Youth workers help students embrace and live into two truths—both of which are fundamental to their healthy spiritual formation. The first is the truth about the message of Jesus, and the second is the truth about the identity Jesus reveals in them. Once teenagers have embraced and are living in the outrageous love of Jesus, their great quest is to discover who God has uniquely made them to be (it’s good to reference the psychological community’s perspective on identity formation here). As they grow into themselves, will they know enough about their true identity to live out their calling as followers of Jesus?
The pursuit of “their truth” is all about helping students get a lasting taste of
- who they are,
- what they were created to do in life, and
- how their talents can find their sweet-spot out in the real world.
In a GROUP Magazine survey of 26,000 Christian teenagers, nine out of 10 said they agree with this statement: “I am fully convinced that God has created me for a particular purpose in life that will bring glory to him.”
We have the privilege of showing young people how their identity is rooted in Christ and helping them live out their true purpose as his followers.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were called God’s chosen people. The truth is that if we have a faith relationship with Jesus, he’s chosen us—and we have priceless value.
Our worth is found in our Maker, not in ourselves or in other people’s opinions of us. Who we are is derived from who God is. Because of God’s greatness, we who are created in God’s image are of great worth.
That means our understanding of who God is impacts our identity. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel’s entire identity was based on God. The Jewish people saw their value as focused entirely on God making them and choosing them as his people. This same amazing God made us. Not only are we made in God’s image, but we’re also uniquely created and loved by God. We aren’t a meaningless accident; we are God’s masterpiece. If we have a faith relationship with him, then we’re his chosen people.
Sinful But Forgiven
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s chosen people turned away from him and suffered tough consequences. One of the most tragic and important events was the fall of Jerusalem, the capital city and the central symbol of the Jewish peoples’ identity and faith. In 586 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. The Babylonians burned down the Temple, killed the king’s sons, then blinded the king and took him away in chains. They captured the survivors of the siege and carted them off to pagan Babylon. (Read 2 Kings 25 for more details).
Imagine what it must have been like for God’s people taken into exile. They were facing painful questions: Who is God? Who are we now? What will become of us?
A priest named Ezekiel was part of the exiled community. In his book of prophecies, God speaks to and through Ezekiel to answer the exile’s painful questions and, most importantly, to answer this question: What does it mean to be the people of God?
The destruction of Jerusalem brought God’s people to a critical point. They no longer had their own land, temple, or capital city to identify them. Ezekiel challenges them to embrace a tipping-point truth: it’s their inner life and outward actions that will identify them as truly God’s.
Just like God’s people in the Bible, we too are rebellious. We sin. We let God down. We can’t just “try really hard” to stop sinning; we need God’s help. We need forgiveness of and the power of God’s Spirit. We discover our true identity “hidden in Christ,” and by living out that identity in our own culture.
Consider how our life can reflect the identifying marks of God’s people described in Ezekiel:
- turning away from sin,
- knowing (and confidently believing) that God is with them,
- having a responsive heart,
- being cleansed,
- actively following God, and
- being filled with God’s Spirit.
Young people define themselves in many superficial ways. But those labels are meaningless. What really matters is who Jesus says we are. Here’s what Scripture says about the true identity we find in Christ:
- You are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27)
- You are God’s masterpiece (Psalm 139:13-16)
- You are called to live a full life (John 10:10)
- You are forgiven (Romans 8:1-2)
- You are loved by God (Psalm 36:5-7)
- You are in covenant with God (Deuteronomy 7:9)
- You are provided for by God (Matthew 6:33-34)
- You are blessed by God (Ephesians 1:3)
- You are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
- You are empowered to live a holy life (1 Peter 1:15-16)
- You are never alone (Psalm 138:7-12)
- You are guided by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-28, 22-25)
- You are part of a community (Romans 12:4-5)
- You are called to unity (John 17:20-26)
- You are gifted for a purpose (Romans 12:4-8)
- You are created to be humble (Philippians 2:1-4)
- You’re God’s spokesperson (2 Corinthians 5:20)
- You’ve got a message (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
- You’ve got a mission: service (John 13:4-17)
- You are salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16)
- You are adopted (Ephesians 1:5)
- You are citizens (Ephesians 2:19-20)
- You are heirs (Romans 8:14-17)
Our True Name
Jesus loves giving people nicknames. He calls James and John the “Sons of Thunder.” He calls Simon the name Peter, which means “rock.” Peter’s journey with Jesus has many ups and downs, but Jesus never stops calling his friend a Rock. At one point, Jesus even calls Peter “Satan” and a “stumbling stone.” Despite denying Jesus, Peter eventually becomes the church’s first leader. Because he learns his true identity in Jesus, Peter becomes the rock on which Jesus built the church.
