youth ministry 3.0, part 5

youth ministry 3.0 is the working title of a book i’ve mostly written, which is expected to release this fall. it’s an attempt to name where and how we’re missing the mark in youth ministry, and what needs to change in order to more truly live into our calling as youth workers.

we’ve decided to open up the book a bit and solicit youth worker contributions as sidebar comments, and i’m going to use my blog for this purpose. until late april, i’ll be posting a series of snapshots from the rough draft of the manuscript. i invite lots of comments — questions, disagreements, ideas, very short stories or examples, reflections — which will be considered as additions to the book.

by posting a comment, you are giving permission for your comment, with your screen name, to be added to the print book.

so, here’s the fifth bit, from chapter 2:

The three tasks of adolescence

All teenagers, in any culture that acknowledges adolescence, wrestle with three “tasks”. I refer to them as tasks, though they are almost completely wrestled with semi-consciously. The older a teenager gets – and certainly more so now that adolescence stretches into the 20s – the more self-aware they become of this wrestling, of these tasks. But the tasks present themselves at the beginning of adolescence.

Identity. Dictionaries define identity as:



For our purposes, we’ll define identity as the “who am I?” question. Simply put: one’s identity is the sum of one’s self-perceptions. This includes self-perceptions about character, values, purpose and potential in life, caste, emotional make-up, appearance and body type, intellectual and spiritual and emotional strength or weakness, relationship to family and friends and culture at large, and many other factors.

Children and pre-teens are not intellectually capable of this kind of 3rd person thought. A 9 year-old cannot stand apart from herself and perceive herself, cannot form opinions of herself based on self-perception (she can only form opinions about herself based on what she likes or doesn’t like, and what others have said about her).

The kind of thinking required for identity formation is truly brand spanking new in adolescence, and is a direct result of the gift of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking is that kind of thinking that goes beyond concrete, tangible, linear, and black-and-white. In short, abstract thinking could be characterized as Thinking About Thinking. The addition of abstract thinking brings the teenager a host of new “abilities”, such as:
• Hypothesizing. Abstract thinking allows teenagers (and adults, of course) to create multiple scenarios – real or imaginary – of “what might be”. Teenagers begin to gain the ability to consider likely, and unlikely, down-the-line results of various actions and choices – both their own actions and choices, and the actions and choices of others. Of course, they’re also really bad at this, because it’s a new ability. But they have the basic cognitive tools to do this .
• Speculating. Closely tied to hypothesizing, speculation is directly tied to decision-making, and is the practice of mentally thinking through likely outcomes. We adults do this quickly (most of the time) and intuitively. When presented with a choice, we immediately (again, in most cases) speculate about the likely outcomes of the various choice options. We might call this, “making an informed decision.” Again, children and pre-teens are not capable of making an informed decision, as they don’t possess the ability to speculate.
• Empathizing. I live very near Tijuana, Mexico, which is filled with poverty. If I take my children to visit families living in the Tijuana garbage dump, scavenging for food and sustenance, my two children will likely have two very different experiences. Max, my 10 year-old, who is a naturally sensitive boy, will experience deep sympathy of the plight of the children and families he encounters. He will feel bad for them, and want to help. Liesl, my 14 year-old daughter, however, will likely experience empathy. She will still feel bad for the children she sees; but she’ll take it a step further. She’ll empathize, as she imagines (even “feels”) what life would be like for that impoverished child. She will “place herself in that child’s shoes”, and perceive life from that perspective, a perspective completely 3rd person and outside of herself. She might also wrestle with abstract questions, such as, “Why was this child born in this place and to this poverty? And why was I born to the comfortable life I have?”
• Doubting. Doubting, of course, occurs when we internally question beliefs we currently hold to be true. This is a very abstract thought process, and is not possible prior to adolescence. It’s absolutely essential to faith development, by the way, and is a wonderful developmental gift in God’s design.
• Emoting. Emotions are abstract! And, since children don’t think abstractly, they are significantly limited in their emotional options. I like to think of this as if children are going through life with an emotional “painter’s palette” that has a limited amount of colors (emotional options) on it: just the primary colors and a few simple secondary combinations. But with puberty, and the gift of abstract thinking, that small palette is replaced by a massive new emotional palette with hundreds of nuanced and complex emotions (as well as a massive glob of black, to add dimension, broodiness and all other things emotionally dark!).
• Self-perceiving. I’ve already mentioned this, but pre-teens do not have the ability to think of themselves, other than what they see in the mirror, or what others say about them. But abstract thinking brings the ability to think about oneself, and to speculatively perceive oneself from another’s perspective. Once again, teens – especially younger teens – are notoriously bad at this. They often wrongly perceive how others see them. They often assume everyone is “checking them out”.
• Xxxx (check notes)
• And, of course, identity formation.

