November 18, 2018

Wretched Enthusiasm


It felt so big to you, that fire in your heart. It filled your body, gave you a sort of buoyancy and belonging. A sense of purpose.

. . . The God-fire grew big and hot and wild, and your whole world began to glow with it. It raged in your heart, and before you knew it, you were entirely consumed.

– Addie Zierman
When We Were on Fire

* * *

Oh my. What an unsettling day yesterday turned out to be. A day of introspection and pondering the past, and its impact on the present and future.

First, I gave an update about my journey through the post-evangelical wilderness.

Then, during the ensuing discussion I was stunned by this pitch-perfect, on the mark comment by regular reader Danielle (I’ve underlined parts that struck home to me with special resonance):

fire“There is a level of participation that one becomes accustomed to, a certain “insider” mentality from having been a part of the leadership, and certain expectations from others about one’s role that requires adjustments all around.”

I’ve never been in professional ministry or felt called to it, but I feel like I have experienced some of this shift just in migrating out of evangelicalism.

The way I experienced evangelicalism, the expectation was that one would center one’s life on church involvement and devotional life. If you went into ministry (most “spiritual” and talented people were supposed to consider that path), this vocation was both your full-time job and an entire lifestyle. If you didn’t go into ministry, you were to duplicate that level of commitment in other spheres, and the goal was to “influence the culture”–while still volunteering a lot in the church. Not everyone was living this way, but everyone knew what the ideals were—if you were really spiritual, you were going for a total life commitment. It touched everything you did. And if you were in the inner core of a church, all the more so. At least, this was the message I picked up from communal ideals adults hoped that teenagers and college students would adopt, before taking over.

Then I went into self-imposed exile, and eventually settled in the mainline. It was a relief to be out from under the mental pressure of my prior expectations. I needed the space, intellectually and spiritually, and it has become obvious to me over time that I either can’t or won’t conform myself to some of the expectations that I found in evangelicalism. And it was a tremendous relief to have the tools of liturgy and sacrament to reconstruct faith and faithful living. Yet, it still creeps me out that I have this space. The pressure cooker culture that exists inside evangelicalism offers two carrots: it professes to take God very seriously, and it takes an interest getting people (that is, you personally) involved in its mission. If you can get with the program, there can be an exhilarating sense of belonging. Sometimes, my inner activist reads other church cultures as being lax or not caring as much. Perhaps that’s true, in some cases. But I think it is far more the case that I just don’t understand the rules and am not sure how regain my old sense of commitment (or act on it) outside of the evangelical context. Truthfully, I am not even sure how to pose the question. So I am still a bit lost. It’s like I’ve learned a second language from excellent book study, but I’m still thinking in my native language, then translating my thoughts into the new one. A person isn’t fully fluent until they can dream in the language. So I still feel a little out of sorts.

Wow. Talk about hitting the nail on the head — “If you were really spiritual, you were going for a total life commitment.”

Danielle’s insight is to recognize that the “total life commitment” in the culture of evangelicalism is not necessarily to the person of Jesus Christ but rather to the mission and program and expectations of the culture itself. Though it would claim to represent Christ’s calling, in fact it is the culture itself that often defines the “lifestyle,” the honored vocations, the meaning of total commitment. She rightly describes it as a “pressure cooker” that appeals to “activists” who will not feel that they are “taking God seriously” unless they are “getting with the program” wholeheartedly and without question.

Thanks, Danielle, for permission to reproduce your comment. You said it so well! Here’s to hoping we will all learn to dream in Jesus’ language and not merely in the language of our religious culture.

* * *

And then I came home after work and started reading Addie Zierman’s remarkable memoir, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over.

Right before me, on the page, was my life, or rather the life I tried to live and help create for my children and others in churches I served in the 1980s and 90s — the daily devotion – AWANA program – CCM soundtrack – What Would Jesus Do? – True Love Waits – See You at the Pole – Teen Mania/Acquire the Fire – overseas mission trip – T-shirt wearing – Bible carrying – home-schooled or Christian-schooled – culture warrior – wholly devoted – sold out to Jesus – on-fire world of evangelicalism.

Zierman writes about herself and the people in her world who “worshiped in all capitals,” whose faith was a “do-or-die mission,” who participated in a “throbbing evangelical culture . . . with abandon.”

All that fire burned her out. Addie Zierman describes how, as a young adult, she eventually succumbed to the scorching heat of expectations that centered on proper performance, the right language, and maintaining godly appearances. Her departure from the church was accompanied by a swift descent into depression, alcohol abuse, marriage troubles, and cynicism. Thankfully, she eventually found her way back to a gentler, more nourishing, more deeply human faith journey that accepts its complexities and nuances. She got to a point where she said, “I think I’m ready to stop hating the evangelicals.” She and her husband started attending church again. They had a baby. She began growing up. She gave up on trying to define life with a few tidy Christian cliches. “You are in motion, in transit, in flux. You will be sad. You will be happy. You will love and doubt and cry and rage, and all of it matters,” she writes.

Out of his life experience among the Southern Baptists, Michael Spencer wrote eloquently about “Wretched Urgency” — a revivalistic church culture that promoted “a definition of the Christian life that was oriented to one thing: converting people.”

Danielle and Addie Zierman have written about the culture of “Wretched Enthusiasm,” which well describes the evangelicalism from which I emerged. It defined the Christian life in terms of being “wholly devoted” to Christ, or in more colloquial language: “on fire for God.”