Would it surprise you to know that Jesus has a “nickname” for each of us, and it’s written down on a white stone:
To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17).
Our journey with Jesus is also the discovery of who we truly are. Jesus wants to show us our true name, to reveal to us who we are to him. If you were born a Native American 200 years ago, or a Jew 2,000 years ago, the name you received from your parents wouldn’t merely express something that sounded nice, or tied to your family’s history. Your name would’ve represented an identity your parents hoped you would live into. It would be less of a label and more of a prophetic description. That’s because Jews and Native Americans understood something that’s naturally true in the kingdom of God: The names we embrace in life are the names we become.
When Jesus recalibrates Simon by calling him Petros, he’s not merely pulling the name out of thin air and handing it to his friend—he’s uncovering his prophetic identity. In renaming his closest friend with a descriptive word that had never before been used as a name, Jesus answers two big questions for him: Who am I? and What am I doing here? As we name Jesus, he names us. And the name he gives us projects onto us an identity born out of his faith in us and his understanding of how our heart is wired. In the church we often talk about our faith in Jesus, but we rarely explore the biblical reality that Jesus has faith in us. He created in us an identity that’s tied to a purpose in his kingdom, and our journey with him through life is a continuous revelation of that identity. He is bent on revealing our true name.
What if we all have two names—the one our parents gave us and the one God calls us when he’s plotting his next adventure? Author and pastor Walter Wangerin says there are, universally, two “creation” languages. The first is spoken by God, who “spoke everything into being” out of nothing at all. The second is the language God first gave to Adam, the language of naming (Genesis 2). Names, says Wangerin, are not merely labels:
The thing named is brought into place so it can be known. A name establishes a person’s relationship with other named things. The naming action begins to declare the person’s purpose. And this naming is powerful….”
If the names we embrace are the names we become, our name is the chosen battleground for God’s enemy in our lives. We’re caught in the middle of a war over our identity; in fact, every assault from hell on our lives always has a component designed to destroy our God-given identity. If God’s enemy can pollute or destroy what is most true about us, then we’ll live out of a false identity and fuel his purposes—and his purposes are to “steal, kill, and destroy.” This helps explain why genealogy is the second-most popular hobby in the U.S., after gardening, and the second-most visited category of websites, after pornography. It’s a billion-dollar industry, even catalyzing a cottage industry in DNA ancestry testing. We have a deep hunger to reattach ourselves to the roots of our identity, to find the kind of solid footing we need to live in greater freedom, and with more purpose.
This is why it’s so crucial for us to not only discover, embrace, and live out of our own “true name” (our embedded identity in Jesus), but to help others do the same.
What We Stand For
Let’s say you meet a wise old man at a social gathering. He looks you up and down, then leans in a little and asks, “What do you stand for?” How would you answer in the moment? What if, as followers of Jesus, we answered “I stand for…”:
- The glory and honor of Jesus Christ. This is at the top of the “stand-for” pyramid.
- The Truth, who’s the Father of all truths. One of Jesus’ many names is “Truth”—truth is literally his essence. And, of course, lies are literally the essence of the father of lies—God’s enemy. Because we stand for the glory and honor of Jesus, first, we love truths and hate lies (and don’t have to look further than our own soul to find them both at war). Darcy, the main character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, plunges himself into hot water because he’s so committed to truth that, over and over, he says and does things no people-pleasing diplomat would ever say or do. “Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence,” he pronounces at a climactic moment in the story.
