Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Search for Identity (Youth Worker)

"I can still see the faces of the youth who got away. Their faces are different, but after 13 years of youth ministry in four different churches, their stories sound the same. There was Jonathan*, who grew up in a solid Christian home. Kate* was a convert, but she seemed so solid in her faith. They are just two examples that represent many young people who have abandoned the faith of their youth.

Some of these youth have chosen to live by another faith, while others have joined the growing number of the nones, rejecting the church and religion altogether. As a youth pastor I ask myself, "Could I have done something to prevent this?" There is no easy answer for this daunting question, because faith development is complicated in adolescence and is intimately connected to identity development.

Identity development is a complex and long process that takes center stage during adolescence and emerging adulthood. For the first time, one's physical, cognitive and socio-emotional selves come together to answer the proverbial question, "Who am I?"

When an individual is a child, his or her ability to think is childlike and undiscerning, therefore making it simpler for parents and spiritual leaders to direct him or her toward Christ. When a child becomes a teenager, however, the ability to reason abstractly and idealistically increases, and such direction is not as straightforward. Teenagers may no longer believe with child-like faith; rather, they have many questions about faith and life. If a belief in Christ is forced on an adolescent without room for discerning and questioning, chances are he or she will outright reject it or acquiesce for the time being and turn from faith later in life.

Psychologist James Marcia has identified four identity statuses in adolescence: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, achievement. When applied to issues of faith development, Marcia's concepts can bring perspective for youth workers and parents who journey with adolescents as they seek to discover, "Who am I in Christ?"

Understanding the Four Identity Statuses

...Marcia argues that in order for adolescents to make a commitment to an identity, they must go through a period of significant exploration on issues such as occupation and ideology. This suggests that one of the main tasks of a youth worker or parent is to guide adolescents through this period of exploration on their quest for identity.

...Adolescents who neither experience a time of exploration nor make any significant commitment are characterized as having identity diffusion... [The] first identity status... it indicates they neither have spent any significant time exploring roles, ideologies or life plans nor made any lasting commitments in this regard.

Spiritually speaking, youth who are identity diffused may seem quite flexible and adaptable at their best and lost and isolated at their worst. Due to a lack of internal sense of self, a diffused adolescent may appear to have made a commitment through identification with a leader in his or her youth ministry; however, when that leader is gone, the youth returns to a diffused state [It would be a good thing for the bomb/personality to go off.].

E.g. Mark*, one of my former students, is an example of an adolescent who is experiencing identity diffusion. He grew up in a Christian home and was involved in his local church and youth ministry. We met regularly, and he was being developed as a leader within my youth ministry. He appeared to be well on his way to developing a positive faith identity; however, it did not take long after I moved to another position in another town that Mark began to lose interest in the church and faith altogether. His spiritual identity was too diffuse to survive this change.

The second identity status, identity moratorium, is characterized by students who have given significant time in exploring life but have not made any commitment to a specific way of life. The youth worker can identify these young people in his or her youth ministry because they tend to be morally sensitive (i.e., they may be vegans, or will not buy clothes suspected of being made in a sweat shop) but remain non-committal regarding beliefs and life direction.

E.g. Shawn*, a former youth leader from a church I recently pastored, is an example of an adolescent in the moratorium phase. He has been all over the world on short-term mission trips and sight-seeing adventures. He has tried helping inside the church and outside of the church but remains unsure which fits him better. He has explored spirituality and life but has not determined the specifics of his belief system...

[The] third identity status is called identity foreclosure. Just as the name suggests, this status is dominant when an adolescent is prevented from developing his or her own identity. An adolescent who finds him or herself in this status has not had an exploratory period, or perhaps never has been allowed to have an exploratory period, yet a commitment has been made. Youth in this status tend to inherit an identity from a significant adult in their lives (i.e., a parent or caregiver).

E.g. Cheryl*, a young adult I knew from a ministry position a few years ago, is a classic example of identity foreclosure. She graduated from high school and headed to medical school to study medicine because her parents are doctors; since she was little, she was told she would be a doctor, too. Her spiritual life mirrored her occupational life. She grew up in a patriarchal Christian home where she learned that one does not question one's parents. Thus, her belief system was forced upon her by her parents and she dared not question it in fear that she might disappoint them. Her faith was not her own; though she appeared to be a confident young woman, on the inside her belief system and identity were quite fragile...