Many end up getting burned. A significant percentage of burn victims suffer from PTSD. Some of us still smell like smoke.


  1. Wow. Sounds like I need to read this book (and my wife is always on me to read more autobios and modern books anyways…)

  2. I guess I’m still there. This topic is often discussed and I always want to say something – and here is today’s attempt. I want to live “all for Jesus” but I affirm a whole lot of BUTs, such as:

    – all for Jesus does not mean all for church
    – God’s plan involves rest – see the Sabbath
    – not everyone is expressive in worship
    – whatever Christian community you are currently in may not always know what faithfulness looks like in a given
    – not all great work for God looks extraordinary, in fact much of what we’re called to (eg looking after family) looks ordinary
    – it is God who saves and not us

    I haven’t worked out how to hold this all together. If I ever do, I can write a book “Sustainable Fire” 🙂

    • Daryl Wheeler says:

      Well said Eric. Someday I hope to work this out as well.

      It is interesting, I grew up a Lutheran, but have been a Southern Baptist 45 years and have experienced neither as how they are often described here. Am I in total agreement with everything that the SBC says and does? No. Am I aware of such a denomination? No. There are no perfect churches and maybe some should quit waisting time looking.

      There are plenty of back pew Baptists, that is not to say however, that if you want to burn yourself out they won’t give you plenty of opportunity, but experience tells me that is true of any organization whether it is a church or something else.

      Some times you just need to bloom where you are planted.

  3. Jacob C says:

    There is, at its worst, kind of a works righteousness treadmill. You use all of your strength to go from one victory to the next. If you are not continually living the 100% Victorious Life, you are a backslider, maybe even “unsaved.” Faith becomes a human capacity that you develop – it is kind of a gift you give to God as you work out your personal path to perfection. All you have to do is work a little harder… It gets reductionistic – you say you are committed to the Lord, but are you really, really, really committed? What have you done today and is it enough? How much more can you do? To use Lutheran terminology, it is more the theology of glory than the theology of the cross. And some Evangelical churches seem to be run by bad management manuals that use pop psychology to manipulate people. Everyone is supposed to be a good organization person who uses all the approved slogans. Everyone is dedicated to the corporate ideal of 100% Total Productivity.

    • What are your thoughts on this post by Scot McKnight on transformation? It brings some Lutheran thought into the discussion:

      • Transformation is promised, good, to be desired and pursued. However, what I’ve learned while I do a slide into 60 is that transformation is not a straight-line process and is always “in process”.

        This statement by Robert Capon helps to keep me in the land of the reasonably sane;

        We are not saved by what Jesus taught, and we are certainly not saved by what we understand Jesus to have taught. We are saved by Jesus himself, dead and risen. “Follow me” he says. It is the only word that finally matters.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Everyone is supposed to be a good organization person who uses all the approved slogans. Everyone is dedicated to the corporate ideal of 100% Total Productivity.

      Joyfullly fulfill and exceed the People’s Quotas of the Glorious Five-Year Plan, Comrades.

  4. JoanieD says:

    Those are excellent words by Danielle. And Chaplain Mike, I love your final words, ” Some of us still smell like smoke.”

  5. Ah, what to do with the Blodgett-Christians. It’s been a problem since the days of Ananias and Sapphira. it got worse after Soldier-boy Constantine made it so that being a Christian wasn’t an automatic death sentence, payable on the whim of the local governor.

    You know one, I’m sure. I’m one myself, mostly. They know all the right phrases and are faithful to come to church, but they do all the wrong things and want all the wrong things. Every time you run into them they ask you to pray, but its for a professional husband for their daughter, or for a promotion, or for their kid to get off drugs. When they talk about God, you get the distinct impression that they seem him as kind of a genie Who exists to make their lives more comfortable.

    Not like us “on fire, really regenerate” Chris-chuns,

    But the Blodgetts have always been 90% of all baptized Christians. I think one Reformed guy put it the best. The Evangelicals are not the heirs of the Catholic church, but of its monastic wing. They really don’t know what to do with the laity, and are kind of embarrassed by them.

  6. T.S.Gay says:

    When thinking about wretched urgency or wretched enthusiasm it reminds me of what Steve Taylor, in a song called The Finish Line, calls being locked in a washroom turning old tricks. Which when acknowledged leads to opening up, and the learning of new( perhaps a language or Jesus shaped spirituality analogy). Opening up has four paths in its wildness. The future is alethically settled but nevertheless epistemically open because God has chosen this way(Dallas Willard). The future is alethically settled but epistemically open because the future is unknowable( Richard Swinburne). The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open because the future contingents are neither true or false( J.R.Lucas). The future is alethically open and therefore epistemically open and propositions that they will obtain or will not obtain are both false. Instead what is true is that they might obtain or might not obtain( Greg Boyd).
    There is a big difference between it is possible that it is raining or it is possible for it to rain. The subjunctive says something about how things might have been under different circumstances. Epistemic possibility( in all four paths) says something about a particular outcome and our knowledge about the actual world. It is this reality of outcomes and our knowledge of the actual world that is the opening up of people. One could give many examples, but the gay issue is just one such example. Once upon a time people all lived with the same people throughout a lifetime. These conditions properly led to patriarchy. The church transitioned out of this to a form of conscience. Even this equilibrium is not sufficient today when the present is nothing like the past, and the changes that are likely to occur are so numerous. You could hardly think that friendships, acquaintances are but for a season for many people today. This requires an openness, but at the same time creates for people a need for security. A type of matriarchy is needed today, and that is what I submit as the ecclesiological model. It is those that don’t have an inkling of matriarchal values that some are leaving and others are looking for. People like the basketball player Kevin Durant’s mother are the true MVP’s today( He said it and I believe it).

