Michelle and Madison were under the same roof but in two different worlds. They were thousands of miles apart though only 30 feet separated them. Both sat looking at their own computer screens: Madison video-Skyping with her neighbor and a foreign exchange student, updating her Flickr account and checking her photo ratings; Michelle, her mother, updating her Facebook profile while chatting with an old high-school friend on the other coast–two people under the same roof but in two different spaces; two people bending time and space, connecting with distant people in an instant.

Our experiences of time and space are not what they used to be. Vast spaces are crossed easily through cell phones, the Internet and relatively cheap air travel. We all have become movers in our time, even when we are sitting still. Like Michelle and Madison, we are moving across space, bouncing in and out of worlds.

Technological transformation has changed the way we understand who we are and impacts and shapes our very identity–or at least the way we construct an identity.

Work and Love
Talk of identity has been a central element of youth ministry because adolescence is a time of identity formation. Sometime between the ages of 13 and 20-something, you figure out who you are. Erik Erikson believed that adolescence is a cultural period of moratorium, a kind of societal time-out. The individual needs time and space to figure out who he or she will be by figuring out what he or she does well and who he or she will love. Erikson believed the healthy person is the person who can work and love. Adolescence is the time to determine what work can be done well and who can be loved.

Erikson believed that forming the identity was somehow tied to an inner biological clock. What’s interesting is that Erikson, while a great cultural observer, didn’t see that his own theory was imbedded in a certain historical epoch, an epoch that radically had transformed time and space in its own right.

Erikson often is assumed to be the great modernist developmental psychologist, and a modernist he was. I don’t mean modernist as a bad word, as if modernist refers old, rigid and confined. Rather, modernity had it own genius, a genius that we still happily live with today.

At its core, modernity turns our attention away from the past and toward the future. For most of human history, human life was really about assimilation of the past (past wisdom, ancient stories). To live in the present, you had to assimilate yourself to the past; to survive your “now,” you would need the wisdom and maybe the spirit of your fathers. Modernity breaks this past-looking inclination and turns our chins toward the future. Modernity says, “Forget the past! The past is old (and old is bad). The future is before you; go and make a life for yourself!” While for most of human history, life was organized by what was in the past (tradition), modernity organizes life by what can be in the future.

The German sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says, “The day the traditional community was upended by modernity was the day talk of identity began.” For most of human history, there was little to no conversation about identity. You were given a closed answer to the question, Who am I? Your community, tribe or village answered this question for you, and you as an individual had little to no power to change the answer. There was very little individual self-reflection such as journals and love letters. Few people had the time or freedom to think about who they were; their given definition was enough. Once modernity opens up the future, things change. It becomes up to you to figure out who you are.

Who Am I?
Identity, as we said, is formed around work and love. After figuring out what one does well, an individual pursues training and becomes a doer of that function. For example, if in adolescence you figured out you were good at math, you would study math and then become an accountant. If someone asked you, “Who are you?” you might say, “I’m Bill; I’m an accountant.” You knew yourself by what you did.

However, identity is more than this; because at some point in adolescence, or shortly thereafter, you would find a love, get married, have three children and start volunteering at the PTA. You not only were an accountant but also a spouse. With these two answers to who you are (what you do and who you love) it was imagined that you had an identity, that you had a single self-definition. After all, you probably would be an accountant at the same corporation for the next four or five decades; and you would be married to this person for the next 50 or 60 years.

As technology has sped up time and space in advancing modernity, as time and space can be manipulated by Michelle and Madison, the foundations of identity have melted. Work and love have not held up well in the blur of time and space. It is very unlikely that anyone stays in one career (let alone one job) for 40 years. Americans change careers on average of every 20 months. It rarely is assumed that high school is the time young people find their life’s work. Work is no longer a viable foundation on which to build an identity, but of course love isn’t either.

Love, as a constant and continued commitment, has not held up well in the frantic transitions of late modernity. With high divorce rates and later marriage, it’s very unlikely that anyone will have one love for the rest of his or her life and almost absurd to assume that most young people will find this person in high school. Identity becomes liquefied when work and love melt in the speed of our digital age.

In place of work and love, new elements of identity have come to the fore, elements made powerful by the radical transformation of time and space. Work has been transformed into consumption. What matters for my identity is not what I do, but what I can buy and what the things I buy say about who I am. I need the constant information of the Internet not only to inform me about what to buy but also to tell me what the things I buy mean and how others are perceiving them (commenting online).

In place of love is intimacy. Someone will say, “I still love him, but there isn’t anything there (no intimacy); we just want different things.” As time and space radically have sped up, they have transformed the core building blocks of identity from work to consumption, from love to intimacy.

If there is one constant then, it is that I use my body as the place to work on my many fleeting identities. The body becomes the place from where I broadcast who I am by hanging my consumptions on it and receiving intimacy through it. The Internet is not a tool that disembodies me, but a tool that allows my body to be broadcast across time and space. Michelle spends hours choosing her profile picture, and Madison’s YouTube videos show off her waistline and new jeans.

So What Can Youth Workers Do?
What’s to be done with the Michelles and the Madisons? We may want to tell them they should have their identity in Christ, but just saying that is of no help. Rather, what we must see is that the Michelles and the Madisons are living constantly with the question: Who am I?

We must have something to say that is more than religious phrases. We must be able to articulate that the Jesus we serve is the Jesus who is found in yearning and questioning. There is no reason to tell them to stop searching for an identity in the blur of time and space. Rather, we must together seek for God in our questions and longing.

It is the youth worker’s job to help young people form an identity, and an identity that has their Christian commitment is central. That commitment must be as solid as a rock; if it isn’t, then their faith isn’t either. The problem is that identity already has been liquefied, and few adolescents find it necessary to have one single self-definition. Therefore, in a real way their (often) partial self-definition as Christian is always open. They see themselves as Christians for now; but in the future, who knows?

Of course this is risky; but there is an opportunity here for youth workers, as well. The opportunity is to perceive conversion not as a final destination but as a constant process of reflecting deeply on one’s life, seeking God next to one’s deepest question. There is no deeper question for this generation than, Who am I? It becomes essential that youth workers are able to engage young people in a process of personal/constructive theological reflection. In many ways the question, Who am I? should be on our on minds with every talk we give, every retreat we plan and every Bible study we lead. It is a question never fully answered and constantly nipping at young people’s heals. Who am I? is the starting point for deep contemplation about God, self and world.

While consumption and intimacy promise electric experiences, they are also very thin. Suffering is always close to the search for identity. Consumption and intimacy have short half-lives and demand constant motion, often hurting in their wake of transition. Youth ministry must seek for a theology that places God near those who suffer, near those who question and search for God in the questions of who they are.

Perhaps in Erickson’s day the objective of youth ministry was to provide religious foundations for one’s single self- definition. In our time, the objective of youth ministry is to accompany young people as they figure out who they are in a world where time and space are blurred, and yet God seeks them in their deepest yearnings and questions.

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About The Author

Andrew Root, Ph.D., is the Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is most recently the author of Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross (Fortress, 2014) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker, 2014). He is also the principal project leader for John Templeton Foundation Funded Science for Youth Ministry Project.