- For Jesus, not my or your idea of Jesus. When we start pontificating about the goals of youth ministry or what list of prerequisites qualifies a teenager—or us—to be labeled a “real” Christian, we need to be gravitationally pulled back to Jesus. What qualifications did he set for those who followed him?
The primary qualification is the vow Peter made over and over—”I will die for you.” Of course, when it came time to follow through, Peter “cut and run.” But the last thing Jesus said to Peter (on the beach after his resurrection) was, essentially, to promise him that he’d have a chance to finally fulfill his vow. “Peter,” he said, “you’re going to die for me.” Imagine Jesus smiling when he says this, his eyes sparkling, celebrating the good news with a high-five.
We want to die for Jesus, too. And so do many Christian teenagers. Soon after the Columbine shootings, we asked Christian teenagers all over America if they’d answer “yes” if they’d been in Cassie Bernall’s shoes as a Columbine killer pointed his gun at her and asked if she were a Christian. Almost half (49%) said “absolutely,” and another third (34%) said “I think so.” That means four out of five of these Christian teenagers say they’d literally give their lives for Christ.
Of course, who knows if they’d stand or “cut and run” at the crucial moment. Who knows if we would? But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. And let’s be more passionate and committed than ever to find ways to introduce, and reintroduce, the real Jesus to them. That’s the ground on which we stand together.
What, exactly, does Jesus want youth ministry to do to invigorate his Church? In a sentence: We find and form young people to follow Jesus faithfully and contribute to the mission of God with the people of God. As we do this well, we show churches how to escape unfruitful energy-sapping activity and shift our hope to Jesus alone. Youth ministry must step up for the sake of the Church, at the direction of Jesus, its Head. We must focus on our missional identity as the Body of Christ.
Compelled by love, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. His purpose on the planet was to redeem and launch a following of people who would carry on his work. Intentional at every step and with painstaking care he poured himself into his closest followers. He prepared them to receive his guidance and power from another dimension after he was crucified, resurrected, and ascended. Because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, his physical departure from earth would result in more access to him than ever before. He promised his constant presence immediately after delivering his disciple-making mandate.
That was then and this is now. Imagine a community with 2,000 high school kids, 20 local churches, and a few parachurch organizations. Do a generous audit of how many kids are involved in all of the collective youth ministries. Each youth ministry has a “roster” so, theoretically, all could merge their spreadsheets together. Let’s assume the total number from this aggregation is 850 high schoolers. And, for purposes of planning, we assume that none of those 850 are double-counted.
Today, a widely practiced version of youth ministry would calculate the scope of what they were responsible to do based on their own roster. Roster-concentrated youth ministry concerns itself with 850 kids. By contrast, missional identity means that God’s people are, first and foremost, following Jesus’ leadership. And he is at least as concerned about the 1,150 kids on nobody’s roster as he is with those who already receive the church’s many assets. In fact, a missional identity would lead the local Body of Christ to re-think how they allocate their time so that outreach and service in their communities are elevated priorities. It would also mean that we generously give our resources to those beyond our immediate neighborhoods.
That’s not all. Following in his mission means we must rethink how we bring our best benefit to the ministry organizations that pay us. We will seek first the Kingdom of God. Collaboration efforts will get the prime-time investments they need because the Lord is honored more by our observable unity than our loveless excellence. The truest test of a missional identity is whether those who know us best smell the fragrance of Jesus’ selfless love in our lifestyle and ministry choices.
It could take quite some time to turn around the Church in a community so that it’s brand is “missional, like Jesus.” Where better to start growing a new breed of Christ-followers than in youth ministry? Teenagers are freshly capable of making life-altering choices that are different from the generation that has preceded them. Their passions lend themselves to wholehearted commitments and, frankly, they are often not yet entangled by financial and family obligations.
The seed at the center of roster-concentrated youth ministry is seldom missional. Missional identity ignores self-interests. As its seed falls to the ground, it dies to all things personal to make room for all things Jesus. By so doing, it produces an exponential harvest that glorifies God. And, in a lovely judo flip of the world’s values, the Lord gives us a richer life because we surrender what we once tried to hoard.
