We’ve all heard and maybe even said: “You are who God says you are” in response to a question, doubt or insecurity that a teenager raised. And it’s a good answer – a beautiful and profound truth that we all need to be reminded of time and again. However, as with most simple truths, the more it’s expressed without meaningful discussion and application, the more it’s in danger of becoming a cliché. This is especially the case for a generation of youth that have shown they need time to explore, unpack, and wrestle with a concept before they are willing to accept it and its implications into their lives.
Gen Z teens are doing what teens of all generations have always done – trying to answer the question, “Who am I?”.
So, let’s stop and understand what identity formation looks like for this generation and consider how we as the Church can make space for them to wrestle through it.
Understand the conception of identity
A necessary place to begin this discussion is by understanding the conception of identity that Gen Z holds in their minds – and how it might differ from our own. The familiar narrative of so many of the movies we’ve loved is the “coming of age” story: a young person sets out on a quest or endeavor and along the way, they “discover” themselves; bit by bit, piece by piece, they uncover the person they’ve always been but never recognized. Think Luke Skywalker realizing he is the son of a Jedi; realizing he is uniquely equipped from birth with powers he must learn to control to fight the Empire (and later realizing who his Jedi father was).
Generation Z’s identity narrative is quite different. Instead of thinking about identity as something innate to be discovered through experiences and relationships, they view it as a “curated composition,” something they strategically create and present for the viewing of others.
Much of this change is the result of the social media landscape that teens have grown up in. Teenagers will act differently depending on which friend or social group they are in, but each presentation of self is a part of the teenager. However, the social media landscape integrates each “presentation of self”, so teenagers have learned how to present a coherent public image to a diverse crowd, such as their grandparents, teammates, employers, friends, and more. They have learned how to make themselves into a brand to be socially marketed. Ironically, an exception to this reality is the “Finsta” – private Instagram accounts that only close friends have access to which allows teens to freely express themselves without having to manage their image.
Understand that Gen Z highly values authenticity
Although identity formation for Gen Z is becoming increasingly synonymous with the development of a branded persona, research also shows that this generation highly values authenticity.
At first glance, this may seem like a contradiction. Can a teenager be authentic while marketing themselves to an audience in a highly commercialized environment? Gen Z has managed to emerge from this commercialized social environment with a finely-tuned sense of authenticity. Recent research suggests that because today’s teens have been constantly exposed to marketing campaigns and advertisements, not to mention their friends’ and acquaintances’ online personas, they’ve come to consider themselves experts in “just knowing” when something or someone is “real”. Ironically, this sense of authenticity is typically only outward-focused and does not apply to a teen’s own presentation of self. This is where the challenge emerges: they recognize fakeness in others, but not themselves. They desire to be unique and will do everything in their power to present this uniqueness to the world.
Help teens feel empowered
As youth leaders, we must help youth feel empowered by social media to express who they are while simultaneously reminding them who they are in Christ. They are unique because God created them and they were not called to fit into a particular Christian mold. Rather, they were called to be a light to the world and to use their unique giftings and sense of self to reach people that local church leadership could not reach by themselves.
Your church and youth ministry can provide a unique space for teens to reflect and reconcile who God says they are with who they perceive and present themselves to be. After all, where else are they likely to find themselves in a Spirit-filled community with peers and adult leaders who are intentionally seeking to grow in the knowledge of God and self by studying the Word and applying it to their lives?
The Bible gives us a good example of identity formation in the story of how God identified Jacob with the new name of Israel. Israel means “the one who wrestles with God.” Jacob couldn’t have been given that name – it wouldn’t have been who he was – if he hadn’t first wrestled with God and become the One Who Wrestles with God. At the same time, his receiving that new name was only the very beginning of Israel’s formation – the catalyst of a turning point in his trajectory that would continue unfolding and developing as the nation of Israel spent centuries wrestling with God and being shaped by those encounters.
The key takeaway: Identity can’t be separated from the process of forming it. We can’t just tell our students who they are, because until they’ve walked the Spirit-led journey of self-formation, they won’t be who they are.
“You are who God says you are” is a good place to start – consider it a seed that you can scatter during youth services. But just as any farmer serious about reaping a harvest does so much more than dropping seeds into soil, so must youth leaders and pastors do more than dropping truths – even if they are profound, simple, and beautiful. In 1 John 3:2, John assures his fellow Christians of who they are, saying, “Dear friends, now we are children of God.” But he also knew that this was only the beginning of their journey to true selfhood, the conception point of a Truth that was destined to grow and develop in them until it reached its full form at the return of Jesus; so he continued: “and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” That in-between space, starting with “you are who God says you are” and ending before “you shall be like Him” – that’s where the lifelong long process of formation, wrestling, and discipleship happens.
- Use our Social Media and Identity Insights assessment to better understand how social media is affecting your students’ identities.
- Check out Feed’s 4-week small group series, #REALME, and help your students explore what it looks like to follow Jesus both online and offline.
- Read our previous blog: The Mask, where you can learn more about the façade that teenagers project and how to engage with them better on their journey to become more honest with themselves and others.
- The Feed Team would love to connect with you as you seek to make changes in your youth ministry. Reach out to us at [email protected] to find out how we can partner with and support you in your ministry.