  7. Ali Shaw says:

    “If you were really spiritual, you were going for a total life commitment.” Very good description of the unfortunate attitudes of many Christians. Can we put another spin on it though?
    I am totally committed to life in all its fullness, variety, wonder and mystery.
    Because of this commitment I am compelled to avoid church programs like the plague, unnecessary meetings, committees (ugh) and hanging around other Christians all the time especially other leaders. I don’t think other people in my church community always appreciate this attitude (so I may not last too long as their minister!) but I really think God enjoys me living as He created me to live. Does this make me ‘really spiritual’?

  8. Having gained some perspective on my wilderness journey (thanks in large part to this site and Michael Spencer’s writings), I’ve come to describe myself as “radical, on-fire for Jesus in a non-evangelical sort of way.” My faith has always been strong, and often a light for others who are struggling. But I’ve never been able to subscribe to the Christian Lifestyle treadmill. The grace it gives you with one hand, it takes away with the other. I’ve spent time in both mainline and evangelical camps. I find the mainline churches less burdensome, although membership anywhere seems to come with expectations that just don’t fit with who God made me to be – a highly introverted, one-on-one, behind the scenes worker bee who mostly just wants to be left alone. Guess we’re back to the whole square peg/round hole analogy.

    Is there such a thing as church for us out in the wilderness?? I’ve come to think of church as something other than what happens in a building on Sunday morning. It’s Jesus living through me. But I still crave a community of like-minded, Jesus-shaped believers. This site is the closest I’ve come. So thanks.

  9. Most of these things are not wrong, and may in fact be good discipling and spiritual growth instruments. The problem comes in when people think those are the only options, especially if going through a new season in life.

  10. Michael Z says:

    In my more strident evangelical days, I used to think that growing in faith meant spending more and more time doing what I saw as “Christian” things: reading my Bible, praying, going to college fellowship groups, debating the Bible on the internet. 🙂

    At some point my perspective shifted. I still think Christian faith should be something that shapes every aspect of our lives, but that doesn’t happen by the “spiritual” compartment in our lives growing like cancer until it has pushed out all our secular ideas. Instead it means learning how to let all those “secular” compartments: our finances, our relationships, our work, our enjoyment of this world – be transformed by God’s presence.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      In my more strident evangelical days, I used to think that growing in faith meant spending more and more time doing what I saw as “Christian” things: reading my Bible, praying, going to college fellowship groups, debating the Bible on the internet. 🙂

      And What Was Forbidden grew and grew over time until all that was not Forbidden was Scripture, Prayer, Devotions, Fellowship (safely away from the Heathen) and WITNESSING.

      And what Was Not Forbidden became Absolutely Compulsory.

  11. AndreaBT says:

    Wow. Yeah. I think I may have just escaped through the flames myself, even if through a different set of circumstances, not because I saw what was coming.

    I don’t know if I think “being on fire” is a bad thing necessarily. I can think of times in my life that I have felt really good about being involved about some of the things you listed, and still don’t regret them. AWANA, daily devotions, a longer term missions trip, homeschooling (though that last one wasn’t really for religious reasons). Maybe the key is not to burn out? To let the fire burn to hot coals sometimes, but not let it get so hot that it burns others or burns myself completely up. Like one other poster said, God did create the concept of the Sabbath and rest. That extended to the idea of Jubilee as well. We also need to know our own limits, our own interests, and understanding that “I am not that zealot sitting across the aisle from me, the one who comes to church every time the doors are open, the one who turns every conversation into a Jesus juke, who looks for opportunities to witness to the guy sitting next to him on the plane. I am a different person, and I don’t have to be like someone else.”

  12. In my case, I grew up in independent Baptist fundamentalism and found my home in the SBC. After 3 summer mission trips and a monthly stint volunteering our Baptist Center, I entered vocational ministry on the mission field of eastern Kentucky where I met and was mentored by Michael Spencer. I found SBC evangelicalism much more sensible than the fundamentalism of my adolescence.

    Mere Churchianity addresses the grey area between being on fire for God and being on fire for church culture. I have to bite my tongue when someone is asked their religion and they reply “Baptist.” I learned from Bruce Wilkinson that you can work yourself to death and not be in God’s will. There will always be pressure to do more – the fields are white unto harvest but the laborers are few. But God is probably not calling you to teach Sunday School, lead a group on Wednesday night, drive the church bus, cook meals and direct VBS. Even Jesus sought to get away from the crowds AND his disciples for a time in order to rest.

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Wow. Talk about hitting the nail on the head — “If you were really spiritual, you were going for a total life commitment.”

    How does that differ from the Clericalism and Monasticism mania of the late Middle Ages (pre-Luther)? Where if you were really spiritual, you’d be in Holy Orders or in a monastery/nunnery?

