In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, we recognize the reality of our context in youth ministry: We are key players in a “spiritual war” that’s focused on young people. We can, and must, play a strategic role in fighting for the true identity that Jesus sees in them (and in us). Becky and I explore the practical ways we can do that.
When Nicodemus the Pharisee visits Jesus in the cloak of darkness to ask him questions about who he is and what he intends to do, Jesus condenses all realities into one simple reality: “You must be born again.” Here he’s pulling back the curtain on what’s really going on in our lives, and in the spiritual world that encloses our physical world: We’re caught up in a war that is waged on the battlefield of our identity. There is a “one true God” who loves us and is bent on restoring us into a relationship with him by redeeming our broken identity. The essence of who we are must be born again. And we have a “killing, stealing, and destroying” enemy who is intent on distorting our identity (and Jesus’ identity) so completely that we forget we were made for God’s pleasure.
This explains why so many students (and we!) struggle to understand and embrace their true identity as beloved children of God. In the “enemy territory” that is our life on earth, we’re all caught up in a swirl of voices, all demanding the right to identify us.
- The advertisers who invade every nook and cranny of their lives want them to believe that consumption is central to their identity.
- The voices of authority in their lives want them to believe their performance is the only true mark of their identity.
- Their parents often insist their true identity is whatever they decide it is when they’re children.
- The music they listen to, either directly or indirectly, wants them to believe their sexuality and their ability to exert power over others is indicative of their true value.
- The TV shows and films they watch often force them into a passive comparison with people who are richer, more attractive, more interesting, more risky, and more successful than they are.
- Their enemies at school want them to believe they’re no more valuable than a piece of garbage or a landscaping problem that needs to be bulldozed.
- Social media mirrors back to them that, in comparison, other people have much richer and broader friendships—and are doing much more interesting things with their lives—than they are.
And, of course, these are just the obvious voices. There’s no space to catalog all the hundreds of more subtle identity-shaping influences that teenagers experience every day. And God’s enemy practices a strategic leverage in their lives; if he can poison their true identity, they’ll push the “self-destruct” button themselves. When they come to embrace what isn’t true about themselves or undergird what isn’t true about others, they sabotage the redemptive work of Jesus. But when we help them pursue an answer to the question “Who does Jesus say I am?” and then show them how to help others do the same, we’re helping them save lives—their own and others’. Young people need to hear the voice of Jesus naming them, just as he did when he changed Simon to Peter, because his reflection of their identity will shatter the false beliefs they’ve embraced about themselves, including:
- “You’ll never be good enough.”
- “Your performance is what’s important, not your effort.”
- “You damage and spoil everything you touch.”
- “The reason you’re treated badly by others is because they see who you really are.”
- “People will always let you down, so you’d better protect yourself with self-reliance.”
- “The reflection you see in the mirror is so flawed that you may never find someone to love you.”
One aspect of our calling, and of our true identity that’s hidden in Jesus, is to mirror back to others something closer to the beautiful truth about themselves. We do this when we yield to the Spirit of Jesus within us as we experience people and then speak out the truth about who they are. Simply, we’re living as the body of Christ when we proactively “taste” goodness in others, then describe that taste to them so they can hear it. The rhythm is simple, but it requires a decision to get used to it in the beginning. We simply ask ourselves, “What word expresses what I’m experiencing in this young person—something I admire or appreciate or enjoy?” Then reflect back that word, conversationally, to the person. For example, here are a few things I’ve “mirrored” to people recently:
I love how curious you are.
You know, a lot of people hear things that are challenging, but you almost always do something as a result of what you hear.
You always add surprising insight to our conversations.
The people around you sense that you can be counted on.
You’ve taught me so much about creativity.
You always look at things from an outside-the-box perspective—it really captures ’em.
I saw how patient you were with that person. I just want you to know I noticed, and I really admire how you carried yourself.
I never, ever consider whether or not you’re giving your best effort—I always know you will.
This practice involves two easy-to-adopt relational habits:
- Notice what we notice about people.
- Then find a way to express what we notice.
When we do, we slowly, methodically draw kids’ attention away from the warped mirrors that surround them, encouraging them to accept their reflection mirrored in the person of Jesus, who lives within us. This way of engaging others may seem like mere affirmation, but it goes much deeper than that. We’re studying teenagers (and everyone in our life), then listening for the voice of Jesus to offer a more trustworthy reflection of them