Tag Archives: youth

Why I Call Myself a “Recovering Jesus Freak”

Image from devotedclothing.com
Image from devotedclothing.com

“I may not know much,” she says from the edge of the circle of women – the group with whom I’ve come to share my book. “But I know you’re too young and normal looking to be a Jesus Freak. Believe me, I was there.”

In the book-filled basement room of the art center where I’m speaking, I feel knocked off balance by the force of her words.

She’s thinking, of course, of the 1960s version, the hippie-turned-evangelists, roaming the streets, blissed out on Jesus. Strumming guitars and handing out tracts. I’m talking about something else entirely.

I back up. I try to explain, a little bit, about the way that the term Jesus Freak morphed into something else in the ‘90s evangelical culture in which I was raised. I talk about DC Talk – “Who?” she says “ZZ Top?” – and their hit song that challenged Christian youth to let their (Jesus) freak flag fly and embrace their wacky new identity.

So what if the rest of the world made fun of you? Mocked you. Pushed you out to the far edges of their social circles. I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus Freak, the band sang, and they were so cool up there on stage, a hundred lights swirling around them. There ain’t no denyin’ the Truth!

I try to explain that when I say Jesus Freak, I’m talking about this resurgence – this wave of passion that rolled through the Christian world where I spent my youth. I’m alluding to this fact that I began to find my identity in not belonging in being an outcast for Jesus in being different from everyone and proud of it, wearing the Witness-Wear T-shirt, the WWJD bracelet, carrying my Bible to and from class.

This new “Jesus Freak” culture surged around me, and I disappeared into it.


The other day, I got a message from someone who’s read some of my recent articles online. “Not really sure I understand what you are saying,” she says. “I saw that you described yourself as a recovering Jesus freak…and it seemed sad to me that someone would want to recover from that.”

I closed the message without responding, because I don’t know how to explain it in one short note. What do I mean when I say “recovering Jesus Freak”?

I mean that I spent so many years defining myself by how out of step I was with the culture around me. I measured my success in t-shirts and purity pledges, missions trips and prayer group meetings. I thought the less “The World” loved me, the more God would.

During those years, I learned that I was supposed to find my identity in Christ, and I took it to heart – but I got Christ and evangelical subculture all mixed up in my head. I thought they were the same thing. So I built my life on I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Christian rock concerts, school Bible studies and early-morning prayer meetings.

No one ever called me a Jesus Freak. But they didn’t really pay much attention to me either. They gave me wide berth as I careened through the halls like a firecracker, burning hot for Jesus.

And when I say I’m recovering, it’s not from Jesus himself. It’s from this false identity I inhabited so fully during those years.

I’m recovering from the defensive pose, the arms-crossed-over-a-Go-Against-The-Flow-tshirt. Because it’s a thin line between I don’t care what you think and I don’t care about you. And when you’re fifteen, the former so often bleeds into the latter.

I’m recovering, bit by bit, from a personality bent toward performance and an evangelical culture that encouraged that in me. I’m learning to separate my self-worth from the things I do – the Bible studies I lead, the length of my “quiet times,” the intensity of my worship songs. I’m learning, slowly, that I don’t have to be good to be Loved.

I’m recovering because finding my identity in Christ is at once so much more simple and so much more difficult than finding it in a t-shirt. It’s choosing again and again to believe that I am defined only by the depth of his love for me – long and wide and high and deep. It’s covering me completely – obscuring all that I do or don’t do until it no longer really matters.

What I’m trying to say is that for so many years, I defined myself by a cultural construct instead of by the infinite love of God.

And so I’m a recovering Jesus Freak. I’m letting go of who I always thought I was supposed to be and trying to live into who I already am: Beloved. 

I’m learning every day that it’s enough.

To the Current Pastors – From the Formerly “On Fire”

Photo by Sam Knutsen
Photo by Sam Knutsen

The people who collectively have the hardest time with my book are those involved in full-time ministry. Pastors. Youth Pastors.

My Mom, who’s a children’s minister, has been unfailingly supportive from the beginning. After she read my book for the first time, we went for a long walk around the block, and she asked, What do we do? What are we MISSING in kids’ ministry?

It’s a question I’ve gotten a lot since the book came out, and I never know how to answer. After all, I’m no expert here.

The Church is a kind of prism through which the Light is reflected and refracted, and we all have our own experience there. My story is just one particular slant.

For me, the youth group experience was mostly very positive. It gave me a sense of community and belonging when I needed it the most. I felt loved and I learned to love God with my whole, open heart, and I am grateful for that time. I wouldn’t trade my “on fire” years, even though there were things that I stumbled into during that time that wounded my fledgling faith in really profound ways.

And yet, as I read through the 100+ entries in the When We Were on Fire Synchroblog over the last couple of weeks, I started seeing some themes. Trends. Common threads that tripped many of us up as we stumbled through the evangelical youth culture.

Certainly this is not an exhaustive list. It’s not an accusation or a recipe. But here are three things that struck me as I read through the experiences of others and thought about my own. I’m hoping that maybe these insights will be helpful as we continue to try to help kids and teens find Jesus.