    Danielle’s insight is to recognize that the “total life commitment” in the culture of evangelicalism is not necessarily to the person of Jesus Christ but rather to the mission and program and expectations of the culture itself. Though it would claim to represent Christ’s calling, in fact it is the culture itself that often defines the “lifestyle,” the honored vocations, the meaning of total commitment. She rightly describes it as a “pressure cooker” that appeals to “activists” who will not feel that they are “taking God seriously” unless they are “getting with the program” wholeheartedly and without question.

    And how does this differ from a Social Activist(TM) spending 24/7 For The Cause, For The Cause, For The Cause? (Whatever the Cause du Jour. — Vegetable Rights, Interplanetary Peace, Stop Global Ponyfication, whatever.)

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    All that fire burned her out. Addie Zierman describes how, as a young adult, she eventually succumbed to the scorching heat of expectations that centered on proper performance, the right language, and maintaining godly appearances. Her departure from the church was accompanied by a swift descent into depression, alcohol abuse, marriage troubles, and cynicism. Thankfully, she eventually found her way back to a gentler, more nourishing, more deeply human faith journey that accepts its complexities and nuances. She got to a point where she said, “I think I’m ready to stop hating the evangelicals.” She and her husband started attending church again. They had a baby. She began growing up.

    Eagle — that trajectory sound familiar?

  15. There are not enough corners in ANY church building to hide in to accommodate all of the “square pegs” and “back row” believers who do not , or CANNOT, subscribe to the “burned out for Jesus” paradigm.

    As for fellowship, it will always be a problem for those not plugged into the program, or for those that “the program” has used up and discarded. We have to find out fellowship on the margins, where ever THAT may be. We just have to get used to the idea of being “irregular” Christians by showing forbearance toward the majority who just do not understand.

    2Ti 2:20-21 MSG In a well-furnished kitchen there are not only crystal goblets and silver platters, but waste cans and compost buckets–some containers used to serve fine meals, others to take out the garbage. (21) Become the kind of container God can use to present any and every kind of gift to his guests for their blessing.

    In other words, quit trying to fit in and do not allow yourself to be judged by organizational, or peer, standards.

  16. Rethinking the so-called “Great Commission” might be called for here, and I say this with some trepidation. (Sounds like heresy, doesn’t it?) Was Jesus talking to us individually …or to his future church collectively? …or to exclusively the band of disciples that he had been preparing personally for over 3 years? Could it be that our misreading of those words drives the idea of total commitment and body counts? Here in the West we pick up on the evangelism part and throw away the hard, painstaking work of becoming (and, thereby, making) disciples. Here it’s not “live for Christ” but “work for Christ”. We’re made into Christian soldiers. Onward, y’all ….

    • I don’t think it’s so much a matter of “re-thinking” the Great Commission so much as it is recognizing how it’s been grossly misunderstood and misapplied. In the entrepreneurial west, we’ve taken it to mean “obtain conversions,” and go to great pains to create churches which will attract attenders who are then emotionally compelled by slick productions to choose our religion.

      What Jesus actually said was “make disciples,” not converts. What’s the difference? See how Jesus says that disciples are made: “Baptizing then and teaching them…” The word for teaching there is the root from whence “catechism” comes. Baptizing and catechizing. Teaching the Word, administering the sacraments. Through these two things, the Holy Spirit can grow His church, rather than relying on our efforts and creative methods. Not that our works are completely irrelevant, but let’s start with God’s works and not get so creative that we crowd Him out.

      High-church liturgical worship and traditional catechism, seen by the wretchedly urgent Evangelical subculture as dull and ineffective, are actually quite mission oriented. And they have a tremendous track record. Where they are forgotten and thrown out, it’s only a matter of time before everybody begins scratching their heads and wondering why the youth have lost interest in faith.

      • I find this understanding of the Great Commission very helpful, thank you. For me, this way of viewing the Great Commission also helps eliminate the tension between secular work and kingdom work, as if one is a more valid vocation than the other.

        • Yes! And as a church worker, let me tell you, it also takes a ton of pressure off my shoulders. Validating the laity in their occupational endeavors is always a win, for everybody.

  17. I very much identify with Addie Zierman. But with a different story and a different final perspective.

    I did not grow up Evangelical, but Roman Catholic. There I learned many good things about God, church and family but also about fire–a different kind of fire–purgatory and hell. I was told that as long as I confessed my sins on a regular basis, did the requisite penance, etc., and kept away from mortal sins in between confessions, I had a good chance of dying with only venial sins on my record, meaning that I would be spared eternal hell but would more than likely wind up spending hundreds if not thousands of years in purgatory which, as the priest stoically informed my eight-grade class, “is just as hot as hell.” Within a few years I blew it all off.

    Then I was converted to Christianity pretty much on my own simply by reading Scripture and in the process receiving grace and believing in Christ’s atoning work (Romans 10.9-10). No more fire for me!

    I then joined an Evangelical church (still in the same movement nearly 40 years later) and experienced a new kind of fire more closely related to what Danielle posted and what Ms. Zierman writes about in “When We Were on Fire.” Back in the mid to late 70’s and into the 80’s and even beyond we were on fire so much that many of us quit school to find part-time jobs (just enough to support ourselves) and spend the rest of the time evangelizing (mostly in college dorms) so as to reap as big a harvest as possible before the impending rapture. I decided not to drop out of school and caught a little bit of subtle fire for not being enough on fire.

    So, like Danielle, Ms. Zierman, and others here, the fire began to die out for lack of combustible material–me. With it came some disillusionment, rethinking my assumptions, but in time a fresh renewal and focus on Christ. There’s way more to what I’m saying here but I believe you catch my drift.

    Now, I have not read “When We Were on Fire” (this is the first I’ve heard of it) but I did read some of the comments posted on Amazon. The book received mostly outstanding reviews and a few negative comments. As with everything else I look at on Amazon, I like to read the negative reviews first; there were a couple of them which grabbed my attention, especially this one,

    “It is a shame that the story told is true. With the studies showing that a large percentage of young people are leaving the faith in college, answers must be pursued as to why. Drinking, swearing, throwing off moral restraint and abandoning the Bible and prayer don’t quite seem like the correct answers to me.”

    Now, I did my share of debauchery in my late teens and early twenties after leaving Roman Catholicism but not after burning out as an Evangelical. I’m not saying this to justify one and condemn the other but to agree with the reviewer when he writes that “Drinking, swearing, throwing off moral restraint and abandoning the Bible and prayer don’t quite seem like the correct answers to me.”

    And it shouldn’t be that way. I get tired of hearing and reading how because we were exposed to this we wound up doing that. Rather, we should say, I do the wrong I do because it is my nature to do wrong and not because I was told I couldn’t drink or dance or eat meat on Fridays, for that matter. We sin because we are sinners by nature. We become saints by the grace of God alone. So on the one hand, it’s our own fault we sin regardless of how we were raised, and on the other hand we are sanctified by the love, grace and of God and not through any effort of our own. In other words, let us blame ourselves–not our circumstances–for the wrong we do and thank God for any good we do.

    • I don’t think the book is quite as simple as “the evangelicals made me do it.” It is, however, powerful testimony of a certain kind of peer pressure that can trap people, and when they burst out of it, they often swing to other extremes of behavior, especially in certain stages of life when immaturity and lack of self-awareness make it easier for them to be led by stronger people who are in destructive lifestyles.

      • I agree, Mike, and even the negative reviewers commented on how well the book was written and identified and otherwise empathized with her experiences.

        And I I said, I have not read the book and so speak from little/no knowledge and am relying on second-hand information. Still, I read so much about how “Evangelicalism screwed me up” that I sense the need to say, “taint necessarily so” now and then.

        • I hear you, C, but at the same time, a lot of people will write comments deliberately trashing books like this one, and I honestly doubt that a lot of *them* have read the books in question.

          It’s so hard for young people who grew up in these kinds of super-constrained environments, and I honestly get why some of them go a little crazy when they leave. Apparently, it’s incredibly true of many Amish kids who decide to leave – their lives have been so restricted that they have no idea how to act when they get out from under the eyes of their communities (which monitor everyone’s behavior).

          Not all kids/young adults do this, of course, but a lot do – I think it’s an almost unavoidable emotional/psychological response that’s part of the process for many.

          • That is certainly true of some reviewers and it may well be true of the ones I read, although they did give praise where praise was due.

            I find it interesting that you mention the Amish, a fairly strict bunch. The interesting thing about the Amish is that they encourage their young people to try out the world for a few days. And yet many (most?) return to the Amish tradition. I find the same to be true in other strict environments; many leave but many also stay.

          • Calvin – I mentioned the Amish partly because there are many where I live, and partly due to what I’ve read about a halfway house for Amish kids who want to transition to the “English” world. (It’s in Ohio, though there might be others, or at least, other social workers who see a fair number of Amish and/or strict Old Order Mennonite kids.)

            I think there’s a lot of misinformation about what different Amish churches (yes, they have their own internal differences and divisions) do – or don’t do – re. teenagers. Most of it seems to have come from the documentary titled The Devil’s Playground, plus various “reality” TV shows. I think what’s show in Playground is true of/for the young people in the movie, but equally, I don’t think the filmmaker as around her subjects long enough to catch a lot of the nuances of their culture. Still worth watching, as long as you keep those caveats in mind.

            Re. the book, I’d like to read it. I think a LOT of kids have been badly burned by the whole courtship/purity culture w/in evangelicalism over the past few decades, and I feel for them.

          • Calvin – Amish kids finish school in eighth grade, and the Amish aren’t registered w/Social Security. The need for basic documentation plus a GED and more are a barrier to most who think of leaving. The consequences for leaving are very grave if the person in question has been baptized in the Amish church, though some sects are harsh and others much less so when it comes to this.

            There are lots of Mennonites whose families come from Amish backgrounds… Which is more of a reversion to type, since the Amish are the result of a Mennonite split (led by one Jacob Amman).

            There’s lots of good info. available, though books by John Hostetler and Donald Kraybill are the best for depth, accurate history and more. (Hostetler was raised Amiush but quietly slipped off to be baptized in a Mennonite church, because he wanted to finish HS and go to college.)

          • Thank you for the information, Numo.

            FWIW, I have a colleague here at the university who was raised Anabaptist (or so Mennonites call themselves). He left long ago and is not affiliated with any faith group.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It is, however, powerful testimony of a certain kind of peer pressure that can trap people, and when they burst out of it, they often swing to other extremes of behavior…

        Communism begets Objectivism.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      So, like Danielle, Ms. Zierman, and others here, the fire began to die out for lack of combustible material–me.

      Like the Burned-over District of upstate New York in the early-to-mid 19th Century, burned over by Revival after Revival. Which became the spawning grounds of most of the offbeat-to-extreme religions of the time — from the Spiritualists, the Adventists, and Mormons to those flash-in-the-pan cults and communes who didn’t last long. (Like the nameless nudity-as-sacrament commune that lasted only until the first New York/Pennsylvania winter.)

