stewarding the identity formation of young teens

my most recent middle school ministry column for youthworker journal is online now. the issue was about identity, so it wrote a bit about that:

Put a 9-year-old girl in front of a mirror and ask her to describe herself. Her description most likely will be limited to two categories: physical characteristics she sees (“I have black hair and green eyes. I’m a little bit short.”) and specific characteristics other people have observed about her (“I have a bubbly personality, and I’m really talkative!”).

Place a 16-year-old girl in the same position, and you’ll get a very different response. In addition to the 9-year-old’s concrete responses (what can be seen and what others have observed) are her perceptions—who she perceives herself to be and who she perceives herself to be in other peoples’ eyes.

This shift is directly tied to cognitive development and the new ability to think in third person—to form an opinion or viewpoint of one’s self from a third-person perspective; and all the more abstract, to consider what others must think of me, who others think I am.

That third-person thinking ability (a massive developmental gift from God, a reflection of our Imago Dei, and one of the most significant factors in faith development) is, at its core, the means of identity formation.

Some might say young teens aren’t capable of abstract thinking. Hogwash, I say. It’s true: Young teens hardly focus on abstract thinking the majority of the time, but their ability to switch abstract thinking on and off makes middle school ministry exhilarating and challenging.

Moving from Concrete to Abstract Reasoning

Think of it this way: A seventh grade guy, in a shining moment of abstract reasoning, briefly entertains the notion that he’s not only who people have told him he is. He momentarily considers (probably in a very unarticulated manner) that he’s not only what he does, that there’s more to him and that he can play a role in choosing who he’s becoming.

Then the abstract thinking wires separate and he’s back to thinking concretely. With any luck, his previous abstract idea (“I can become a guy who’s seen as a leader!”) travels with him to the land of black-and-white and turns, for a time, into a concrete thought (“I’m becoming a leader!”).

I saw this one Sunday while chatting with an eighth grade girl from the worship team of our middle school ministry. She had just told me she reads a chapter of the Bible every night. I asked her why. Her response, “Because I’m a worship leader, and I need the Bible to help me with that.”

In some ways, her reasoning was extremely concrete: I am this, so I need to do that. An 18-year-old would have nuanced that response a bit more, but this girl’s response also was drawing from her experience of sparking the hot wires of abstract thinking. At some point, she perceived herself as a budding worship leader, not only because she was playing a role on the worship team, but because it was an aspect of her identity.

That’s why, my middle school ministry friends, I think of our role so often in terms of stewardship.

We Are Our Students Stewards

When I was a young adult, I spent the weekends of one year crewing on a racing sailboat. My job was to fly the spinnaker, that large and colorful sail in front of the boat. The spinnaker is only used when the wind is coming from behind the boat, making the other sails much less useful. The other sails push a sailboat; the spinnaker pulls a sailboat.

The trick of flying a spinnaker is that it doesn’t have a fixed edge as other sails, which are connected to things such as masts. Instead, when flying a spinnaker, I stood on the side of the boat with one line in each hand. I only watched the sail, because I constantly had to make minor adjustments to keep it as full as possible.

That’s a great picture of middle school ministry, particularly as we consider identity formation and early adolescent development. Just as I was the steward of the spinnaker, you and I get to play a role in stewarding those earliest months and years of young teens perceiving themselves.

As our young students unfurl their sails, let’s help them understand they are lovingly created children of God so this abstract concept will become a foundation of their identities.

6 thoughts on “stewarding the identity formation of young teens”

  1. This is a very timely post. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on how to steward young teens’ identities. I know that it will vary from kid to kid, especially as each kid matures at different rates (and not to mention how God uniquely wires each kid). Or perhaps the key is simply the last paragraph: keep bringing them back to the “child of God” concept.

  2. It’s great when we as youth pastors and mentors to students – can create an environment to help students explore identity. Identity formation necessitates exploration – in the domains of ideas, relationships, and vocation (Marcia, J). Maybe you should write about book that goes further into the details of what you articulate here.
    Sometimes we as youth pastors can stunt identity development with our programs. You give me a great idea for developing an Identity Development Audit of Youth Ministry Programs.

  3. This is a great overview Mark. I especially like the picture of youth worker’s keeping the sail full in young peoples lives. Can you follow this up with some guidance on how we DO this. The main question I often come across is not WHAT should we DO, but How do we DO it. I like the idea of us stewarding our young people as it requires us to have a watchful eye on procedings, but how do we do this in a world of individuality???

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