“Who am I?” is one of the most basic and difficult questions humans must answer. Dozens of factors influence how we answer this question, and our answers impact every aspect of our lives, including faith, vocation and family.
Young people begin wrestling in earnest with identity questions during adolescence. That’s why youth workers need to understand the process of identity formation. To help us navigate the confusing and ever-changing issue of identity, we spoke with three youth ministry veterans.
An ordained United Methodist Pastor, Kenda Creasy Dean is a professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she works closely with the Institute for Youth Ministry. Kenda’s a sought-after speaker and author of several books, including the highly acclaimed, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.
Steve Gerali is a speaker, author, professor, clinical counselor, consultant and mentor. Despite being an expert in the field of adolescence, mentoring and youth ministry, what he most wants to be remembered for is his character—his identity in Christ. Steve explores the character traits that comprise identity in Christ in his novel The Crest.
As vice president of training at Young Life, Ken Knipp devotes his time to helping youth workers form healthy identities so they can help young people do the same. Ken also serves on the advisory council of Fuller Youth Institute.
YouthWorker Journal: One of the primary tasks of adolescence is identity formation. What is identity and how is it formed?
Steve Gerali: Identity is the culmination of how a person sees him or herself based on the input of people around him or her, as well as God’s perspective toward the person. A teen’s identity is formed by his or her perception of what people think of him or her. The kid who’s constantly told he’s stupid forms an identity around that. That’s why it’s important to tell kids how God sees them.
Ken Knipp: Identity is who I am in relationship to people. My sense of identity depends on how much power I have to influence my life and make choices. It’s also about my sense of belonging to a family. We hear a lot about the influence of peers in the formation of identity, but parents are also important.
Kenda Creasy Dean: Identity is our sense of who we are—biologically, socially, culturally, psychologically and spiritually. Teenagers form identity the way everyone does: They reflect the messages about themselves they’re getting from culture, their physical environment, families, communities and their own bodies. James Fowler describes the process from a teenager’s perspective as follows: “I see you see me. I see the me I think you see.” For the church to be absent from that process is a lethal sin of omission.
YWJ: How do ethnicity and sexuality influence identity?
Kenda: Ethnicity and sexuality simultaneously are cultural and biological realities, which makes them powerful sources of identity. When the messages our bodies send us correspond to the person our society thinks we are, we have confirmation of our identity. When our bodies send a message that culture contradicts, you have an impossible contradiction to resolve. Identities need what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann call plausibility structures. You need someone outside yourself to affirm your inner sense of reality.
YWJ: How do technology and the constant connectedness of teens influence their ability to figure out who they are?
Steve: Technology allows teens to remain anonymous and craft their personal identities. Teens can be different kids online. There are no boundaries or restraints. That’s the danger.
Ken: Whatever a young person feels about his or her identity, technology intensifies. Facebook encourages kids to be preoccupied with themselves. If you have a healthy sense of identity and of being part of the kingdom of God, you realize it’s not all about you.
Kenda: One of the biggest questions in youth ministry is, “How do relationships look in a culture of ubiquitous connection?” Teenagers are looking for something deeper than simple connection in social media; these technologies underscore teenagers’ longings for a way of being known that only comes from God.
YWJ: Teens’ identities often shift depending on who they’re around and what they’re doing. How do you explain this?
Steve: While adolescents are formulating identity, it continues to be reshaped into adulthood. Identity shift is not a bad thing. I hope our identities are never fully formed, that there’s always forward motion of living into who we are in Christ.
Kenda: Theorists differ about whether postmodern identity is fluid or hangs together through time, across multiple situations. A core self-understanding that is recognizable (not identical) from one situation to the next helps with fluidity; the self can adjust to new realities because we’re not terrified of falling apart. Identity is more fluid today than it was when Erik Erikson was writing about it in the 1950s and 1960s. Erikson thought you could achieve identity—as though once you attain it, it’s yours forever. Today’s research tells us identity continues to morph throughout the lifecycle in response to social context, life stage and cultural (including spiritual) experiences.