      I remember a homily by a Jesuit years ago (during the big Harmonic Convergence brouhaha) naming the Burned Over District as the Southern California of its day — the Weird Religion Capital of America.

  18. SottoVoce says:

    What Addie describes is a culture that has taken the wildfire for its model. A wildfire is impossible to ignore, powerful, blindingly bright, spreading over vast swaths of territory. Metaphorically, it takes all things into itself, transforms them, and makes them one. Unfortunately, it does this by killing off everything in its path, leaving only ashes. Somehow people forgot about that last part.

    If we are going to play with fire metaphors, let us consider the hearthfire for a pattern. A hearthfire burns quietly in the background. Each warms and lights only a small domain. Its tasks are humble: cook the meal, warm the fingers, illuminate the faces of loved ones and the pages of books. But these tasks are the foundation of our life. One hearthfire may be a little thing, but together, each in its own pool of light and warmth, they sustain the world.

    • Yes, like a forest fire that cannot be contained, as opposed to a carefully-controlled burn.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      But who cares about the rest of us in its path when YOU’RE the pyro setting the wildfire from the pulpit?


      • StuartB says:


        Yeah, you and every other church in the same metro area. Same old story…

        • Let’s all stand and sing our closing hymn, “God of this City.”

          “Greater things have yet to come, greater things are still to be done in this city….”

          …or “Onward Christian Soldiers,” if you’re an older congregation in the 70’s. Every generation or movement has their rah-rah fight songs. I generally tend to develop an allergic reaction to them.

    • If I may share:


      Send your fire, Lord!
      The controlled fire the farmer uses;
      Bulldoze away the stubble, deadwood and chaff of our life.
      May our jealousies, gossip, deceit and lies all go up in smoke,
      And be a stench in our own nostrils.

      Send your fire, Lord!
      The intense heat of the refiner’s furnace;
      Get rid of the impurities, burn away pride, fear, anger,
      and all manner of evil.
      May we keep on becoming the beautiful person you want us to be,
      Shining as pure, unblemished gold.

      Send your fire, Lord!
      The powerful fire of the blow torch;
      Destroy the artificial, man-made boundaries, limitations and walls.
      May you fuse in harmony, black and white, men and women,
      parents and children.
      May we be one in the Spirit of love!

      Send the fire, Lord!
      The raging forest fire that strikes with lightening sharpness;
      Burn to the ground all our lofty ideals and our reaching for the stars.
      Bring forth the new growth, the delicate flowers of love, peace and joy,
      To adorn our renewed heart.

      Let us be on fire for you Lord!
      Like a candle that dispels the darkness
      and gives a glimmer of hope.
      Like a camp-fire that draws others for fellowship
      provides safety from wild beasts and warmth for all around.
      Like a torch that leads the way to victory
      so others can follow
      and we all run the race well.

      Karin Ristau ©

  19. Dana Ames says:

    The whole issue about which Danielle wrote so eloquently flows from a dualistic view of things: things (or conditions) are either “worldly” or “spiritual.”

    This ignores the meaning of the Incarnation, and of Baptism.

    In the Incarnation of Christ, divinity has joined the material world in an appropriate way, confirming God’s pronouncement that his creation is good, and that his creation Humanity (“adam”) is very good. He has never taken that pronouncement back.

    In Baptism, we are united with Christ in a way that is beyond conceptualizing. Our whole life has been taken into him – and we have been given his Holy Spirit to enable the outworking of his life in ours. We didn’t get sick overnight, and most of the time healing does not take place overnight, either. But if there is a “bare minimum” to being a Christian, it is not a matter of correct belief or of how much we do based on belief. It means our life being united with his, and simply living our life within this union. No dualism!

    The only “program” there was in the NT for the Jesus-followers was announcing the good news that Our God Reigns, and then living ordinary life – where they were – as if that had indeed happened. That was the “mission” of most Christians. That witness was sometimes noticeable to people around them. An intellect capable of assent/”belief” is good but not necessary; all that is necessary is living life In Christ, as honestly as one can in any given moment. For those who can understand, we can also say that that Reign has come about because God himself came to be among us incarnate, that his suffering for our redemption was something that was revealed in the OT but not fully evident until the Resurrection (what Christ explained on the road to Emmaus), and that his Resurrection is the death of death. Yes, some are called to specific tasks as elders, overseers and servers. Most are not – and those who are so called are not intrinsically “more spiritual” than anyone else. Everyone is to cultivate love for God and love for neighbor as oneself.

    Like Mule said above, there is no place in Evangelicalism for people to simply be the laos of God. Thus the wretchedness, made more painful if one us unable to let loose of the false expectations based on the largely unspoken dualist view.


    • I was going to post something like this, but you put it more eloquently than I could. Here are three quick points that deserve discussion:
      1) I think the incarnation – or sacramentalism – is a key to understanding who we are and how we should be.
      2) Our great-grandparents thought in terms of planting a garden. We think in terms of building a spaceship.
      3) Why does God keep telling us that his will for us, while profound, is decidedly inglorious and rather simple?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        2) Our great-grandparents thought in terms of planting a garden. We think in terms of building a spaceship.

