Youth pastors dream of youth groups filled with on-fire students. Some time ago in our ministry, it seemed we had one of those dream students. He attended every event and would call to see if he could help set up. He loved our large group service and never missed it. He showed up early and left late and would even come to the office to hang out. He went to camps, summer events and had a hand in every service project.
This student was on engagement steroids, and I thought it was awesome. Because he was so involved, I assumed he was healthy and motivated in the right way. I believed God was moving mightily in his life, and it was the work of the Holy Spirit pushing him to be so active. I encouraged him with phrases like "If I only had a million of you," "You should be in youth ministry," "You're awesome" and "Keep it up."
But I didn't see what was coming around the corner for this core student. When he made a huge mistake, it rocked his personal world. As a result, there was a significant change in behavior, and his attendance at church services and youth events dropped significantly.
At first, I thought he just needed a break and would bounce back soon enough, but eventually he stopped coming altogether. He didn't want to communicate with me or anyone from the church.
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After pestering him a while because I couldn't believe he would just fall off like that, I got to meet with him after a few weeks—and he seemed like a different person. His whole life had been about performance, and because of it, his identity was defined by success.
The mistake he made didn't just impact his circumstances, but it affected him to the core. His failure defined his identity. As it turns out, we discovered he had lived his whole life this way. When life was great, he felt good about himself, but when circumstances weren't so good, he saw himself in a negative light.
His identity was defined by success and applause. The young person who ties his performance to identity begins to question who he is—and if he ever truly gave his life to Christ. The young person in this state may believe that he is the worst person in the world. In this case, it was like he was never part of our ministry.
Other students find their identity in the person they are dating. And when there's a break-up or someone gets dumped, the student feels like his world has exploded. They don't feel "good enough" without a boyfriend or girlfriend by their side.
As pastors and leaders, we need to help students understand that their identity is directly connected to their purpose. When they understand who they are, then they can understand what they were created to do. Many times young people allow their experiences, mistakes, hang-ups and struggles to define them. Their identity becomes defined by their weakness.
Students become slaves to the things that hold them hostage. They need to understand that even though they may go through a trial or struggle, it doesn't have to define them.
Identity directly affects their value and worth. When students find their identity in their successes, they value themselves by how good or bad they perform. When identity is wrapped up in a relationship, students value themselves based on the success or failure of that relationship. A student can feel good about himself, but just as easily feel like no one loves him, or everyone hates him, or he was a mistake.
When a student's identity is not rooted in Christ, it becomes like leaves on a tree blowing in whichever direction the wind takes them. We need to help students understand the importance of placing their identity in the only One who never changes. As Malachi 3:6 says, "For I am the LORD, I do not change."
Whether you have students who are Christians or not, they need to know their true identity is in Someone who never changes. And they need to know He doesn't waver like everything else. James 1:17 reminds us that the Father of heavenly lights does not change like shifting shadows.
Students need to know these four things concerning their identity and value:
God created them on purpose in His image. The creation account reminds us that God values each person so much that He created us in His image. Out of all the things He created in this world, He formed only human beings in His image. Students need to understand that their hardships and hang-ups change nothing about them being made in the image of God.
God's love does not fail, nor does it change towards them. Psalm 136:1 declares that the Lord is good, and His love never fails. Romans 8:38-39 shows that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God's love doesn't change and neither does it fail. The great love chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, gives a great depiction of the way God loves us.
God genuinely cares about the details of their lives. First Peter 5:7 instructs us to cast all of our cares on Him because He cares for us. In fact, He cares about every single detail of your students' lives. He cares about their relationships, their bad days, their good days, the things that make them mad, sad or happy. He cares about them completely. Students should be reminded of Luke 12:7, to know that God cares even about the little things in their lives. They must know that God values them so much that His care goes beyond their ability to care even for themselves.
God created them with a purpose. Ephesians 2:10 declares that we are God's masterpiece. He created us anew in Christ, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago. It's not because they have purpose that they should put their identity in Him; rather, it's because He has created them with purpose that should give them reason to place their identity in Him. A long time ago before the world was created He had each one of your students in mind with purpose.
God feels this way about them because of who He is. Our identity in God is not based on ourselves or our ability to trust Him. A person's identity in Christ is solely based on Him and His love. David's writings in Psalm 139 beautifully reveal God's intent toward us.
