There was definitely a time when my identity came primarily from my church, which is Mormon. That time lasted through my teens and into my years with young children. I spent a lot of time reading the words of Mormon prophets to figure out what I should do with my life. I believed firmly that God spoke to me through these other people and that I needed to be humble and submissive and listen to their wise words on such topics as career choice, child-rearing, community service, politics and voting, and on and on. This is no longer true and it seems strange to look back on a time when I felt so dependent on others for a relationship with God. A church is an organization that can provide support and community. I no longer think of it as my only way to God, however.
Mormonism in particular is a religion that encompasses much of everyday life. There are Sunday meetings, weekday meetings, a lay clergy which means that everyone pitches in to make the local congregation work. Daily scripture study and prayer are constantly encouraged, as well as frequent temple service and genealogical work.
Adult Mormons are told that "every member a missionary" means that you are expected to be looking for potential converts wherever you go: work, the grocery store, plane travel, business trips, restaurants. Mormons are asked sometimes to commit to finding an investigator for missionaries on a time scale. If you're a non-Mormon friend of Mormons, you've inevitably been asked/pressured into receiving missionary discussions because Mormons sometimes find it difficult to have relationships with people without bringing their religion into it.
For Mormon youth, there can be even more pressure for the religion to take over your life. For most youth, there are seminary programs through local high schools, or if not, then early morning seminary daily at the house of a local church member. Young Men and Young Women programs are not just once a week meetings. They encompass nearly all aspects of life with both strict "standards" programs that draw lines in the sand about dating (which Mormons are not supposed to do until age sixteen and which have still other rules after that) and dress (more for the young women than the young men in my experience) or jewelry choices (one earring is encouraged, multiple earrings are not) or tattoos (not allowed in Mormonism because it defiles the body which is a temple of God).
In addition, the Eagle Scout Program and the Young Womanhood Recognition Award tend to become an extreme focus of Mormon youth, and they entail making goals and completing them in school, extracurricular activities, and social relationships. And then, of course, there is the missionary program, which is a sacrifice of two full years of your life (eighteen months for the sisters) in which you agree to spend every minute of every day devoted to God's service, away from your family and out of contact with friends except on rare occasions.
For adult Mormons, there is an expectation that the church is the top priority, often even over employment. The church has an opinion on your entertainment choices, as well. "R" rated movies are to be eschewed by devout Mormons, and other entertainment that has "coarse language" or "suggestive jokes" is to be walked out of or turned off in the home. Some Mormons refuse to watch any television (and include in this any internet/video games) at all in an attempt to remain "pure and undefiled" by the world. Mormons sometimes ask for their children to be excused from discussions of sex education in school, or evolution in biology classes or similarly "offensive" topics in other science classes.
As a young Mormon mother, I felt that the church had a say in my birth control choices, in how many children I should want to have, and in the bedroom with my husband. Of course, all of this was in an attempt to find happiness through following God's will. But the expression of God's will was almost always mediated through other people's (generally older white men's) lens and words. As a result, when I became depressed and damaged by my own lack of will in religion, I rejected God entirely. Part of the process of returning to God has been rejecting any attempt by others to once again step between me and God.
I am no longer convinced that the way to have an authentic relationship with God is to demand that He make all the choices in my life for me. I have also become nearly allergic to the idea that other people know better than I do what God is like, what He wants for me and my family, or how I should conceive of Him or approach Him in prayer.
I rarely read books about God (or religion) anymore. Not because I think they are all the same or because I believe they are all wrong, but simply because I spent far too long allowing other people to mediate my relationship with God and I am still cautious about that. I want to speak to God myself, not through someone else. I want to hear what He has to say directly to me, and I want to do that with as little pre-conceived notions as possible.
This is not to say that my church is wrong, but I think my practice of Mormonism was wrong. I made my church into my way to God instead of finding Him on my own. And I made my attendance in church and in various church activities the primary way that I showed my worship. In making someone else's premade formulas my own, I actually ended up becoming far less devoted than I should have been. By making my church everything, I did in some ways make God less.
Now my church comes second (or third or fourth) to my relationship with God. When the church tells me what God is like, I check with God to see if it is true. If my church does something that I consider wrong, I mourn, but I don't assume that this is because God did something wrong. My church is an institution. It is a community. I love many parts of my church and I love many of the activities my church promotes. But my church is not God. It is simply a vehicle to finding God which sometimes works better than others. It is a way of sharing devotion with others, sharing goals of service. My church helps me find people who are like me and people who are not like me.
In letting go of the idea that the church is my only way to God, I feel that I have found God more truly on my own. And that allows me to speak and to relate to my Christian neighbors in a new way. It makes me see my community of religious brothers and sisters far more widely than I did before, beyond Mormonism, beyond Christianity, even beyond theism. I feel I have let go of many harmful and outdated ideas of God by coming to Him without the ideas of others clouding my mind and my spirit.
This does not mean I consider myself less Mormon than I was before. In some ways I am more Mormon. I have come back around to many Mormon beliefs on my own. Others I reject for now, leaving open the possibility that I may later change my mind. I do not think my church offers all things to all people. I love it but I do not worship my church. I worship God. I worship Him not by forcing myself to show my worship in specific ways, but by carrying Him with me in all I do.