We use a variety of terms to describe how we help our students mature in living the life God has made them to live. The terms pepper our vision statements and websites, but if we’re honest they are difficult to define.
The charge we have as youth workers is to nurture growth. Whether you call it spiritual growth, faith development, spiritual formation, or something else, we face the formidable task of cultivating something in adolescents that mostly seems intangible.
Whatever term we use, we are often expressing some of the following:
a student’s knowledge of God and the Christian story increasing
a student’s ability and willingness to internalize or “own” their faith
a set of beliefs by which students interact with their world and make sense of things
the process of acceptance into and participation with their faith community, denomination, or church
the work of God’s Spirit that is mysterious, unexplainable, and often only understandable through hindsight
Spiritual formation is all these things, and yet the sum of the parts seems like so much more.
These concepts are hard enough to define conceptually, but when we apply them to adolescents, the waters become even murkier. Take the story of Landon. Two years ago, I (Josh) went to summer retreat with 8th grade students. Landon came from a difficult home, seemed over-medicated, and was significantly more immature than his peers. Throughout the weekend we challenged the students in their faith, encouraging them to take the next step to which God was calling them. By my estimates at the time, Landon didn’t appear to make much progress.
Two days ago I talked with Landon again. He’s not the same 13 year-old he was in 8th grade. He’s 15 now, and he has definitely taken some of the steps in his faith that we challenged him to take two years ago on that retreat. His faith has matured—but is that simply because he has biologically and cognitively matured? I’d like to think that God had used the 8th grade retreat to make a difference, but is what I’m perceiving as spiritual growth also a mixture of the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social maturation he’s experiencing through puberty? Either way, it’s God who is making the changes in students like Landon. As youth workers trying to join what God is doing, we want to know if there are better and more helpful ways.
The more we analyze, describe and try to measure faith, the more elusive it often feels. This confounds most youth workers, leading them to argue that formation can’t or shouldn’t be measured or to reduce formation to simplistic behaviors.
We believe there’s a third way.
Growth and Transformation
Our pursuit of God is a transformative process. The Apostle Paul describes this in his Epistle to the Roman Christians (12:1-2). Using the metaphors of their previous way of understanding the world, he instructs them, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed [italics added] by the renewing of your minds …” Paul’s imperative for followers of Jesus is that they commit their whole person (body) completely (living sacrifice) to the process of resisting conformity to the world’s patterns (principally the violent patterns of the world that destroy life and relationships), and be transformed.
Transformation is the continual process of metamorphosis through the renewal of one’s center, leading to a more Christ-like way of living (“… that you may prove what is the good and acceptable will of God.”) This is a process that must ultimately be internally motivated, not dictated by a parent, teacher or youth worker. The result is not just Christian behavior. It is the way we follow Christ out of our deepest, most thought-out convictions.
Another name for this is self-authorship.
Jesus and Self-Authorship
What we assume when Paul exhorts Christians to be Christ-like (e.g., Colossians 1-2, Romans 8), is that he’s not asking us to literally say and do the exact same things Jesus did—otherwise, we’d all go around putting mud in people’s eyes, telling fishermen how to do their jobs, referring to religious leaders as snakes, and flipping over tables. The transformation process of becoming Christ-like means understanding ourselves and our world like Jesus understood himself and his world and then living and writing the story of our lives from that perspective.
Jesus understood his calling as Israel’s Messiah within God’s larger story of redemption for the whole world, and he lived in decisive ways that actually moved God’s story forward. Jesus lived as the co-author of God’s story, writing each new word on behalf of and with God. And as followers of this Messiah, we are also called to live this way. From this perspective, spiritual growth, faith development, and spiritual formation all point to our capacity, willingness, and intentionality toward joining Jesus in writing this grand Story—a story that is not only God’s story, but has become our story.
The concept of consciously living life as the author of your story is not solely theological. It is also psychological. In a 22-year study, researcher Marcia Baxter-Magolda has identified the concept of self-authorship, by which a person deeply and critically understands herself, her story, and her world, and lives accordingly. 1
Self-authorship theory proposes that people develop through three phases in life:
1. Following formulas. In this phase, which lasts through childhood and much of adolescence, authority comes from outside the self—from parents and others. This external authority promises that fulfillment and satisfaction come from following certain formulas in life, relationships, career, etc.
2. Crossroads. When a person begins to challenge those formulas or when the formulas do not deliver on their promises, the second phase begins. In this “Crossroads” phase, there is a tension between external and internal authority as a person places his own perspectives and thoughts alongside those given by parents and other authority figures. This usually happens during the emerging adult years.
