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
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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):
“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.