YWJ: Christians frequently talk about “identity in Christ.” What is this and why is it important?
Steve: It’s character. There are certain traits that define who we are as God’s people: love, goodness, wisdom, freedom…These traits are identified in Israel, as well as the New Testament. They mark God’s people. It’s easy to understand identity in Christ by using one word after “I am”: I am good. I am loving. I am free. While these things are in our DNA, we also cultivate them. Hebrews 10:24 says, “We come together to stir each other to love and good deeds.” We hold each other accountable to living into these character traits.
Ken: Everyone is created in the image of God, but we’re also fallen. Those of us in the community of faith believe we’re redeemed. We have a new identity. Our identity is not just individualistic but communal.
YWJ: Who or what prevents teens from understanding their identity in Christ?
Steve: The church’s trajectories are off; we’d rather be pious than loving, right than good, safe than sorry. There are also external messages that nobody’s helping kids discern. Men are told from the time they’re little boys that good guys finish last, that good guys don’t get the girl. How then are you going to tell a guy that God says you’re good and you have to live into that?
Ken: Plenty of things in our culture get in the way of teens understanding their identity in Christ. Our culture says, “You’re valuable if you own things, are smart and have power.” These things are reinforced countless times a day for young people.
YWJ: How can youth workers help teens embrace their identity in Christ?
Steve: Go back to love and goodness. Jesus said, “People will know you’re My disciples by My love.” Ephesians says we’re created for good works. What would happen if our focus became cultivating love and goodness rather than trying to eliminate sin in kids’ lives? Think about accountability groups that get together and identify themselves by sins. How much more does that entrench a kid in sin? Sin becomes that kid’s defining mark. What if we instead talked about how we’re loving others and doing good?
Ken: The greatest gift to young people is adults who are healthy in terms of their own identity. Youth workers need to understand their identity is in Christ, not in whatever response they see or don’t see in kids. When youth workers are trying to be kids themselves, that does not help students form healthy identities. The more a youth worker is secure in his or her own identity in Christ, the better he or she will model, express and articulate that to young people, which will help them mature in their own sense of identity.
Kenda: We live in a culture that’s constantly telling teenagers what roles they’re supposed to play. Advertisers, schools and the media hand them scripts. We reward teenagers who play their parts well and punish the ones who don’t. Churches fall into this trap, too; so the first step is to get out of the scriptwriting business. God is in the improv business. Jesus’ ministry starts at the River Jordan, with God bellowing: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!” That was it. Jesus had to figure it out as He went along, responding to people around Him, living into the identity proclaimed at His baptism. I wonder if we would do young people a favor by shoring up their improv skills to give them confidence to go off-script from society’s prescribed adolescent identities. Their true identity as children of God is proclaimed at their baptisms. Our job is to help them live into their identities, naming their strengths, building their repertoire of practices so they can respond to the people around them and to their culture as the people God made them to be.
YWJ: What else should we know?
Steve: The world tells kids that who they are is determined by what they do. If we look at God’s Word, who I am determines what I do. Make sure kids understand who they are and the make-up of Christian DNA. Spend more time on identity than anything else. If we start doing this and living into who we are in Christ, the collective identity of our church will change. We’ll be good, loving, the center for wisdom in our culture. God’s people will be free. That will be the most attractive thing for a world in bondage.
Ken: Youth workers need to be bold enough with kids to raise identity issues in ways that allow them to talk about them. Simply say to a kid, “Tell me how you see yourself.”
Kenda: The Holy Spirit is at work nudging us toward the person God made us to be, even before we ask. Given an opening, God will reorder other identity factors around our primary identity as God’s beloved child. If identity is formed by someone mirroring back to you who they think you are, then you can’t see yourself as a brother or sister of Jesus unless you’re in a community that reflects this back to you. It’s not enough to say it. You have to respond to teenagers as though they really are God’s children. Whether they believe us is irrelevant. What matters is that we believe it, so our reflections back to teenagers are true. The idea is not to reflect back to them who they think they are, but who God thinks they are.
The Crest by Steve Gerali
The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
Books by Ruth Haley Barton
The Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero