Editor's note: When We Were On Fire, Addie Zierman's memoir and the inspiration for this post, was named among the top 5 religion books of the year by Publishers Weekly.
There has been lots of talk lately about the millennials leaving the church, the roughly 60 percent of us who step away from Christian community at some point.
It's a perplexing issue, a knot that church leadership has been trying hard to untangle. I can't tell you how to fix it, but I can tell you that I was one of them. I left the church for a lot of reasons – some legitimate, some imagined. Eventually I found the courage to come back.
As in my new book, When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Over, I share this story not to assign blame, but to add a new dimension to the conversation. I hope it will give us the courage to offer one another grace as a generation of Jesus Freaks like me tries to find their way home.
During my self-imposed exile from church, I journeyed with others. The wounded, the cynic, the angry, the doubting.
First, we joined gyms. We started training for 5ks and 10ks, marathons and triathlons. In the mornings, we ran next to strangers, breathing in tandem, keeping stride, and though they didn't know us, they called out the strength in our tired bodies.
"You got this!" they called. "Almost there!"
At the finish line, people we didn't know cheered for us madly. They held up their hands to meet our sweaty palms, and for the first time that we can remember, we feel like the victors that the pastors always promised we were.
We attended book clubs that we found from craigslist postings on the Internet. We sat in some stranger's house with a glass of wine, and we felt strangely free to express our opinions. We said what we thought about the book. We asked questions. We wondered aloud what the author was trying to say about hope.
We batted around ideas, feather-light and beautiful, and we thought briefly of all of the Bible studies we attended. Those times when we kept our complex, doubt-filled questions bottled up in our hearts because we couldn't figure out a way to ask them.
Back then, we were in search of a place where we fit. We were leaving the churches where we grew up. The youth groups where we took our first wobbly steps toward whoever it was that we were going to become.
We knew it wouldn't be pizza parties and camping retreats and yellow buses heading toward Florida – this new, grown-up church experience. But we expected belonging. We expected grace and support and love.
For a while we tried, moving from one church to another. We were never looking for perfection. We weren't that naïve. We couldn't even name what we were looking for – a fit, a holy place, some siren song calling us home.
Some of us searched longer than others, but in the end we faded out. We were looking for Jesus. Instead we found programs, guilt, and awkward small talk. We found fog machines and Five-Simple-Steps-to-Spiritual-Growth and fill-in-the-blank Bible studies.
So we started sleeping in on Sunday mornings. We went to the farmers market and bought good things straight from the earth. We drank our morning coffee at small café tables outside, and people walked by with their dogs at a slow, Sunday-morning pace. It felt more like rest to us than those chaotic church mornings, when we moved through the loud small talk of the church foyer and felt invisible.
Some of us went to neighborhood bars after work or late at night, and we were surprised to find that all we had to do was sit down at the bar. All we had to do was sit down, and we were part of that place, that crowd, that beautiful mosaic of people, all of them broken in their own ways – few of them pretending otherwise.
Under a fluorescent Miller Lite sign, nobody told us to "get plugged in" or suggested that nursery duty might be just what the Lord wanted us to do for the next 8,000 Sundays. Instead, we drank a few too many, and we began to ramble, and people we didn't know listened earnestly, layering their memories over ours until we were united by our stories.
We went on Facebook and played at community. We went out to dinner and to concerts and to the movies. We went dancing and felt the thrum of the music in our bodies, and once, some Church Person told us that dancing was a gateway to sin – but there we were, in a haphazardly formed circle of strangers, singing the same song at the top of our lungs.
We went on road trips and on airplanes, and we were searching, still, even then. We slung our backpack over our shoulders and went farther out into the world.
Some of us went to therapy and began the hard work of untangling our knotted-up hearts. If we were really brave, we tackled our angst about the years when we were on fire. We tried to find the heart of Christ beating, still, under the sticky, webbed Christian culture that had grown up over it.
Some of us went under the dark waves of our own depression and pain, never to resurface.
Some of us came back.
We came back because we were beginning to believe that it might be here too. In these churches with all of their brokenness, all of their clunky programs and squeaky-clean sermons. We'd figured out that it still existed, and that it can be found in the most imperfect of people.
We saw it, after all, at the end of our first 5k. We found it slumped over at the bar, sobbing out our story to a stranger. We encountered it on the unfamiliar roads that we were driving, felt it course through our body like dancing music.
And it turned out to be that unnamable Thing we'd been looking for all long.
And in our better moments, we've learned to recognize it for what it is: Grace.
Addie Zierman is a writer, blogger and recovering Jesus Freak. She recently published her debut book, When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love and Starting Overthrough Convergent Books. She lives in Minnesota with her husband, Andrew, and their two young sons.