Review: When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman

Last week, I sat on a plane and wept (Think ugly cry) as I finished Addie Zierman's When We Were on Fire . I'm sure my poor seat mate thought I was crazy but it couldn't be helped. Addie's words moved me deeply.

Having followed her blog for quite some time, When We Were on Fire was the Christian book I most anticipated this year. It did not disappoint.

When We Were on Fire traces Addie's journey through evangelicalism, first as a church kid, then as an on fire youth group kid, and finally into college, when everything faith-related began to fall apart. It also explores the rebuilding phase – the process through which Addie reformed her faith as an adult.

I loved this book. Quite simply, the writing in it is stunning, simultaneously relatable as well as profound. I laughed one moment and cried the next.

As strange as it is to say, I also loved this book structurally. Each chapter begins with Addie's definition of an evangelical cliché like Invite Jesus into one's heart or Saving oneself for marriage. Addie then uses her strong voice and narrative to explore the manifestation of that cliché in her life as well as how that manifestation impacted her faith journey. No doubt, this is where Addie's memoir is strongest. It's a rare thing for someone to be able to analyze their own culture with such profundity, accurately assessing both it's strengths and weaknesses.

I especially appreciated this as a youth worker. Through this lens, I saw not just images of my own faith journey within Addie's book but also reflections of so many of the youth with whom I have worked. Though I fear some may take Addie's words as an indictment against youth ministry and the church, I saw in them hope that we can learn from our mistakes and impart in our students a stronger, more consequential faith.

In Addie's words, I also found hope that even if we church workers do everything wrong, Jesus is stronger; Faith is stronger; And so, too, is the pull of church community. As such, though the process may be painful and wrought with difficulties, it is always possible to rebuild one's faith into something that gives meaning to all aspects of life.

That, too, is something I appreciated about Addie's memoir. In it, she doesn't just explore the disillusionment of her faith but also it's rebuilding. Take, for example, her exploration of the three-minute testimony which, early on, she defines as a “short, polished account of one's conversion to Christianity. It covers only the highlights of one's faith story so that it can be memorized quickly, delivered simply, and pulled out at a moment's notice.” Like so many others in the evangelical world, Addie learned a formula for giving this kind of testimony: Life before Christ, how you came to know Christ, followed by life after you received Christ (particularly highlighting the changes He made and what He means to you now.)

Near the end of her book, however, Addie confesses that just as it did for so many others, this formula for testimony fell short in her life. Her faith journey could not actually be summed up in three minutes because it was not neat and tidy. Among other things, she concludes, “Your life after Christ is not static or an end result. You are not suspended in grace above the fray of life. You are looking at God through a kaleidoscope. Your life moves, and the beads shift, and something new emerges. You are redefining, figuring it out all over again.”

And this, friends, is perhaps my biggest takeaway from Addie's book: As youth workers, one of the greatest gifts we can give our youth is the knowledge that their faith will not stay the same.

Certainly, I hope the faith we are helping teens form now will continue to be the foundation for their future faith. Nevertheless, I pray my teens – I pray our teens – will know it is OK and even good for their faith to change as they grow in wisdom, understanding, and experiences. I pray we will equip our teens to continue pursuing Christ in all facets of their lives, knowing that “life after Christ is not static or an end result” but a life “in motion, in transit, in flux” throughout which they are always, ever “beloved”.

Comments

Chris Sigfrids

Hi Jen,

Thanks for this thoughtful review. As a former youth pastor myself, and having grown up hearing some of the same Christian catch phrases Addie refers to in her book, I read the book in almost the same way you did. It was one of the best reads of 2013 for me!

Posted by Chris Sigfrids, over 4 years ago

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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