I’ll never forget it.
It was 1998, and I had rented a smelly, used 15 passenger van from the local Rent-a-Wreck to take a small group of students to a large event in Minneapolis designed to “fire students up for Christ.”
I was 28 years old, and I had been a youth pastor for about four years. I remember feeling dubious about this event. Even then, the rhetoric felt aggressive, and I felt protective of my little band of teenagers. Most of them weren’t the normal youth group kids. They were rough around the edges, and if they had bibles, they were the brand new, free variety that had never been opened. No custom covers with zippers, no underlined verses. But a few of them really wanted to go, and it would be a weekend where I didn’t have to plan anything, so we went.
The speaker was intense and fiery, and one of the sessions focused on sexual purity. For more than an hour, he paced the stage, brow furrowed, and declared how important it was to keep yourself sexually pure. He said that your heart is easily fractured, and every time you open yourself up sexually to someone else, a part of it is torn off and destroyed. There was a drama that went along with it, involving a girl running around with a large heart in her hands, while different boys tore it to pieces.
The speaker closed by asking students to commit to “remaining pure” until they got married. It was big and emotional and the response was immediate. Thousands of students responded that they would wait.
Now, I am very much for teenagers not having sex until they are married. That is a very good thing. I just have never believed that that method of large scale emotional commitment really makes much of a difference for most people, for the long haul. It’s a little like the pastor who gathers the seven year olds together and describes hell as a place where you burn forever and where you’ll never see your mommies and daddies again, and then asks them to raise their hands if they want to receive Jesus into their hearts so they won’t have to go there. You’re definitely going to raise your hand right then, but what commitment have you really made?
And what about the students who are feeling the hot shame that it’s already too late? What commitment are they supposed to make? How are they supposed to process that?
After the event, we gathered back in one of our hotel rooms to debrief, and the students were quiet. Finally, one of them spoke up. He was seventeen, and he had a daughter, who his mother was quietly raising. He was angry. He didn’t know how to process the feelings he was having, except to say that he felt humiliated and defeated.
I vaguely remember talking to our little group about grace, about God’s mercy covering over all of our sin, and about no sin being bigger than any other sin. But I also remember large teenage eyes staring at me, already lost and confused, scared and not knowing why. I didn’t know it, but I think some of them were experiencing a form of Post Traumatic Stress. Since then, I’ve learned that when the church takes such difficult, complex topics and serves them out as prepackaged, mass produced events, the results are mostly painful.
Addie Zierman has written a brave book that explores what happens when evangelical church culture swallows you up. When We Were on Fire is Addie’s story about growing up in an evangelical church, in the “strange us-versus-them world of the 90’s Christian subculture, where your faith was measured by how many WWJD bracelets you wore and whether or not you’d “kissed dating goodbye.” This fantastic book is a vivid exploration of her own journey in and out of (and back into) the evangelical church.
When We Were on Fire is honest, funny, and raw. Addie writes about the Super Christian Boyfriend, the Super Intense Missions Trip, and the Church People who didn’t listen, didn’t see her, and didn’t reach out to a twenty-three year old for whom none of the cliches worked anymore.
If you can’t seem to even enter a church without feeling physically sick, if you’re longing for a spirituality that you just can’t seem to find anywhere, read Addie’s book. It’s tender and redemptive and true. It reflects an entire subculture that is honest enough to ask the church the tough questions that need to be addressed if we are going to walk into the future together.