        “Why does God need a starship?” — Spock

      • Danielle says:

        Yes. Especially #1.

        Regarding #2: I’d like a garden.

        But I wouldn’t mind a spaceship!

    • Danielle says:

      This sums up how I have come to view the problem!

      I don’t have any quarrel with the idea that Christ places a claim on the whole life of a person. But when evangelicalism proposes a “total life commitment,” the “life” it imagined is highly spiritualized one. In this vision, many aspects of what is human and the humane are too easily excluded, downplayed, constrained, or outright trampled underfoot. As people have commented frequently on this blog, “the spiritual” gets emphasized over the “mundane,” when a great deal of what connects us to each other and to the rest of creation is in the mundane. Evangelicalism cares very much about personal experience and feeling, but it has confining narratives to which all valid experience is supposed to conform. It can be difficult to speak faithfully, directly, or honestly about experiences or feelings that don’t fit well inside the narratives. Interest in purity and activism, which are salutary when balanced with other things, can take on a life of their own and run roughshod over mercy, which is less discriminate in what it embraces. One can go on.

      In any case, the result can be a deeply in-humane picture of redemption. How else does it become necessary for Abbie to say:

      “You will be sad. You will be happy. You will love and doubt and cry and rage, and all of it matters.”

      • SottoVoce says:

        How many ways are there of saying “nailed it”? I need ALL OF THEM for this post.

        • +1
          Isn’t all this “on fire” stuff just a shift away from the Gospel of Grace? It’s ironic and sad that we can lose sight of the core gospel while seeming to be laser focused on it at exactly the same time. For myself, I am amazed at how easily I can make a slight shift away from that grounded feeling of being “just human” and just loved by Jesus. As soon as my focus shifts, my ego takes over and ugliness happens.

  20. Randy Thompson says:

    It is indeed amazing how we can so easily confuse Christian peer pressure with God’s will.

    The more you come to know the God who comes to us in Jesus, the harder it is to be a zealot (or crazy). It seems to me that the more I attend to that God’s concerns, the more He attends to the “fire,” and when God attends to the fire, I’m totally unaware of whether I’m on fire or not and don’t much care, because that’s God’s business and not theresult of my own huffing and puffing. If other people smell the smoke, great. God has been glorified.

  21. StuartB says:

    Alternate title suggestion:

    Why Nominal is Normal

    Thanks again, Chaplain Mike. This site refreshes me like no other. But at the same time, gets under my skin and informs my thinking, especially with all the liturgical stuff, to the point where I don’t know if it’s really me wanting to move that direction in life, or just everyone’s influence here. To be determined…

    • I think Internet Monk, which of course sounds Catholic, has become much more liturgical in tone since Michael Spencer passed on. That is neither here nor there, just my observation of what seems, to me, to be an evolution on the site. There are more emerging from the wilderness these days than just entering it.

  22. JoanieD says:

    I just ran across a line in “The Little White Book” which is a booklet that my parish distributes to the parishioners. This booklet covers April 21 to June 8: the first week of Easter to Pentecost. For May 24 (I am behind in reading!) the last line reads, “The Church isn’t the only place Jesus said he would ever be. It’s the only place he said he would always be.” I like that. Maybe a bit off topic…maybe not.

    I like these little books. They have them throughout the year to cover the various “seasons” of the Church. They are not always white. Sometimes it is “The LIttle Black Book” and sometimes it is “The Little Blue Book.”

  23. Danielle says:

    So, I’m curious. Chaplain Mike’s post from yesterday got me thinking about what it’s like to move into a new tradition after having been in acquainted with the “throbbing culture” or “wretched enthusiasm” of evangelicalism. I wonder how other people find the transition?

    I’m glad to have shifted into a new context. In fact I’m a lot happier than I’ve been in a long time. I’m very attached to practicing faith in a word and table context. I still reflect on theology, mostly privately. The mainline is lowkey, and I appreciate the fact that its default setting seems to getting practical things done.

    But, whatever problems I might have with evangelicalism’s “throbbing culture,” it does leave behind a vacuum. The very things I can’t stand about it were also things that gave me a sense of mission and bound me to other people. There was a program. I had vocational plans (not ministry, but in another area that would likely have tied to be an evangelical institution, and was totalizing in its own way). There was a shared language and set of priorities that formed the basis for common cause between people. My oldest and deepest friendships are still in that fold.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that what I have now doesn’t fill that void. However, it is different.

    There isn’t a bandwagon you just climb on, and there isn’t a lingua franca you can just learn, that is supposed to tie people are the core together. There’s no chattering center set of leaders dedicated to imposing their patterns on you and interrogating you; but this also means that there are no explicit instructions being given for how one integrates into the community. In a sense, evangelicalism’s language is so strongly insider that it both excludes the uninitiated AND permits insiders from different backgrounds to communicate, by way of ignoring their existing backgrounds and giving them a bunch of brand new, shared symbols. [Also, evangelical products and music are surprisingly generic and accessible, which I suspect facilitates this integration.] By contrast, in the smaller mainline churches I have known, the glue holding the core together tends to be longevity (the people who know how the place runs have been there a long time) or some cultural link to the tradition. No chatter is necessary: the core people know how everything works already. One doesn’t just march in and learn the rules. No one ever wrote any down. Or maybe they did, and it as a secret location! See, that’s my point: I don’t know where people hide this stuff.

