As a father of three kids spanning 1st-7th grades and a pastor who works with 5th-8th graders, I’m really challenged by how so many young adolescents are searching for identity everywhere, except in the one place where it matters whose they are more than who they are, (in Jesus).

E9F5E08D-B5CB-4CDB-8795-D59835F31F3DThere are plenty of scholarly articles out there on identity formation in children, early adolescents and teenagers.  This is not one of those pieces. This is a collection of my observations and wonderings.  I’ve been working with children and teens for over a decade, while simultaneously becoming a father and observing my own children growing and maturing.

Here are some of the “places” I see 10-14 year olds looking for identity:

8D2FECE4-7763-4B9A-899A-59622E86765FThis is nothing new.  Musicians draw fans.  Fans find community with each other.  Identity!

However, students get obsessed with these bands.  They form strong connections with people they will probably never meet!  And then, in a few years when those artists are yesterday’s stars, students have to figure out a new identity.

It’s great to enjoy music and like specific artists. God created music and instructs us to use it in worshipping Him.  The problem is when the artists get worshipped.  And if we look at how so many kids today adore these artists, worship really is the best word to describe it.

66C944D4-95EE-4930-A133-DAB005C3E770I’m not sure if the involvement of youth in sports has increased or if the level of expectation and competition has just intensified for those involved.

Some 10-14 year olds find identity in cheering on the local or popular college or professional team.  Some even go crazy supporting their local middle school or high school teams.  They find community and identity here. But some get wrapped up in whether they make a specific community or school team.  Their identity is tied to their status as an athlete.  And that status is based on how they are rated in their level of athletic achievement.

Play sports for fun?  That makes no sense to most kids today.  Why?  They are not playing that sport just to do something fun.  They are playing that sport to be someone.  It defines who they are.

9355D0F0-FFAD-4D8F-82AE-13611A71005AWe spend so much time telling students not to label people.  Ironically, they seek out specific labels on their clothes and accessories to form their identity.

As I write this in August of 2013, Under Armour has taken over locally as the brand of choice for preteens and teens.  Nike is still near the top.  Then you have all the different mall store brands. So many of the shirts that students wear are basic cotton t-shirts with a silk-screened design.  However, based on whose image is on the shirt, the price varies greatly, as does the value in identity formation.

The logo on the shirt, hat, socks, shorts, backpack, shoes, etc. defines these kids and ties them to a community.  It helps them fit in, find acceptance, maybe popularity – or at least not being ridiculed.  And that is the identity they are running after.

(Sidenote: As an illustration how these are not great sources for lifelong identity formation, I recently found several articles of clothing that were high dollar and very popular when I was in high school now available for cheap at the local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.)

4FF3161E-C4D0-4AB2-AB27-54F6B2983CF5I remember when bumper stickers related to kids were pretty much either “My Child Is An Honor Student…” or something with their school logo on it.

Not today.  Minivans, cars, and SUV’s show off decals for their community football league with their child’s name and number.  Stickers, decals and other adornments promote achievements in academics, dance, sports, and everything a parent can want to brag about.

So what does that tell kids?  Do something that will get your parents a sticker to brag about you.  Don’t be one of those families with a “plain looking” car.  Stickers equal value.  They show identity.  After all, who you are is based on what you have or are accomplishing, right?  Hmmm…

A33B32C6-0653-4D9C-81D6-E9EE550B82C3(We’re not going to go into the ethics of parents who lie about their child’s age to sign them up for a social media account before the required 13 year age limit.  That’s for another blog.)

However, focusing on identity formation . . .

Whether we’re talking about facebook, twitter, instagram, vine, youtube or whatever has come out in the seconds after this was typed, students run into the virtual world to find their real-world identity. On the one hand, just look at how students represent themselves online.  Do their posts show the real or ideal self?  (We have to ask the same for ourselves as adults.) And the bigger issue is one of comments and likes.  Are students sharing words and images because they simply want others to read and view or so others will “like” and comment?

We try to help kids feel like individuals and not like numbers.  And yet now they are finding identity in the number of comments, likes, followers, and shares on their social media account.  (And too often, they are doing what they have seen us model for them.)

