Book Review: When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman

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.

Rating: ?
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

8 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>When We Were on Fire</em> by Addie Zierman”

    • And thank you for bringing it to my attention. I definitely appreciated the chance to process through our youth experiences – and to be reminded of God’s grace amidst it all.

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was not a part of a large church or youth group in my teen years, but I faithfully attended an “on fire” youth camp and youth rallies. You’ve voiced what makes me so skittish about youth group for my own children.

    • I can definitely understand your skittishness – not that I think my experience (or yours) is the way youth group has to be. I think the greatest struggle for me is that my youth experiences taught me to follow emotional highs and to “be extraordinary” – when what I’ve really needed for this Christian life is to trust truth (despite what I feel) and to cling to an extraordinary God amidst the humdrum of everyday life. I pray that those of us who had this experience as youth won’t overcorrect by denying emotions at all – but that we’d encourage our children to dig deep for truth and cling to Christ’s sufficiency even when their emotions contradict the truths they know.

  2. I didn’t grow up in church. When I started attending an independent Baptist church in my teens, it was mainly just another couple in the church sponsoring singspirations after Sunday evening services, trying to take us places to do evangelism, and and occasionally organizing an activity for us or taking us to camp. We didn’t have separate, paid youth pastors then or that much of an emphasis on youth.

    When my oldest was in the youth group in the late 90s-early 00s, the youth group had become well-developed with a youth pastor, weekly activities on Wed. nights as well as Sunday School, teams that completed by doing various activities to earn a spot at camp, and lots and lots of rah-rah stuff – cheers, loud exciting games, etc. I think probably the ideal youth group is somewhere in-between those two. My oldest is not a rah-rah kinda guy, and I wondered why youth groups thought they had to be that way to appeal to teens. OTOH, my middle son loved it.

    I think all three of my guys benefited from being in a youth group and having a youth pastor, especially my youngest in the church where we are now, where, though they had games and fun times, the emphasis was more on discipleship. In a former church, someone remarked that that youth pastor had made it “cool to be spiritual.” To his credit, I don’t think that was his aim. But if that’s all a youth group is, there is going to be nothing of substance to encourage a teen to keep following Christ when it is no longer “cool” or when he moves away from that group.

    Sorry to take up so much space in the comments. :-) I’m so glad God worked in your life to draw you to Himself.

    • Take up all the space you want, Barbara – I appreciate your comments!

      I definitely agree that there has to be some sort of middle ground. There’s nothing wrong with emotions (in my point of view) – it’s when emotions become the emphasis, or when we trust our emotions rather than truth that we get into trouble.

      Like I mentioned, I think a lot of the dreaming of being extraordinary is natural for teens – and not necessarily a bad thing. But being encouraged to follow our natural passions didn’t train us for the Christian life – we didn’t learn how to be faithful with the mundane, how to trust truth when our emotions didn’t agree, how to look to Christ instead of to ourselves. I wish people had taken advantage of my youthful excitement to teach me to delight in the work of Christ on my behalf – instead of mostly encouraging me to work hard on God’s behalf. I wish they’d taken advantage of the emotions to help me dig deep into the bedrock of God’s character – the bedrock that would hold me firm when the emotions were no longer there.

      I think there are youth pastors out there who are willing to go beyond hype and who are passionate about training their students in truth. I am so thankful for those men who are faithfully leading students to Christ – and I’m glad that your sons have been able to benefit from such men!

  3. I’m glad to read what you think about this book because I’ve had mixed thoughts about whether or not to read it. There are lots of these stories out there now and sometimes that can get discouraging. However, they did happen so they need to be discussed.

    Your rating and recommendation are excellent. :) Sometimes that’s just the way it is.

    • I’m glad you didn’t mind my ambiguous rating and recommendation. I considered leaving it off altogether – but I use that same format at the end of every book review, so I didn’t feel comfortable with just skipping it entirely!

      My sister-in-law asked me to read this book because she’d read it and had some difficulties processing it. I’m glad she did suggest that I read it, if only because it has allowed me to process through that aspect of my own youth – and to have a renewed awareness of how other young adults have responded to the same general experience. Like I said, by God’s grace, my path took a very different turn from Zierman’s following high school – but I think it’s valuable for me to be reminded of how others’ experiences following our similar high school experiences have shaped their lives, enabling me to (by God’s grace) love and serve them better (even though, for example, I feel sorrow but not bitterness when I think of my high school experience.)


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