A desire for identity, acceptance & being heard

by Kristin on May 21, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by fotologic

One of my favorite things about blogging is this: I present a topic that’s been needling me, and then I get to benefit from all your thoughts and perspectives. So much free wisdom!

To be honest, if I had my way, I’d sit in a cafe all day talking to people about all manner of topics—nothing would make me happier. But seeing as how so many of you have jobs and responsibilities (like me), and most of you live far away, having conversations on my blog is the next best thing.

Usually I let all of the comments and my responses speak for themselves, but last week’s post about what we hope our kids will get out of church inspired such a flood of interesting thoughts, that I decided summarizing and processing them a bit would make a valuable post.

Here’s how I ended that post, summarizing my own thoughts about church youth programs:

I want my daughters to think about church as the place where they can most fully be the people God created them to be—where they feel absolutely loved, accepted, respected for who they are, not who they think they’re supposed to be. Where their talents and gifts can flourish, and where their doubts and fears can be voiced.

I have to admit, it’s a pie-in-the-sky sort of hope—rather vague both in rationale and implementation. But Chris Johnson, a youth minister who commented on that post, agreed that this lack of identity gets in the way: “The problem I see in youth ministry now…is that these youth are not as comfortable in who they are….”

It’s about identity

Cory, another youth pastor, crystallized the thought for me, in his comment:

I really feel like you hit on a key element in adolescent development: identity. Identity formation doesn’t just happen when we’re adolescents, but it really seems to shape us in significant ways leading into adulthood. I think identity is important to faith development as well. …I feel like part of our job as ones who nurture and guide faith development for teens is to focus on these identity issues.

It’s about acceptance

Tom L.  shared what he and his wife want for their daughters. Although perhaps Tom’s thoughts are more about love and acceptance than identity development, I think they’re closely connected—after all, the main reason we question and fight who we are is that we don’t feel loved and accepted for who we are.

We want to be part of a church where our daughters feel loved by God just as they are, and similarly loved by the followers of God who worship in that church. We want them to feel like they can always return to the church and be welcomed and accepted, no matter where their lifestyles or theologies take them once they leave the nest.

It’s about relationships

So if we buy into this premise—that love, acceptance and identity formation are of primary importance to our kids—what does that look like? Many of you say its rooted in community and relationships.

Chad Estes and Julie both shared from their experience as youth pastors. Chad wrote:

We’ve got to provide community for the kids. They need relationships, they need to experience the Body. They need to participate and know that they are a part of the Body now.

And from Julie:

…the relationships we build with youth ARE the point. Unfortunately, many churches build relationships with kids so that the kids will either “accept Christ” or grow into Christians. Using the relationships as a means to an end. Instead, the mere act of living in relationship with our youth is the act of being Christ to and with them.

It’s about being heard

So how do we build those relationships? Do we go bowling a lot, eat ice cream and sing songs? Those things might be part of it, but ultimately, many of you seem to be saying that the key to building relationships with youth is making sure they feel heard. As Erin put it, it’s important to ask youth “…about their thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes, and doubts” and to give them “a safe space for their questions to be nurtured and explored.”

And do you know what? I’m pretty sure that’s what we all want, no matter how old we are or where we are in our identity and faith development.

In other words, I’m starting to think this model isn’t just for youth programs, but for churches in general. It reflects Jesus’ love and compassion; it emphasizes our individual identity in God, as his creation; and it provides a solid foundation for growing as spiritually deep as we’re ready and willing to grow.

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