Counter-Cultural Adolescence

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by Mike Langford

We’ve heard it. We’ve said it. And when we were teenagers, we lived it. Adolescence is really hard.

Adolescence is not hard merely because of the particular cognitive, social, ideological, cultural, and physical challenges faced during that time. We all face challenges. Adolescence is hard because in it the different challenges are turned up to a very high volume. All at once. With very little guidance on how to cope with them.

Cognitively, adolescents’ brains are slowly changing their primary reasoning facility from concrete to abstract categories, leading them to re-evaluate lots of what they believe to be true.[1] Socially, adolescents’ lives are intersecting with more and more people outside their immediate familial community, making belonging less certain. Ideologically, adolescents’ values become more negotiable as they are presented with an endless smorgasbord of ideas, especially when those ideas are so accessible via various technological wonders. Culturally, adolescents’ identities are becoming subsumed by the economic siren songs surrounding them, demanding that they become full-fledged consumers. And physically, adolescents’ glands are secreting hormones that are pushing their bodies toward maturation at a rapid pace. As they begin to look, sound, and feel different—often uncomfortably so—it can be quite challenging to understand themselves, let alone their world.

But to make the matter even worse, adolescents face these challenges largely alone.[2] Generally speaking, there is very little interaction between adolescents and adults, which means there is very little felt guidance or protection for adolescents. They are left to raise themselves within their own tribes.[3] With brains and bodies and communities and ideological options shifting around them constantly, and without a sense of guidance or protection, it is very hard for adolescents to find their way out; it is no surprise that adolescence as a life-stage lasts longer than at any other point in human history. Some would say that our entire culture in the West is now adolescent.

The preeminent developmental psychologist Erik Erikson posited that the main task of adolescence as a life-stage is identity formation. Because of the unique set of challenges that they face, adolescents are tasked with answering, even if provisionally, central questions of existence: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Will I be OK?” “Do I matter to anyone?” The failure to come to grips with basic questions of identity results in what Erikson called “role confusion,” a state in which one does not have a definitive sense of self and lives in a sort of perpetual adolescence. Erikson called this an “identity crisis.”[4]

It has been said that a crisis is a time of both danger and opportunity, and the same is true of adolescence. The challenging years of adolescence also hold within them the unique possibility of attaining a deep, integrated, long-lasting sense of identity. Youth ministry is central to the church precisely because it is a ministry of crisis; youth ministry is at once concerned with the life-stage most fraught with danger and the life-stage most bursting with opportunity.

The question is, then, how might we help students navigate adolescence that they attain a sense of identity and avoid role confusion? How do we help them answer the existential questions blaring from within them and all around them? What do we do to help them cope with all the challenges that they face?

I’d like to suggest three things.

First, adolescents need strong connections with those who have already made it through this life-stage.

They need to know that they will make it, and that people love them in the midst of it. In an era when youth are segregated to their own kind, the church ought to be counter-cultural in its strong integration of adults and adolescents. Erikson described the role of the “adult guarantor” as one who provides guidance and stability.[5] Our churches can be counter-cultural by providing thick relationships between adolescents and adults that can provide youth with help in their navigation of identity formation and a confidence that they will make it through. We need our churches to be holistic communities of belonging and guidance and acceptance; adolescents are looking for those things, and they can’t find them only in other adolescents.

Second, adolescents need to know what it means that their identity is found in Christ and not lost in the swirling and competing messages all around them.

In Scripture, the term “in Christ” is used often to describe believers, and it has been taken as the basis for the theological notion of unio Christi, or “union with Christ.” To be one with Christ is described in Galatians 2:20 as a “now-and-not-yet” reality. Even though our lives may be a messy and painful collection of confusion, who we truly are can be seen by looking at Jesus—we are loved, we are righteous, and we are destined to rise again and again and again. And though we only catch glimpses of that reality now, we will one day live it fully. In contrast to the narratives of “success” or “attractiveness” that surround them, our churches can be counter-cultural by offering adolescents a bevy of narratives—found in Scripture, testimonies, history, liturgy, sacraments, spiritual disciplines—to help them see the wider identity of the Body of Christ, an identity in which they are presently immersed and will grow to own themselves.

Third, grounded in an adult-led community that advocates counter-cultural narratives, adolescents might come to embrace the mission of Jesus Christ, to be people oriented toward loving God and others radically.

This is the mission of the Body in which they find their identity. Just as the Holy Spirit animated the early church in Pentecost, so does that same Spirit animate the church today toward counter-cultural acts of love. While the messages around them may be orienting adolescents toward a self-centered identity of consumption and even obsession with “finding myself,” the church can help youth to see that in Christ they are most filled when they are pouring out. Youth can find, by engaging in concrete acts of worship, service, compassion, hospitality, and justice, that they are part of a much bigger reality and mission that is directed upward and outward.

Instead of merely being a time of danger, maybe we can also see the crisis of adolescence as an opportunity to help youth encounter a deep sense of identity. We can offer youth adult relationships, a group of narratives in which they place their own, and a mission they can join. In offering these things, the church will be counter-cultural. And in being counter-cultural, the church will itself find its true identity.

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Michael D. Langford, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry and Coordinator of Youth Ministry Education and Training at Seattle Pacific University and Seattle Pacific Seminary. He is also an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He and his wife, Kelly, live in Seattle with their kids, Hannah, Seth, and Caleb.

*****

[1] See Jean Piaget & Bärbel Inhelder, The Psychology of the Child (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

[2] For a sociological qualitative exposition on the effect of adult abandonment of adolescents, see Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011).

[3] I use this word in the spirit of the journalistic account of adolescent culture in Patricia Hersch, A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence (New York: Ballentine Books, 1999).

[4] See Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1950).

[5] See Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1958).

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