The fourth identity status... the status one should strive foridentity achievement. This status indicates an adolescent has experienced a meaningful time of exploration and has come to a commitment about what he or she will do and believe. These adolescents have spent time exploring different roles and ideologies, and through trial and error have deleted the ones that do not work and integrated the ones that do.

Adolescents who have achieved identity maintain a good understanding of what they believe in light of other beliefs and ideologies in the world around them. ["Test the spirits..." 1 John 4:1] Such achievement tends to come with more life experience, and these adolescents are characterized with confidence (but not a defensive confidence) in their relationship with Jesus. Identity achievement is generally developed when adolescents attend college.

Applying the Identity Statuses to Ministry

Grasping these four identity statuses is vital for youth workers because, if used and applied, they can clarify where their youth may be in the process of identity and faith development. Understanding the statuses also can benefit youth workers as they help parents gain a better understanding of where their children are in their identity and faith development.

I have three specific suggestions for youth pastors who want to apply identity theory to their ministry with youth.

1) It's a Long Journey

Identity development is a process and a journey. Short-term interventions are not beneficial in helping adolescents come to identity achievement. Rather, teens need someone to consistently serve as a guide and coach along the way. They need someone—a parent, youth worker, mentor—to walk with them as they search for their identity and go on a quest to find out who they are.

It is important for parents and youth workers to remember adolescence is a decade-long journey. In his book Emerging Adulthood, researcher Jeffrey Arnett comments that more and more adolescents seem stuck in the moratorium status because of the elongation of adolescence. Young people are spending an extended time exploring life and are taking longer to make a commitment. This means that teens have more time to explore their options today than they did in their parents' generation.

Guiding young people out of this elongated moratorium status is complicated because of the numerous factors that come into play (i.e., economics, parenting, schooling). Youth workers can help these students by supporting parents to encourage their youth to make commitments. Generally speaking, parents have a greater influence on the life of a teen than a youth worker does. A gentle push from a parent—such as requiring a teen to pay rent, find a job, choose a college major—may be what a teen needs to begin making commitments toward identity.

By coming alongside these teens, youth workers can reinforce the choices parents are encouraging their youth to make. Working together as a team will give parents and youth workers the best chance to help their young people move past identity moratorium toward identity achievement.

2) Encourage Exploration and Questioning

The second suggestion is that we need to give adolescents real opportunities to explore faith. This does not necessarily mean exploring other religions and faith systems, although it may include this. For a teenager to make a belief system his or her own, he or she must be able to question it and see that it stands true. This questioning can be done through the exploration of different spiritual roles (i.e., agnostic, atheist, apathetic Christian, biblical know-it-all, judgmental Christian) [But, not necessarily practicing them].

As adolescents weed out the roles that do not fit and integrate the ones that do, they develop a sense of who they are by what they believe. A key role for adults is to give adolescents appropriate opportunities to explore these roles. Some of these opportunities could be visits to places of worship of other faiths or studies of other religions.

It is important that youth workers be appropriate in giving these opportunities, making sure parents are aware of what is happening and what their teens are learning. Parents may lose trust in a youth worker if it is perceived he or she is exposing their teen(s) to religious teaching with which they are not comfortable. Spiritual discipleship needs to be in conjunction with parents, which is why it is significant that parents be involved.

A youth worker should not expose teens to other faiths without also enriching the learning experience with a program of spiritual development that would encourage spiritual exploration on the part of parent and teen. A catechism taught by parents would encourage parents to gain a deeper understanding of their beliefs and challenge their teens to know what they believe and why. This would be more than just a curriculum for Wednesday night Bible study; it would need to be a parent/student participatory program...

3) God Is in Control

My third suggestion is that youth pastors need to encourage parents to remember God is in control. This is not always easy for a parent to hear, especially if they feel their teen has walked away from God.

Youth workers must be sensitive to the frustration and confusion parents experience in raising their adolescents and need to encourage them that whether their teen has identity diffusion, moratorium o rforeclosure there is hope in the words of Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go; when he is old he will not depart from it."

***I would also like to stress how much critical thinking is a factor in this experience. Yes, teach a child the way they should go. Yes, teach them the Truth of Scripture. Yes, share with them your beliefs and knowledge. But, also teach them how to think for themselves. (That's how my parents taught me. More often than not, when I would ask them a question, they'd ask me what I thought the answer was or should be before explaining what they thought.) God will guide them.

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