I grew up in church. I grew up volunteering in church.
From as early as middle school, I helped with VBS during the summer and kids’ ministry on Friday nights (#ChineseChurchChild), handed out bulletins as part of the welcome team, and made and sold boba to fundraise for youth group short-term mission trips (again, #CCC*).
*This cracks me up because if an acronym is >50% the letter C, chances that it’s a Chinese Christian church are pretty high. (Some of the churches in my town: DCBC, PCAC, CCCFC, GCEC, ACC.)
In college, my friends and I played music for worship, organized prayer and praise nights, kept our CCLI license payments up-to-date, prepared Bible studies, checked in regularly with our fellow siblings-in-Christ, led volunteer/outreach events, and even planned weekend-long retreats that we called “Dig-Ins,” where we combed through a short book of the Bible together from start to finish, sharing our insights and discussing our questions. (Philippians was one of my favorites. We spent eight hours poring over it in a cabin nestled in the snowy mountains near Big Bear Lake, breaking only for eating meals, building a snowman, and stargazing.)
God brought me back to my childhood city and church for the first few years of my post-graduate young adulthood. Even as a busy medical student, I found myself translating from English to Mandarin and back again, leading the weekly prayer meeting, and, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, working with other task force members to put together a regathering plan that was compliant with CDC guidelines. I even recorded the automated voice menu for the church phone.
I don’t mean to boast, but looking back, I realize I spent a lot of time and energy serving the church—doing “Kingdom work,” let’s call it. These sorts of tasks in other settings might be completed by paid employees. To me however, my work for the church was something I did on the side. Extracurricular, volunteering. I didn’t expect to be paid by the church for my time, and perhaps, in return, there was an unspoken agreement that the church would not have expectations of me. I would go on contributing as my schedule allowed, popping in to surprise the church staff with some extra hands when inspired.
And I expected that everyone would understand. When I couldn’t step up to help, it’s not because I was being lazy or selfish—after all, I had wanted to become a doctor since I was young and had been putting in the work for it for as long as I or anyone could remember. I was studying to earn a place in a field that was known for being full of altruism and meaning. I and my closest friends never once doubted that I was someone who wanted to do meaningful work.
Recently I’ve been having conversations with my friends who are twenty-something and a few years into the workforce. We millennials are known for being dreamers, for wanting to make an impact, and for looking to work at a company that shares all of our values. We’ve lived enough years to have experienced that even the most rewarding vocations can start to feel lackluster. As a medical student, I have already seen what feels like the same story repeat itself—poor diet and lifestyle leading to chronic disease and a desire for a quick fix—I don’t want to become jaded (I haven’t even graduated yet!), but I can understand why the physician burnout rate is so high… and, occasionally, it occurs to me that someone else’s pain will provide me job security.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy learning about the human body—what a remarkable creation!—and I still feel honored to be present and useful for people who might find themselves in that a vulnerable position of facing their own mortality. However, I’m also reminded that despite advancements in research and medicine, there will always be a leading cause of mortality. (Unless… our goal is immortality? In a way, that Tower of Babel scares me more.) My mentors work 50-80 hours a week, and yet there will still be pain and suffering and death and loss. Perhaps this career might not become the most meaningful work I will do.
This past year, my extracurricular “Kingdom work” has included working with the Indigitous Serve Cohort. This work is meaningful, though at this early stage of pioneering, I’m not privy to the entirety of how God has been working through us and how he will continue to work in the future.
I am uncomfortable with the idea of failure and with uncertainty. I chose a profession where the structure of the next few years has long been penciled in for me—4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 4 years of residency, and maybe a 1 year fellowship. When I serve the church with my leftover time and energy, the extracurricular nature is an easy excuse for anything short of obvious success or progress or my absolute best. This is all extra credit, so anything I’m able to contribute is great. (It’s true: God can use whatever you bring to him. He doesn’t need very much to work with. His power is made perfect in our weakness, even. That said, are we offering Him our best as he deserves?)
I realized recently that I hesitate to view “Kingdom work” as my main work because I’m afraid. Compared to the structure and thresholds I’m familiar with in medicine, serving the church appears to be less quantitative. In medicine, healing can be measured by bloodwork and shrinking cancers on imaging at the individual level and mortality and morbidity rates at the societal level. “Kingdom work,” whether it’s teaching the kids or helping with the A/V team or becoming a missionary, feels like it shouldn’t be or can’t be as adequately measured.
If it’s God’s work, am I allowed to set goals or make plans?
What if I give God the firstfruits of my time and energy, but it doesn’t amount to much? Am I forgetting that God is in control?
Does my hesitation stem from doubt of God’s power?
I thought I wanted to do meaningful work. “Kingdom work” that worships God, advances the gospel, loves the church, and ministers to others is eternally significant. But am I too afraid of failure to actually give it my all?
keep lookin’ up,