost my community, and I felt that there was no space for me, I couldn’t simply spectate from the sidelines, watching the waves barely lapping at my feet.

So I stayed away from church and church people. I retreated away from that shoreline into the wilderness.

I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel seen, and I didn’t feel wanted. Because I couldn’t give in the way I had been, I felt worthless. Worse still, I didn’t feel missed, consequently I felt like my presence held no value in the first place. So, I became mildly cynical and slightly jaded. I wrestled with bitterness. (Of course, in the midst of this cynicism and bitterness were myriad moments of grace and growth and beauty. It was all necessary). In many ways I thought I’d watched the boat sail off over the horizon, with me still on the shore. I watched from a distance as life moved on for other people, holes were filled where I had been, in the small space I had occupied.

I want to stress that while these were all messages I received, I do not mean to say that anyone intended to send them. We all have our own perspectives, our own story, and this is mine. This is all pretty unpleasant stuff to admit to–to own. I couldn’t write about it at the time, though I tried in some ways. But recent months have brought about a shift for me. There has been a release and a relief. I had to let go of old hurts, confront perceived betrayals, and recognise my own fragility and smallness. I’ve come to realise that it was a really good thing that bubble burst, and that sitting there on the shore line with my hands in the sand and the sun on my face was the spiritual awakening my thirsty soul needed. I discovered that it was OK to jump ship for a while, wade toward the land and scramble into the undergrowth off the track….

And I found the most beautiful things, amongst the pain. I found that the wilderness is real, and it’s a place where wild things grow with abandon; it’s where the mystics gather, where the spirit is thick and the expectations are few. I found my breath, and then I found my voice. I found a bigger God than I had ever known, I found peace in the simple things.

And for you? Maybe there’s another voice gently beckoning…

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”*

If you feel like you’re in the wilderness, that’s OK! The wilderness is where we meet the divine when everything else is stripped away.

It’s OK.

It’s OK to buck the system and back away from the status quo of Christian Culture expectations. It’s OK to stop trying so much, to stop trying to fit your square peg into that round hole. You don’t have to be the things they want you to be, you don’t have to want the things everyone else wants. I’ve certainly felt that the modern pentecostal church doesn’t seem to hold much space for the mystics and the contemplatives; for silence and for stillness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t claim that space for ourselves. If you want that and need that, it’s yours (or come find me, we can be still together). Seek it out.

I feel like I’m finally done with waiting for something nobody ever owed me in the first place. I feel like I have settled, like the sand that moves along the edge of wave, here on the shoreline. I’ll sit in the in-between for a while longer, with the wilderness at my back, gazing out over the waves. Other people can have their big ships, and their charted courses. I wasn’t made for that (though I’m thankful there are those who were, for sure). I’ll stay here, I’ll be a mother and a wife and a friend, I’ll keep writing and questioning, I’ll keep poking the bear when I feel the need (or maybe just when I’m bored). I’ll embrace the simple things and eschew the weight of trying to be something that I am not. And maybe in my own gentle way, I can shake the world.

I might even go back to church.


*Book of Matthew, Chapter 11, verses 28-30 from The Message Translation of the Bible.
Also, I’ve added a few links to old posts throughout the above for a fuller picture of my journey over the last few years, if you’re interested 🙂