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As an adolescent in the early ‘90s, the then-popular phrase “on fire for God” totally applied to me.

I was a good, godly kid. I loved Jesus, I loved church, I loved my family – I was studious and helpful and obedient and nice. For the most part, I was pretty comfortable in my own skin. Except, paradoxically, in the one instance where one might have thought all these characteristics should have made me especially comfortable – when talking about the origins of my faith to other Christians.

There were three of us that were baptized on a June day in 1993, and before we were dunked in the baptistry tank, we all had to Share Our Testimony. I remember how I agonized over that testimony to somehow try and cover up how embarrassingly “vanilla” it was.

Where was the dramatic 180-degree repentance? The moment of Truth? The “once I was blind but now I can see” showstopper? There was a distinct, culturally-beloved, and even expected storyline to a capital-T Testimony in evangelicalism at that time, and my life didn’t match.

When it was announced that someone was going to share their testimony, we all knew the story-arc that was about to be spoken: “I was lost in sin and then God saved me and turned my life completely around.” This was the singular narrative of what salvation looked like. Saul to Paul. Hell to Heaven. Death to Life. Lonely sinner to belonging.

Another woman who was baptized at the same time tearfully recounted how she had walked away from her faith for a while but then returned to the church, and I had a deep twinge of innocent envy.

I remember standing there in my robe, waist-deep in very chilly water high up in the baptistry, looking down at all the people in my church who had known me and loved me since I was born, and feeling so terribly disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to surprise them with a revelation that I had actually been a hardened criminal between the ages of 9-11 but then I found the Lord. No such luck. I was just boring; I was vanilla. I did not have a Testimony.

I wasn’t alone in this angst. I remember a friend about the same age, who had also grown up as a good kid in a good Christian home, who was musing about trying out the mysterious “unforgivable sin” of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, because wow – if he could come back to the Lord after that, that would be pretty much the ultimate Testimony. Mind you, we had no clue what “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit” would actually look like, so after a few wide-eyed discussions, we lost interest in that plan.

As I reflect on us and our conversations in those days, I am so struck by how these kinds of messages that we received from the church – whether explicitly or implicitly – really twisted us up inside.

We were kids who deeply wanted to belong, and yet the church culture in which we were trying to confirm our place was filling us with the idea that the only REAL way to belong is to demonstrate that there was a time when you did NOT belong but then you repented and now you do.

To underline this point: we were not in any way tempted by the allure of the so-called sin itself. We were tempted by the allure of truly being on the inside of the culture of Christian evangelicalism. And honestly, it wasn’t until writing this very article that I solidified this realization with words for the first time.

The idea of not having a “real” testimony was closely connected to another panic of belonging that gripped so many kids and teens in my generation – am I REALLY saved? Did I mean it “enough” when I accepted Jesus into my heart? Should I rededicate my life to Christ again? This was such a harmful emotional and spiritual yo-yo for so many.

Those of us who couldn’t pinpoint a true “conversion moment” often got a raised eyebrow and concerned pat on the back from mentors who encouraged us to “examine our hearts,” because without a true conversion moment, sorry to say, but we could very well be continuing blindly in sin without even knowing it. We could THINK we belonged but we really didn’t.

What a ridiculous burden to place on a kid.

I’m thankful that with time and very intentional unlearning and relearning, I could let go of that fully, but it was work to do so. As adolescents with a craving to belong, and a still-developing prefrontal cortex, that burden embedded itself in our psyches pretty deeply. This is not to say that what I’m describing is somehow a teen-specific dilemma. Certainly even for non-adolescents, that desire for belonging remains one of the deepest core needs of the human soul.

It’s good and right that our communities, whatever they are, reach out to others in welcome and say, “you belong here”. But as we do, we need to be mindful of the strings that we can attach to this belonging – often inadvertently so.

I’m sure my church communities would have asserted that the love of God, as expressed by them, was truly unconditional – but was it? As young teenagers, my friend and I, along with many of our peers, had internalized the hidden conditions so implicitly that we fully believed that the fault, the lack was ours. And we couldn’t see the massive disconnect between the message of Christ and that feeling of not-belonging that had such a grip on us.

Is the love of God unconditional? Do you belong? Do I belong? When I drown out all the competing voices, tear away all the hidden strings that I’ve seen laid out as barriers for me and for others, at the core of my heart is an unshakeable YES. Those raised eyebrows casting doubt on my belonging, those tangling strings of condition, those were never of Jesus and they never will be.

As Brené Brown says, the opposite of belonging is fitting in. I don’t have to manufacture some prescribed narrative arc to my life to belong in God’s good story – that’s fitting in; it’s not belonging. I simply DO belong, because that itself is the story.

Here’s to all the souls and testimonies out there with such great diversity of flavours, from rocky road to rainbow sorbet. You belong. I belong. The welcome is wide, and it is for all of our stories. I reject the whole system that told us that our stories, our being, our image-bearing, can somehow be ranked qualitatively for any reason whatsoever. For all of us – including my fellow vanillas – we are each a perfectly delightful flavour. We belong.

Photo by Lukas

Kathryn Vilela

Kathryn Vilela lives in Kingston, Ontario, and is an enthusiastic amateur in many areas, including writing, theology, art, singing, Portuguese cooking, and being a mom. Kathryn is happiest when she’s in the middle of a good book, a good conversation, or a good hike through the forest.


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