It would be wrong to say that identity formation begins in adolescence. Our identities are being formed from day one of life. All the messages we take in, from family, friends and culture at large, form who we perceive ourselves to be. The shift that occurs in adolescence, thanks to our friend, abstract thinking, is that teenagers have the ability to take charge of their own identity formation. Since they gain self-perception (and all the other implications just discussed), they are able to begin directing the course of their identity formation. They make choices and see the implications on who they are and who they’re becoming. They begin to speculate about who they want to be, not only in what career they’d like to have someday; but what kind of person they want to be, and what kind of person they want others to see them as. In other words, adolescence provides the opportunity to choose who one becomes.

This is why identity is such a major task in adolescence. The reality is – and, remember, this is the whole point of culture giving teenagers a respite between childhood and adulthood – that, by the time an adolescent reaches their mid-20s, their identity will be mostly formed. Sure, we all continue to shape and refine our identities. But the core formation work is done. The course is mostly set.

Autonomy. Of course, the word autonomy simply refers to something’s separateness from the other – it’s independence. In adolescent development terms, autonomy is wrestling with the questions, “How am I unique and different?” and “What’s my unique contribution?”

You can easily see how this is directly and completely tied to the growth in abstract thinking we just talked about. Children may see themselves as unique in some way(s). But cognitive development and abstract thinking allows this consideration to add the dimensions of comparison and 3rd person perception. A child will define themselves primarily in relation to others – usually his family. But a teen begins to define herself in opposition to others (often, especially her family!). Teenagers are constantly drawing conclusions (correct or incorrect) about others, and defining themselves against those. “I am not like him (or her, or them)” becomes important to the task of autonomy.

In psychological terms, this is often referred to as individuation. The process of individuation is becoming oneself, unique and separate. This process is primarily (though not exclusively) the issue of separating from one’s family.

Mixed into this progression is the ancillary question, “What is my unique contribution?” This is a swirling cyclical dance-partner with the “How am I unique?” question, as the two constantly inform each other and cause each other to progress. The “contribution” in that question plays out in a variety of arenas: family, friends and other relationships, school, youth group, community, and the world. As a teenager begins to see her uniqueness, she is better equipped to understand her role and influence in relationships and the world around her. And as she begins to see how that influence in relationships and the world around her play out, she is better equipped to grasp her uniqueness.

Affinity. Affinity, as a word, simply means likeness, or attraction. We use it in a developmental sense to refer to a person’s connection to others like themselves in some way. This “likeness” may be external – a teenage boy may find affinity with the other guys who are into skateboarding or science, or a teenager girl may find affinity with the group of kids in school who like a certain style of music. But the likeness can also be more internal – a teenager can find affinity with others who share the same values, or the same outlook; or, a teenager can find affinity with family based on shared experience and story.

This final task of adolescence almost seems in opposition to the task of autonomy. But, in reality, they go hand-in-hand, apparent opposites in a dependant dance, with identity looking on. Autonomy and affinity are the yin and yang of identity formation, really, informing and framing that first task.

