I can say little of what “the 90s Christian subculture” looked like, except inasmuch as I (and my church’s youth group) was a part of the 90s Christian subculture. Yet reading Addie Zierman’s memoir of her own experience in the 90s Christian subculture suggests that my experience was far more normative than I would have guessed.
You see, we were charismatics – and I’ve long been willing to believe that charismatics were more inclined to tolerate fanaticism and develop extreme subcultures. I assumed that perhaps we were unique in that respect.
The 90s Christian subculture, as I experienced it, was one that declared that “youth aren’t just the future of the church – they are the church”. While the statement, in and of itself, is perfectly reasonable, the outworkings of this worldview was making youth the stars of the church. The youth group was a big deal. The youth sat in the front rows and set the tone for the worship experience during Sunday morning services. At least once a year, there was a youth commissioning sort of service, commissioning either recent high school grads (in May) or current high school students (in August) to the mission field of their schools. Once a year, the youth group was given control of the Sunday morning service, where our worship team led the singing and our students tag-teamed a sermon.
We were all about being “on fire”. We were going to be a Joshua generation, a Jacob generation, a whatever-Biblical-character-you-can-come-up-with generation. One thing was for sure. We weren’t going to be the ordinary Christians of all the generations before us. We were going to be world-changers, earth-shakers, mountain-movers.
That we felt this way as youth is not surprising. Does not every generation of teenagers think that they are unique, that somehow their experience of teenage-hood is completely different than every other generation’s? Does not every generation think, in the hubris of newly surging hormones, that they are more powerful, more passionate, more right than every generation before them?
What seems so odd to me now is that we were encouraged in this train of thought. We were told in youth group on Wednesday nights, from the pulpit on Sunday mornings, in the raft of exciting youth rallies we attended that we truly were the generation that would make a difference, that would break through the steady monotony of Christian history and do something spectacular for the Lord.
Reading When We Were on Fire brought me back to my teenagers years. I read with nostalgia and with regret – but mostly, as I read, I wondered why we were encouraged to such self-importance.
Zeirman dreamed, like many of us, of being different, of changing the world. She would be a missionary’s wife, she figured, make a difference in the world alongside a charismatic missionary husband. She had an on-again-off-again relationship with a fellow dreamer, one who was intensely committed to his dream of being a missionary. Of course, in the wake of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, dating was not something that good-Christian-dreaming-of-being-a-missionary kids did. Thus the on-again-off-again. When conviction hit (generally on the fellow’s part), the relationship was off, not that he didn’t still hold plenty of sway over Addie. Zierman’s someone was heavy on the rules that 90s Christian subculture was heavy on – modesty (which was always a woman’s problem and never a man’s), listening to Christian music (secular stuff is evil), whatever – and Addie needed to be as committed and as inflexible as he on those points.
The relationship ended for real before Zierman went off to college. Addie chose a Christian college because she was tired of the continued pressure of being separate from the world, of being at war. She was ready for a break from the front-lines. In college, Zierman began her process of falling away from the faith.
I, too, got weary of the constant internal pressure to be different, on fire, world changing. I became disillusioned when I discovered that I was ordinary after all.
But my story diverges from Zierman’s in several key ways. While Zierman jumped from the emotional legalism of her high school youth group into the less-emotionally-charged-but-still-legalistic Christian college, I became involved with UNL’s campus Navigators and spent a summer in Jacksonville, Florida. In Jacksonville, God used a sermon by Jerry Bridges to radically change my view of justification. I grew to have a much lower view of myself, and a much higher view of God. I missed the emotionalism of my youth, but I began to build a solid intellectual foundation for my faith – a foundation that has enabled me to keep faith even as emotions have come and gone. I moved to Columbus, Nebraska and joined a local church where I developed a strong ecclesiology.
Zierman didn’t fit in at college, got married to an ordinary Christian guy, grew disillusioned with the church. She and her husband struggled with finding a church, found one her husband liked but that she didn’t. She wanted to leave, he kept up relationships with their old church, she didn’t. She found her own community among the disgruntled, the bitter, the agnostics or atheists. She fell in love with alcohol and almost cheated on her husband.
And then she slowly found her way back.
I don’t know how to review this book, don’t know how to separate Zierman’s experiences from my own, don’t know how to be objective when reading through Addie’s experiences. This book evoked such nostalgia, such nausea, such sorrow. I hated it and loved it. I am thankful for the grace of God in bringing me through the 90s Christian subculture with so much less sorrow than Zieman experienced.
Category: Memoir – faith
Synopsis: Addie Zierman tells the story of living in the 90s Christian youth subculture, of falling away after its promises didn’t pan out, of slowly returning.
Recommendation: I don’t know