    So…I knew exactly how to be at the center of the evangelical inferno (well, until I didn’t anymore), with its attendent dangers and rewards. By contrast, other contexts seem more … mysterious, even as they are sometimes friendlier or more accepting. Sometimes, I am not sure how one assimilates into the mainline, or translates “fire in the belly” into action. However, I suspect it has something to do with bringing tasty food to potlucks. 🙂

    Bottom line: The pressure cooker burns you, but it comes with a manual. 🙂

    • Robert F says:

      I’ve never been a member of an evangelical church, so I’m making an observation as an outsider to the experience you’re talking about, Danielle: From your comment above, a significant part of what you miss about your evangelical experience could easily be typified sociologically as its cult-like aspects. The insider/outsider dichotomy, the shared language that unites people with otherwise disparate cultures, the centralized sense of purpose and motivation presided over by a core group controllers, the reduction of reality into a simplistic interpretative framework easily understood and navigated,etc., all sound not unlike the inner workings of a cult.

      So it’s not surprising that withdrawal from this experience leaves a void, because the experience is tailor-made to produce extreme attachment. Outside cults, things are a lot more ambiguous and “mysterious,” because that’s how reality inevitably reveals itself when it’s not being moderated through the prism of the simplifying interpretations that cults produce.

      That also means that life outside a cult is much more boring, in certain ways; the highs and lows go away, and the middle lacks the melodrama of either. Sound like a very difficult transition for all you post-evangelical wilderness travelers; you have my prayers.

      • Danielle says:

        Your comment is interesting. I was going to caution that I am painting in broad strokes here, and that if I’m tempting someone to introduce the word “cult” toward the conversation, there may be something amiss in my description. I actually didn’t mean my description of either circumstance to be negative, so much as I wanted to highlight some differences on what it means to integrate into communities that operate differently.

        Then i thought about it some more, and I think I see what you are chasing here. I would probably go this far: evangelicalism is a subculture, or a series of them, with strong (if contested) boundaries. The us/them or insider/outsider dichotomies are very strong. There is also an intense pietism running through the movement, and a strong activist instinct. So, while I wouldn’t use the word cult to describe it, I think these aspects of the movement can produce some of the “cult-like” dynamics you are trying to describe. (Certainly, it is true that some people find crossing evangelical boundaries difficult or guilt-producing — I did, at least.) Ultimately, it depends a bit on where you stand: some communities are not controlling, and some do operate a lot like cults. There’s a lot of diversity underneath the umbrella.

        (I hope that makes sense. I’m running on very little sleep.)

        In any case, as always you’ve given me something to think about.

  24. Another Mary says:

    I too have noticed the difference in how the dicussion seems to have evolved. Not a bad thing but different. And while I’m at it, Why haven’t we heard from Martha of Ireland or Father Ernesto in awhile? I know I am not able to read this every day but have I really missed that much? Just asking.

  25. I totally feel this.

    I am currently involved in a megachurch. I see that megachurches get very little if any love in these parts, but this place has been home to me for most of my young adult years, and has been very good to me over the years. I have found a good community there, and I definitely feel at least some sense of belonging.

    Still, there is an awful lot that is said here, and in this post especially, which hits home for me. The incessant calls to become more expressive in worship leave me feeling woefully out of place. Listening to how evangelicals talk about things that are important to them (for example, that life is all about leading people to Christ or displaying a high level of commitment to prayer/Bible study) –it is clear that these people live in a universe where this way of looking at reality just makes sense. And yet I do not live in that universe. I did at one time, but no longer. Now, I am brought face-to-face with it and it reminds me of just how out of place I am feeling these days.

    Leave evangelicalism? An awful lot of you have taken that step. Perhaps you would counsel me to do likewise. Perhaps you would be right. But I can’t bring myself to pull the plug just yet. I am too well engaged where I am, and I am still young enough–and crazy enough–to believe that I can do at least some good where I am.

    • Joe, we have people who have left evangelicalism, people who are still in evangelicalism, and others who have never been in evangelicalism. We encourage you to trust Jesus, that’s all.

  26. Robert F says:

    “After the fire, the fire still burns…”

  27. I do love Danielle’s description and have lived it as a card carrying member with all its privileges, as a renegade protesting it and as an outcast from it. I’m reminded of Lewis’s discussion in the “Four Loves” and of our need to belong. Having and “inner ring” to which we belong is a strong drive, especially when tied up with a desire to please/appease God. But the”dues” of membership can become quite costly and wearisome, especially the more spiritually elite ones. All your energies get caught up in keep up appearances that have little to do with a Jesus shaped spirituality.

  28. There is a name for the problem described herein: Pietism. An excerpt from one of my recent homework assignments:

    Pietism is a system of thought which, as a reaction against “dead orthodoxy,” emphasizes a gnostic personal awakening and insight (apart from the Word), a life of spiritual athleticism, and small group Bible studies led by lay persons rather then a called and ordained pastor. This may have been helpful as a correction to the formalistic hypocrisy and insincerity of state run church establishments, and for its increased emphasis on the personal study of Scripture. However, what little good it may have potentially achieved is easily undone by its emphasis on Christian behavior rather than the work of Christ on his/her behalf, the third use of the Law, and the “theology of Glory,” where man is a active participator in the righteousness of Christ. This takes away from the monergistic accomplishment that scripture describes salvation to be and makes it a cooperation between God and man, which thereby defeats the purpose for being Protestant in the first place.