1. We need to rethink the way we talk to kids about salvation.

I know this is a sticky, theological issue and that we need to be careful here. But something about the weight of the Prayer of Salvation Moment in evangelical culture paired with the focus on big, brave, outward signs of faith creates a perfect vacuum for fear and insecurity.

In the majority of posts I read from the When We Were On Fire Synchroblog, people wrote about a compulsive need to keep asking Jesus into their heart over and over again. There was a pervasive sense of having somehow “done it wrong” when the felt experience of faith didn’t match the hype. My own experience is no exception.

And so we kept asking, kept going forward to the altar – just to make sure. Just to get it to somehow “take.”

Somewhere the most important message of this free gift of Grace is getting mixed up with performance. We speak about salvation like it’s always a Before and After sort of thing, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it doesn’t fit that mold, and we’d do well to be honest about that with kids straight away.

In reality, transformation is holy, aching lifelong work, and it looks different for every single one of us.

2. The “on fire” faith is not sustainable and there should not be the primary goal of ministry.

I think that deep down, everyone knows this, which is why when we haul vans full of teens to retreats and conferences, we talk about mountaintop experiences and valleys of faith. We warn them that the feelings won’t last and try to help them figure out how to hold on to what they’ve learned in spite of that.

And yet, in my experience, the unspoken ethos of church youth groups and parachurch organizations is that, when it comes to faith, bigger is always better. We try to encourage others toward passionate faith by putting students who seem to have sparked into fire on pedestals.

And I don’t think it does anyone any favors – not the kid on pedestal, not the kids looking up at him.

What it does do is create a culture of trying harder to attain some elusive feeling, scrambling to earn God’s love, and the constant need to prove devotion through bigger and better sacrifices. (Like this guy who preemptively broke up with a girl he wasn’t even dating…just so he wouldn’t replace God as Number 1 in his life.)

I love what blogger Kristin Tennant said about the on fire moments – that they serve an important purpose, often providing “an important bridge from one solid faith ground to the next.” But those great bursts of passion for Jesus can only lead us to new ground if we’re honest about their transitory nature.

Yes, the fire matters. But also, when we glorify that kind of faith, we inadvertently set kids up for feelings of failure when the emotional high fizzles out.

I’d love to see us get really purposeful about honoring every stage of faith – from doubt, to anger, to fire…to the routine, daily work of practicing love. All of it matters, and all of it can lead us to Jesus, and this faith business is not a ladder, climbing ever upward to God. It’s a spiraling, circling around and around this beautiful Love.

3. Create a safe space for hard questions.

I think there was this general feeling in evangelical youth culture when I was there that if we could just get kids fired up enough about God during high school and college, they’d be able to sail into a steady faith of adulthood on the momentum of that passion.

But the more I talk to others, the more I’m convinced that questioning and doubting is inevitable. Regardless of how “on fire” we were in the past, most of us go through something that quakes the solid ground we thought we were standing on.

It’s a part of the messy, beautiful process of becoming. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s necessary for most of us to enter more fully into the mystery of Grace. But when we use language like backsliding and falling away, and when we talk about doubting as though it something to be avoided at all costs, we create a sense of shame and hopelessness around this necessary breaking and reassembling.

The best thing that we can do for one another is to create safe spaces for questions – not just from those who haven’t embraced the Christian faith, but also – especially – from those who have been in the faith for as long as they can remember.

Too often, church culture responds to these people with fear – If it could happen to them, then maybe it could happen to me – and as a result, we tend to dismiss doubts and questions with neat answers. Just pray about it. Are you having your quiet times? God doesn’t give us more than we can handle…

We have to get better at leaning into the questions, at believing that God is big enough for them all. That in the midst of all the pain and questions and mystery, He is always, somehow Enough.


What about you? What would you add? I don’t normally add little “response questions” at the end of blog posts because it feels sort of contrived. But I’m making an exception today because I really want to know. What can we do with kids and youth moving forward to help foster healthy faith?

A Conversation with Doug Pagitt

Photo by Courtney Perry
Photo by Courtney Perry

I had a chance to sit down last week with Doug Pagitt — a leader in the emerging church movement and a pastor at Solomon’s Porch, a “holistic missional Christian Community” in Minneapolis.

For a brief window after our Really Hard Church Experience, Andrew and I drove forty minutes every Sunday night to Solomon’s Porch.

I wrote about it a little bit over at SheLoves Magazine last week, so I won’t go into it too much here — but it was a time of rest and recovery for us, and I will always remember the Spring we spent there.

I’m grateful for the unique way that Doug and his church have figured out how to “do community.” Their church, it’s sanctuary gutted of traditional pews and filled instead with a spiral of couches, seems to breathe this notion in every act — everyone here matters. And it was the message I needed to hear as we lingered there, working up the courage to find a church in our own local community.