Our identity sets the tone for the type of person we're going to be and how we will treat people, so it's important for a young person to work on identity issues as early in life as possible. The world says search and find out who you are, but God says discover who I've created you to be in Christ Jesus. For the most part, we don't really need a lot of persuading to find our identity in things and people. Human brokenness craves an identity that operates only in the temporal. We crave the quick fix to our problems. And when it comes to our identity it's no different.
Many times we give in to the quick fix because we just don't know any better. God is seen as an angry dictator who wants to take all the fun out of life. We buy into it because it's the loudest message being broadcast.
That is why it's so important that students understand how much they are valued by God. They need to know their identity is in Him based on how He sees and feels about us because that never changes.
As a youth pastor, there are five key things you can do to help your students understand the importance of finding their identity in Christ. Consider these:
1. Pray for discernment. Pray that the Holy Spirit gives you discernment concerning students who struggle. Every student is different, so we need the help of the Holy Spirit to guide us as we lead, encourage, challenge, inspire and mentor students.
2. Teach on identity from the stage. Don't expect your students to just realize the truth about their identity. Speak to topics on which they are vulnerable, and offer an invitation.
3. Be transparent about your own identity crisis. Every Christian has struggled at times with finding their identity in Jesus, so be open to sharing yours. We serve and encourage others from our weaknesses more than from our strengths. There's something about sharing how normal you are that makes young people feel like you can relate to them, so be honest, open up and share.
4. Give students the opportunity to share their struggles in your youth group. It's one thing for students to hear your struggle, but hearing the testimony of their peers struggling changes the playing field. Students no longer feel like they are the only one. When you think you are the only one struggling in a certain area, it's a lonely and depressing place to be.
5. Educate your students' parents. Having a youth group that is strategic about helping students find their identity in Christ is great, but it's only half the battle. You must reach out to the ones who affect the identity of your students the most. That doesn't mean you need to single out a parent—unless you really have to, of course. For the most part, creating devotions and other resources for students to go through on their own or with their parents may help. Parents are still the No. 1 influencers in a child's life, so support them in grounding their children in the truth of who God created them to be.
When your students find their identity in Christ, it does four things for them:
1. Stability. They learn that no matter what happens in life, God does not change the way He sees or feels about them. When I meet with students who are unsure of who they are, it's always linked to the fact that their identity was placed in something with no certain future. It's not that way with God. Because He has no future or past, He is always present and close to us. Recall God's response to Moses about His name and character. In Exodus 3:14, he declares, "I AM WHO I AM." He's always present and has never been anything else. Jesus says the same thing in the New Testament. In John 8:58, He also says, "before Abraham was born, I AM." There is great stability because God never changes.
2. Self-worth. When your students know that the God of the universe—who owns everything and called everything into existence—created them in His own image, it makes all the difference in the way their perceive themselves. Having a God who cares about the intricate details of their lives shows worth beyond measure. Learn from the birds: "Look at the birds of the air, for they do not sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much better than they?" (Matt. 6:26).
Having one's identity in Christ means accepting being God's favorite. There is self-worth beyond measure when a student finds his identity in Christ.
3. Purpose. Placing one's identity in Christ gives a future and a hope. Ten years ago I never would have guessed I would be where I am today. Just as He does for our young people, God had a purpose and a plan for my life. I only need to trust in Him as it comes to pass. As I put my identity in Christ, it gives me purpose because of who God has created me to be in Him. And as I strengthen my relationship with Him, my purpose becomes clearer.
4. Confidence. There is confidence in knowing that your students' identity is in the One who saves mankind. There is confidence in having your identity in the One who will put an end to the devil once and for all. There is confidence when our identity is in an unshakeable God whose love for us started it all.
Ephesians 3:11-13 is a favorite passage because Paul is telling the Ephesians that confidence and boldness is theirs because of the work of Christ on the cross. He didn't just do it for those who already had believed in Him. He died for those who had no idea how He feels about them or even who He is. Your students can be bold and confident, knowing that their identity is in Christ who knows them and died for them.
Our students need to understand that there are habits, struggles and hang-ups fighting for their identity. And their enemy would love for them to choose anything other than Jesus for their sense of self. Students need to know that their identity doesn't have to be unstable, but it can be completely grounded in the One who created them, loves them and gives them purpose.
Aaron Crumbey oversees pastoral care for the high school ministry at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California.
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