You’re the smart one.

You’re the lazy one.

You’re the pretty one.

You’re the useless one.

Those kinds of messages from our respective families of origin form us. I’d heard throughout my childhood that I was ugly, and responded by (a) becoming promiscuous to prove them wrong (b) seeing a deformed image of myself every time I looked in the mirror and (c) believing at the cellular level I was taking up unnecessary space on the planet.

When I began attending church in my late teens, there was something deep inside of me that was starving to discover a new script for my life. I looked to my new family in the faith to help me learn to live to live into my new identity as a born-again child of God. I heard a lot of mystical talk about being “in Christ”, but came to understand this was usually a statement of judicial fact: Innocent Jesus paid for my sins with his atoning death, and the Father sees me as “not guilty” in the same way he sees the risen Son.

I think I imagined that this reality was supposed to automatically overwrite the lies I’d heard from infancy. While being “in Christ” gave my life a new origin story and destination, frankly, I needed a little more description for how to live in the in-between. As a young adult, I was still trying to figure out who I was, and since I’d entered that life stage at a definite emotional deficit, I looked intently to new friends and leaders from the various churches/congregations we attended to tell me something about who I was and how this new me could learn to follow Jesus.

In other words, I was longing to be discipled.

And I was, because we’re all in the process of being discipled by something or someone else. That “something” can be anything from our peer group to our favorite band to our favorite cable news source. I was discipled by the Church by learning that I had value:

  • As a regular attender at all church events
  • As an enthusiastic helper with church programs and tasks (nursery, VBS, Sunday School teacher)
  • As an always-supportive-of-leaders member
  • As an obedient wife and a perfect mother

There was always talk of spiritual gifts, but in reality, I learned early on that the gifts the church valued most was that of service and attendance, plus financial giving. In other words, the church taught me my identity was not all that different than that of a good employee.

Honestly, I don’t think any of the pastors or church leaders I knew in my early years ever intended to communicate this to members. (That’s what cult leaders do, and none of those people had designs on starting their own cult.) But most didn’t think in terms of forming disciples. They thought in terms of building their organization. I know – I’ve been a leader in a couple of churches, and I learned it was my job to fill the org chart, not shape people. We hoped that doing church stuff would disciple people, but I learned quickly that the two have at best only moderate overlap.

God has used great books, access to some thoughtful radio programs, good friends willing to go deep with me (and who had no designs on turning me into a good soldier in their congregations), and sorrow to teach me who I am and how to follow Jesus when I’m not at church – and even when I am.

I am not made by my Creator for the purpose of being a regular attender, an enthusiastic helper, a supportive member, an obedient wife or a perfect mother. Each of those things is an expression of true identity, not the identity itself. At their worst, they are the suffocating fear-filled fibers that get woven together into a mask of religious performance.

Our identity is learned as we learn to follow Jesus. For example, I am a writer by vocation, but that is not my identity. I began writing in order to pray and learn to make sense of my life with God. My life seeking God is my identity, and it took a number of different voices (rarely from any of the churches we attended) to affirm and challenge me to use “my way with words” to serve others. I follow him, and I leave a trail of words in my wake.

This is why I believe in the message of Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of our Pilgrim Identity. So many of us live as spiritual exiles, even if we’re the most popular people in town and we busy ourselves checking all the boxes on religious performance that makes us beloved employees in our local churches. Others of us live as spiritual refugees, branded as an unwanted, unloved “other” because we don’t measure up to some sort of human expectation. The shadows that hide our true selves and masks we don to tell the world who we are by what we do, or who we vote for, or what we love are very fancy fig leaves that cover our nakedness.

But Jesus is pursuing us even as we wear those false identities and calls us to follow him. He said, “Follow me” many times, to many different kinds of people, throughout his ministry. This is how he speaks to us today, and this is what he asks of us. Pilgrimage is is our birthright as his beloved children, though it is rarely a soft, comfy existence. More on the challenges and rewards of this existence in my next post, and some thoughts on why we hear so little about it from many pulpits.

If you are a follower of Jesus, what has your discipleship journey looked like? How has your local church formed you? 

This post first ran here. Cover photo by Ussama Azam on Unsplash