Did you see the Golden Globes? No? Well, maybe you should have. Award shows should be “must see TV” for youth workers. You should watch not because you need to see who wins, but because these shows provide youth workers with a glimpse at some of the most influential people in today’s culture.
According to Time magazine, Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and Emma Stone were among the most influential celebrities of 2011 (Time, 2012).
To most, these individuals are merely beautiful and talented television, movie, and music stars. However, to some, they and other celebrities like them, represent something more. For many teenagers, celebrities are an influential part of their identity formation.
Research suggests that puberty brings “dramatic changes in physical appearance and alters the adolescent’s self-conceptions and relationships with others” (Steinberg, Adolescence, 2008). The physical changes of puberty “may prompt fluctuations in self-image and reevaluation of who he or she really is” (Santrock, Adolescence, 2007). In addition, the cognitive changes that occur during adolescence permit youth to think about themselves in new ways.
It is a time in life in which “young people construct, for the first time, a sense of self that binds together their past, present, and future into a coherent whole” (Santrock). This process has been identified as identity formation.
Erik Erikson was the first to realize how important identity formation is in adolescent development (Santrock). Teenagers struggle with question such as: who am I? what am I about? and what am I going to do with my life? Erikson defined identity formation as the “selective repudiation and mutual assimilation of childhood identifications and their absorption in a new configuration.” (Erikson, Identity: Youth in Crisis, 1968).
A central aspect of identity development involves the adolescent’s gradual disengagement from parental authority toward greater autonomy and self-definition” (Greene, and Adams-Price, “Adolescents’ Secondary Attachments to Celebrity Figures,” Sex Roles, 1990). This process is described as a “second individuation.” It involves the “shedding of family dependencies, [and] the loosening of infantile subject ties in order to become a member of the adult world” (Greene).
Just as teens turn to peers for identity, it is believed that some form attachments to celebrities. The qualities of the “attachment object” or celebrity are “greatly enhanced or idealized” (Greene). Secondary attachments are “a means of affective transition from the nurturant, parental attachments of childhood to the more intimate, romantic attachments of adolescence and young adulthood” (Greene). Two types of secondary attachment have been identified. The first is “romantic attachment” in which an adolescent wishes “to be the celebrity’s romantic partner.” The second type is “identificatory attachment.” It is a “wish to be like or to become the celebrity” (Greene).
Strategies for Youth Ministry
Youth ministry should help “purposefully facilitate the ‘personality formation’ of adolescents” (Nel, “Identity Formation and the Challenge of Individuation in Youth Ministry,” Journal of Youth Ministry, 2003). This means helping students “become the persons God intended them to be” as part of the church (Nel). Young people need to experience true koinonia, or Christian fellowship (Acts 2:42). Students need a koinonia that not only challenges their “individualism but transforms it into growing koinonial-individuals where giving is as much a part of being as receiving” (Nel). In this way, youth ministry helps in what Nel calls “the becoming of adolescence.”
According adolescent researcher Chap Clark, the goal of youth ministry should be “the full relational and systemic assimilation of the emerging adult into the life of the Christian community known as the church” (Clark, Hurt: Inside the Changing World of Today’s Teenagers, 2004). We should not “minister towards individualism but towards individuality within community” (Nel). Ministers should help build an “alternative community which we call the church of Jesus Christ” (Nel).
Identity formation can sometimes lead to broken family relationships. Youth ministry should strive to bring healing and restoration to family relationships. Despite the tension that can occur between family members, adolescents grow up critically influenced by parents and family.
Unfortunately, Clark declares that adolescence is a time of “abandonment” by adults.
We can stop this trend by undertaking the challenge of mentoring students. “Every single human being becomes who God intended her to be by means of another human being” (Nel). Teenagers must encounter the truth about God and themselves the same way they encounter everything else: relationally (Dunn, Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students, 2001).
We shouldn’t try to compete with culture. No program overhaul will make your church more attractive than celebrities or culture. But you can do something celebrities can’t do. You can find ways to enter the world of individual teenagers. Dunn calls this “pacing.” Pacing is an intentional act of listening “to the heart of an adolescent, seeing beyond words and behaviors.” This connection to students is your secret weapon against the influences of culture.
For many students, the love and support they receive in a youth group may be their only hope of overcoming harmful celebrity influence. In order to counter this influence, we must demonstrate genuine love and support for teenagers.
Clark, Chap. Hurt: Inside the Changing World of Today’s Teenagers. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
Dunn, Richard R. Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Erikson, Erik. Identity: Youth in Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1968.
Greene, A. L., Carolyn Adams-Price. “Adolescents’ Secondary Attachments to Celebrity Figures.” Sex Roles 23, no. 7/8 (1990): 335-47.
Nel, Malan. “Identity Formation and the Challenge of Individuation in Youth Ministry.” Journal of Youth Ministry 1, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 79-101.
Santrock, John W. Adolescence, 11th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.
Steinberg, Laurence. Adolescence. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008.