Doug is a speaker, consultant and the author of several books — but it’s this idea of creating space for community that I was most excited to talk to him about. He is unflinchingly generous with his time and spent much of the afternoon with me, talking through my book and describing his own experiences with book publishing.

I’ve included just a brief clip from our conversation here, in which we discussed loneliness, nostalgia and what we can take from the on fire days.

Announcing the When We Were On Fire Synchroblog

NOTE: This synchroblog is now live. Check it out here!

Today is October 1st, which means that my extremely-vulnerable memoir (choked full of spiritual angst, personal details and four-letter words) comes out in exactly TWO WEEKS.

I have been preparing for the release in the following ways:

  • Junk food. Cookies for breakfast! Pasta for dinner! Eight thousand cans of Diet Coke a day!! I bought a bag of dark-chocolate Milky Way Minis last week and ate them all, I’m sorry to say, in three days. I’m not even going to tell you how many times we’ve been to McDonalds in the last couple of weeks, and I just polished off my second bag of cheese puffs this month.
  • Watching Nikita on Netflix…because there’s really nothing better for a mental breakdown than a really bad CWTV show. Particularly if said show has super-spies, cringe-worthy plot-twists, and a couple of drama-filled love triangles.
  • Naps.
  • A couple desperate, last minute web searches to find a new, local therapist. (Mine moved way to the other side of the city. Sarah, if you’re reading this PLEASE MOVE TO ANDOVER IMMEDIATELY!)
  • Spontaneous and completely unnecessary Target purchases. (Clearly I need to re-read Abby Norman’s One Small Change post on Putting Things Back. Sigh.)

I’m writing guest posts and articles and – here’s a new one – video scripts. (My kind, wise editor told me that I need to put my face on YouTube soon, and though I know he’s probably right, it didn’t stop me from going into a full ten-minute panic coma about it during the sermon this past Sunday.)

I have seventeen lists on my kitchen table, and I’m not really sure which one of them is the official “To Do” list.

My book is coming out. In TWO WEEKS. I think I’m getting an ulcer. This is, apparently, what Living The Dream looks like.


When I started thinking about what it might look like to “Promote My Book,” I knew that I wanted it to be about more than just me and my story. The title is, after all, When We Were On Fire, and, in one way or another, you were there too.

You were somewhere on the other side of that giant arena downtown, singing along to “Jesus Freak,” jumping up and down with your hands raised high.

(Or you were outside the concert, smoking surreptitiously by the dumpster with other youth-group bad-asses. I’m not here to judge.)

You were waking up at 6:00 in the morning, bleary-eyed and fuzzy, driving to your school’s Bible study. You were standing at your school’s flagpole. You were attending Wednesday night youth group. You were saying all the right things, believing it all…or not. You were singing loud and soulful, or you were doodling on your youth group handout in the back row, feeling indescribably lonely.

You were hiking through foreign countries in matching t-shirts, reciting your three-minute testimony in your head. You were signing a True Love Waits pledge card, promising purity before you understood what it meant.

Or maybe you weren’t in this world at all…but you knew people who were. You had barbed interactions with them…or beautiful ones. Or both.

Whatever it looked like for you, your life was touched by the 90s Christian Culture: this world where it was a kind of success to be “on fire for the Lord,” and you were measured – however inadvertently – by the power of your passion.

I want to hear your story.

On or before Tuesday, October 15th, write a blog post about your “on fire” days.

The good of it or the bad of it. The beauty or the pain or all of it wrapped up together somehow. Tell me about the time you broke the rules on a missions trip. Tell me that funny story from Bible camp…or that heartbreaking one. Did you wear the t-shirts, the one with messages like Life’s Hard, Pray Harder? Did you string WWJD bracelets, one-by-one, up your wrist?

Maybe it wasn’t you, exactly, but it was your daughter. Your son. Your niece or nephew or granddaughter. Tell what that was like, watching them sort out God under the fluorescent light of this strange subculture.

When you think about those days now, what comes back? What rises to the surface? Tell me. Write it all down.

Here’s How to Participate:

  1. Write your “When We Were On Fire” story on your blog on or before Tuesday, October 15. If you don’t have a blog, don’t worry! Send me your story in an email, and I’ll compile those somehow in a post called When We Were On Fire: The Non-Blogger Edition.
  2. If you’re a blogger, make sure you include this image and link in your post so that others can click back and see the roundup! (Link the image to this blog post: http://addiezierman.com/?p=2500)

when we were on fire synchroblog

3.   Come back here on Tuesday, October 15, and use the link-up tool to add your post here. Easy peasy.
4.   Click around to other people’s posts and feel way less crazy.
5.   If you want to share your post on Twitter, use the hashtag #WWWoF so that we can all keep track of what’s happening. (This is the hashtag for the book, by the way. I just invented it. You can use it for all of your nice comments about my memoir…but none of your mean ones. That will only drive me back to the cheese puffs.)

I’m looking so forward to hearing your stories.

Thank you for joining me to remember and to redefine. To celebrate, expose and to begin to understand those years when we were on fire, burning wild, burning out. Becoming the people we are today.

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