When we focus on our kids, our families, and our rosters, we gather and spend a lot of money on ourselves. As it turns out, we can build some really cool spaces that get used a few hours a week. We can hire the best professionals to run programs for our kids and pander to the consumer demands of congregations. And we will most certainly grow church members who are socialized to vote in their own best interests rather than meet the unwavering demands of Jesus to take up our cross daily and follow him.
That quote from Eugene Peterson can sound like a real “dissing” of youth, but it’s actually an important reminder. Well-adjusted adolescents are still fully adolescents, growing in virtually every direction—physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
When you spend a lot of time with teenagers, it’s easy to fall in either of two traps: forget they’re a work in progress and expect too much, or be consumed with the idea that they’re a work in progress and expect too little. Keep these points in mind so you don’t misread teenagers:
- They’re drainers. Teenagers can look adult-like, but generally they still take more resources than they give. Because they’re using tremendous energy just to survive adolescence, young people often don’t have much extra for others. Of course, they’re capable of significant caring, giving, and forgiving. But sustaining these attributes is almost impossible, with the many tasks of growing up playing Tug-of-War with teenagers.
It isn’t wise for adults to expect kids to fill their own emotional or relational tanks. Adults are supposed to be fuelers. Maturity means we have more to pour into others from tanks that are full—or that we can replenish in healthy ways.
Intimacy requires a solid sense of identity. That’s tough for anyone in our fast-paced, fractured, pluralistic society. Finding your identity takes lots of practice and requires you to try on different “selves.” This process takes its toll on kids but also on adults who love and work with them. Because we’re the fuelers, our relationships with kids are often nonreciprocal. This can lead to disappointment, which is fertile soil for the seeds of resentment and frustration.
- They’re beautiful train wrecks. Their feelings, ranging from joy to despair, are coming alive, contending for the strong hand at the wheel of kids’ everyday choices. Youth ministers must be keenly aware that God is stirring young people and must passionately address it. Help them recognize Jesus as the author of this stirring—he wants them to want more and to feel more. At the heart of it, Jesus wants them to want him. If we don’t provide outlets, explanations, and acknowledgement of this stirring, we’ll lose kids. After all, the world is ready and willing to answer their desire for more, and to provide outlets for their angst.
- They need to pull away. On the road to independence, teenagers must take this new life for a test drive, and adults don’t get to ride shotgun. For parents and youth ministers, this can be tough to swallow. We often misread, read more here, such pulling away as youthful rebellion or ungratefulness for all we’ve done. On the contrary, it’s essential for teenagers to develop confidence in who they are without us and, more importantly, who they are in God—and who God is in them.
Our job is to pour God’s love into young people’s tanks and give them room to find out who they are. Meanwhile, we can learn from teenagers as we allow God to continue to form our identity in him.
Every young life is a mystery waiting to be uncovered, not a mistake needing to be corrected. Keep these best practices in mind as you help teenagers uncover their identity:
1. Turn your dreams for your teenagers into expected outcomes. The late business guru Stephen Covey advises leaders to “begin with the end in mind”—and that’s excellent advice for us, too. Through our love, focused intercessory prayer, and personalized pursuit, we want teenagers to…
- feel loved and know they matter because we’ve paid acute attention to them;
- experience a boost in self-esteem as they’re reminded that they’re a miracle, not a mess;
- learn more deeply how to respect themselves and others;
- discover their talents and strengths by launching themselves into new adventures and opportunities;
- learn to both appreciate and live into their true self;
- identify “what’s right” about them instead of “what’s wrong” about them; and
- learn to hear the voice of Jesus and receive his help, because they’ve learned to listen to him. (For a primer on listening to, and following, the voice of Jesus, listen to Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus Episode #6 here).
2. Commit to going “all-in” in God’s mission to “unlock” your teenagers’ true identity. When we’re talking about responding well to constructive criticism, we remind ourselves to “not take it personally.” But when the focus is on revealing your kids’ God-given purpose in life, we have to take it personally. And when we take something personally, we’ll need a greater measure of courage. Don’t hold back in cautious safety when Jesus directs you to move into a teenager’s life. Intentionally pursue a student’s true identity, ponder it, and then share what you see as God leads.