663D6143-D597-46EC-9058-3C9473F2F4F9So is there any hope? Is there anything we can do? I believe there is. We’re always going to deal with kids . . . and adults . . . seeking identity from people and things that are temporary and which provide false identities. However, I believe there are some little things we can do as parents and pastors that can reap big benefits.  This is by no means a perfect solution to the identity problem.  However, it could just be a prescription to help shape this “wet clay” of young identities enough that they’ll look to this as their true identity, when all the other things have faded away.

D45FBF61-7AA1-47D4-8FA5-8DFEB6FC1B9COne of the things students need to know and remember is that EVERYONE is created in God’s image.  Everyone resembles our Heavenly Father.

This challenges how we see others, because people we look up to, people we despise and everyone between reflects characteristics of God. Sometimes, helping students see this about others can then help them to see this truth about themselves.

We could have a conversation with kids about how they look or act like one or both of their parents.  Then challenge them to think about and describe characteristics of God that are reflected in their lives.

E4A6973D-3C5C-468B-9BEF-978FC06FF740Moving on from just everyone in general, students who are connected to a church and who either are Christians or are wrestling with becoming Christians need to check out this passage of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus.

The whole chapter is good to read, teach and discuss with students.  We can compare and contrast what kind of identity we get from these verses with the kind of identity we get from all the false sources. Paul has great content here about being created new in Christ; our unity with Christ and other Christians; and the holiness of God dwelling in us, the new “temple” of God.  Each of these could be a great discussion and/or lesson tied to identity formation.

The key I would focus on, maybe even challenging student to memorize, is Ephesians 2:10.  The New Living Translation says, “We are God’s masterpiece…”  Now that’s an awesome identity!

1D6DE685-0541-4B57-9BCD-E412A3B4C5F2Identity formation is a huge issue that really is in the everyday world for parents.  So the question needs to be asked: “How can parents come alongside ministries to help students form biblical identities?” or probably better is “How can pastors partner with parents to help students form biblical identities?”

86077264-0D3A-45F1-87C4-421AF0E34069The first thing all of us – pastors and parents – need to do is evaluate how we are doing at understanding our own identity. In each of the areas where students struggle, we need to evaluate how well or poorly we are doing at showing the value we place in true identity vs. false identity. What kind of music do we listen to?  Do we idolize artists? Are we obsessed with certain athletes or teams?  Can we play something just for fun or is it always competitive (because winning gives value)? Do the clothes we wear have value based on the labels or what others think of those labels? Can we be fulfilled by working hard, even those efforts go unrecognized – both at work and home?

Do we post on social media just to get comments and likes?  Do we talk more about the relationships we have with others we are connected to or about how many likes, comments and shares our posts have received?

Are we reading passages like Genesis 1 and Ephesians 2 and getting our own identity there more than in being a spouse, parent, coach, leader, etc.?

E05457BD-C5FA-45E8-A89C-6540F2863E0FThere are some great opportunities to have conversations with your kids to help them shape a biblical identity! A huge hit song over the past year was “Gold” by Christian singer Britt Nicole.  If you haven’t, you need to check out the music video: http://youtu.be/p9PjrtcHJPo. Then read the lyrics and talk about them with your child.  Great message on identity!

When it comes to music, you can find lyrics to most popular songs online, as well as information about the artists who sing those songs.  Do your homework and then have conversations with your child about the songs they are singing and the artists they “adore.”

When it comes to sports, celebrate the hard work they do and the character they are developing more than their wins and other stats.  As a family, take time to play games, sometimes just for the fun of playing together.  Show them winning isn’t everything.

Take moments with your family to say, “This is a no-post moment.”  This is something so special I want just us to know about it.  It’s healthy for people not to know everything we do.  Otherwise we catch ourselves doing things just to have content to post!

Finally, and most importantly, read and discuss the Bible with your kids, especially the passages in Genesis 1 and Ephesians 2.  Remind your kids that they resemble their Heavenly Father and as Christians, they are His Masterpiece!  Now that’s identity!

Mike Sheley is the Middle School Pastor at Mt. Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Indiana. He’s got three cool kids and a cool wife, too. He also has really spiky hair, which is pretty rad. I first met Mike at a gathering of student pastors and immediately was encouraged by his creativity, thoughtfulness, and zeal. You can view and/or download this blog in presentation format over at http://www.haikudeck.com/p/3yuIrc33P4. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MichaelSheley. I recommend you friend him on FB, too, where he posts a ton of helpful resources like the content of this blog regularly. Thanks, Mike, for sharing and for your outstanding Kingdom work!

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