It is easy to see this quest for affinity in teenagers. They desperately desire to be included, to be part of a social network, to feel that they belong somewhere. Young and middle teens, especially, commonly have multiple affinity groups to which they belong (or aspire to belong). This is all a normal (sometimes healthy, sometimes not) part of the process of figuring out who they are.

As I write this, my wife and I are just now becoming increasingly aware of this process in our 14 year-old daughter’s life. Liesl finds affinity with her church friends (and particularly with her middle school small group from church). She finds affinity with a particular group of friends at school. And she finds affinity with our family. We’re discovering how she is three different girls, in many ways, in these three settings: guarded yet engaged in the first, bubbly and crass in the second, and loving but aloof at home. Were she an adult, we would say she is being disingenuous in at least one, if not two of those settings, and only one of them is her true self. But for an adolescent, Liesl is all three of those girls, living into as well as leveraging against all three to define herself.

7 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 5”

  1. Wow, nothing to add to this, but this post makes me want to get the book more than anything.

    What I have been seeing in ym is a complete lack of identity in teens. They know nothing of who they are and are afraid to ask who they want to be.

    I have some tools to help, but I am really looking forward to your ideas on this. Let me know when it’s coming out. I am very ready.

  2. I’m with Paul on this one. You’ve covered a lot of ground, and covered it well. We have a huge identity crisis in our hands as youth workers. How will we respond?

  3. Marko

    This is fascinating. Your definitions and descriptions of identity, autonomy and affinity are incredibly helpful and I look forward to reading the chapter(s) in the book. This puts a twist on something I’ve been grappling with. After taking a wonderful class on Spiritual Formation last semester, I have been challenged by what many have labeled a “compartmentalized” faith. Faith in Christ is much more than a single compartment/component but the center…you know how the argument goes.

    Richard Boa, in his book Conformed to His Image, says that “Our relationship with Christ was never meant to be a component of our lives but to be the central hub to which every spoke is connected (213).” Believing this to be a true statement, how do I as a youth pastor help teens realize that God is present in each affinity group? What I’ve been trying to affirm and encourage with my teens is the reality that in every situation/group they find themselves, God is present and active.

    Where I see the breakdown with youth (and many adults) is the thinking that certain affinity groups are Godless. For whatever reason, be it culture, group dynamics, selfishness, or fear…certain affinity groups are seen as void of God. For some reason we’ve come to expect, allow for and be comfortable with this. For example, God is at camp but not at school. God is at youth group but not the movie theatre. God is near when I’m with my family but not my friends.

    Your last paragraph about Liesl being “three different girls” really hits home. I’ve been harping on my kids to be the same person in each group. Perhaps this is misguided. Regardless, it seems to me that during this time when a kid’s identity and autonomy are under construction, we as youth workers need to make every effort to help our students understand that even though their affinity groups have different identities; Christ hopes to be situated at the center of their life.

    Sorry for the long post – one could poke a bunch of holes in what I’m trying to say. I need to give this more thought and look forward to further digesting this wonderful culture we live in.

  4. Marko, like what you’ve written so far, and I think you covered these 3 concepts very well, but I think you forgot a 4th task of adolecence:

    Creating a MySpace page

    And an equally important sign that adolescence is coming to a close:

    Moving from Myspace to FaceBook

    Had to be said :)

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  6. It seems like of the three tasks of adolescence that the church only tries to really help with autonomy by emphasizing that a student make their faith their own. While youth ministry focuses some on identity, it seems to be more of a mainstreaming approach that strips away any freedom and forces students into the narrow confines in which the church traditionally sees Christian guy and girl roles. As for affinity, youth ministries seem to desire to create one affinity group for our students at the expense of all of the others. This leads to an all-or-nothing mentality and the ostracization of “fringe” kids and the glorification of the dedicated.

  7. I am going to try and approach my youth ministry by relating identity to God. I can use Kempis’ Imitation of Christ as a guide. Affinity can be related to the Church. I think of the Pauline Letters (Ephesians mostly). However, Autonomy brings to mind the Parable of Talents and the introduction of stewardship and service. Any comments or ideas?

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