The Four-Window Model
KidUnique offers this powerful force for discovery that helps you navigate relationships with students for identity-clarifying impact.
1. Observation unleashes the power of seeing a teenager well. Observation is the first window we peer through as we attempt to help students discover who they are. Those who leverage the Observation window understand that there is a story unfolding right before their eyes in the lives of the students they love, so they slow down enough to “see” it. This is a powerful force in the discovery process.
Observation is as simple as just paying attention. Look away from yourself and other distractions and lock your focus on a teenager. Pay closer-than-normal attention when they play, study, and interact with others. Notice their reactions. Notice what they notice. Rick Lawrence says, in his book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry that to observe a kid well we must become sleuths who study their “clues,” like Sherlock Holmes.
When we give kids the gift of close observation we’re simply studying a young person as he or she grows up, then describing glimpses of what we see at any given moment. Observation communicates both interest and value. In Proverbs 5:21, Solomon says,
Our ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he watches all our paths.”
Inherent in God’s loving nature is that he sees his creation. God pays attention to those he loves, and we reflect his heart when we pay unusual attention to the students we love.
2. Exploration unleashes the power of discovery in a teenager’s life. The Exploration window is all about students exploring life and discovering who they are along the way. To help them, we’ll have to have an explorer’s heart, too. Explorers are restless to discover—they’re always encouraging new adventures and love to see teenagers take on new opportunities. Adults with an explorer’s heart push into new territory, understanding on ever-deeper levels the terrain of a teenager’s life. As they do this they inspire their kids to value the exploration process themselves.
The Apostle Paul instructed young Timothy to “pay close attention to yourself” (1 Timothy 4:16). He wasn’t telling Timothy to be selfish or self-absorbed—he was reminding Timothy that paying close attention to yourself will reveal truths you need to know. Paul wanted Timothy to pay attention to his reactions to people and challenges, looking for revealed truths about himself. What was interesting (or uninteresting) to him gave him clues into the person God created him to be.
The same is true for us. As the young people we love bump into life, we pay attention. As they do new things and discover they are good at some and not so good at others, we pay attention. As opportunities present themselves and they are drawn to them or repulsed by them, we pay attention. And in our conversations with them we encourage them to pay better attention to their reactions. Exploration inspires kids to learn about themselves by trying new opportunities and adventures. As they do, we discuss their reactions and identify their interests and strengths.
3. Affirmation unleashes the power of telling a teenager what’s right with them. The Affirmation window has the potential to unleash your students’ gifts upon the world and unlock their God-given extraordinary impact. We fuel our teenagers’ future success through targeted affirmation—there are few things more powerful in life.
Every young person has an upside and a downside—that’s true of all of us. Affirmation is simply telling teenagers what’s right about them. We see beyond what’s wrong and point out what’s right. We notice, then communicate verbally, the upside truth of the person God has created them to be. Jesus did this. He went out of his way to convince his followers they had value and could become difference-makers in the lives of others:
- “I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).
- “You are the rock…” (Matthew 16:18).
- “You are my friends…” (John 15:15).
These are wonderfully affirming statements that had to fill up the disciples’ hearts. When you affirm, based on observation and exploration, your students are going to feel the transforming power of truth in their life.
4. Revelation unleashes the power of listening to God and praying for a teenager. God made each student uniquely, or “fearfully and wonderfully,” to use the Psalmist’s words. But God knows them better and loves them deeper than we ever could. We desperately need his help with this process.
Ultimately we understand that our teenagers must discover God’s will about who they are and what they should do with their life. But, we do everything we can to identify and call out what God has put into them. Learning to look through the Revelation window begins with me saying to God: “I need your help. I can’t do this alone.”
“Fearfully and wonderfully made” helps us pinpoint King David’s moment of revelation, in Psalm 139:14: “I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it very well.” In his soul, David knew who he was and what God’s will was for his life—he knew it “very well.” It’s our longing for our students to know what David knew.