3. Self-authorship. The final phase is reached at the point when the internal self becomes the authority, guide, and compass. Those who self-author balance their own expectations with others and are better able to maintain good relationships, make good decisions, and meet life’s challenges.
According to this framework, we are always answering three specific questions, and the process of answering them gives us the grounding and direction to self-author:
Who am I? (Intrapersonal)
How do I fit and relate with others? (Interpersonal)
How do I know what is true? (Cognitive)
As youth workers seeking to inspire spiritual growth in students, our teaching, mentoring, questions, and assessment also can be grounded in these three orienting elements. They raise the possibility of a holistic and transforming faith.
Ongoing Self-Authorship Questions of Identity, Belonging, and Mission
From our perspective, self-authorship is the goal for people’s spiritual formation. The goal is not so much an “arrival” as much as it a way of looking at the world that inspires mature, ongoing transformation. The concept of self-authorship is framed in the questions we ask and how we go about searching for answers. The quality is not merely in the answers but in the process of how we search for the answers. We have taken the concepts from Baxter-Magolda’s questions and adjusted them for our context by putting them into the categories of Identity, Belonging, and Mission.
Identity: Who am I?
Belonging: What is my place?
Mission: Why am I here?
These are three questions that we’re all asking all the time, but this life-long journey to discover our Identity, Belonging, and Mission intensifies during the adolescent years. With our students, we have situated the questions in terms of the good news of Jesus. Adolescents are constantly bombarded with potential answers to these three questions, but the good news is that our Identity can be made new and rediscovered in God, our Belonging is unconditional in the Church, and Christ invites us to join in his Mission. Here’s how it plays out for us and our students.
Who am I? This is the classic question of adolescence and is central to the human experience. As youth workers, we encourage students to ask this question and to begin the life-long journey of answering it. Perhaps the best gift we can give our students is the freedom and security needed to begin the journey with imagination and without fear.
We must admit, however, that encouraging students to ask this question ignites a strong desire in youth workers to quickly and definitively answer it. We want to blurt out, “You are a person created in the image of God, you are a dearly loved child of God, a co-heir with Jesus, and God’s beloved!” But perhaps our impact can be deeper if we don’t simply give them the answer (like a movie spoiler), but rather invite them on a journey to discover their identity as God reveals it to them. We want to affirm our students’ questions of identity and invite them to begin finding answers by asking a deeper question: “Who is God?” Jesus modeled this for us. He constantly found his identity in the Father who had sent him. We can see him doing this when he says things like, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
We have trained volunteers to teach students that this is not a formulaic process; it’s a mystical one. When we have the courage to not only ask, “Who am I?” but to also ask, “Who is God?” the Spirit of God is faithful to take us on a journey of discovery that is rooted in the same story from which Jesus found his identity and self-authored his life. This, of course, is the Good News—in Jesus, we are being re-made into the image of God. By God’s grace, we become co-authors with Jesus. God entrusts us to live in a way that actually moves God’s story forward, bringing life, restoration and redemption through Jesus’ Kingdom of grace and love.
The process looks nearly identical with the question of Belonging: What is my place? In the same way that we are free to answer the question, “Who am I?”, we are also free to find an answer to this question of Belonging however we’d like. But the good news is that God has created us and invited us to belong to God. As our students are asking, “What is my place?” we can help them to answer the question by inviting them to ask, “What is the Church?”
Again, we want to blurt out an answer that identifies the Church as the family of God. But we must create the space for our students to trust the Spirit of God to show them what it means to belong to Jesus’ Body and Bride by connecting them anew to this larger story of redemption. Then, like Jesus, each opportunity to include the outsider, extend forgiveness, offer reconciliation, live in community, and to show love isn’t just something good we should do as a Christian, but it is a chance to self-author, connecting our story to God’s larger story of redemption.
For some (unknown) reason, it is completely acceptable for adults to ask a twelve, fourteen or sixteen year-old the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and expect an accurate answer.
Adolescents are increasingly bombarded with questions about what they are going to do with their life, yet in our context we see it as more helpful to invite students take a deeper look by encouraging them to discover their mission. “Why am I here?” is a question that goes beyond career or college choices, reaching to the depths of what it means to be human. We affirm whenever students ask this question, and we invite them to see the good news that we have been created and called to join the mission of Jesus. So we encourage them not only to ask, “Why am I here?” but to also ask, “Why was Jesus here?” If students see themselves as connected to the mission of Jesus, they can become like him, self-authoring to bring about the fulfillment of his mission.
Prepared for the Life-long Journey
Encouraging the process of self-authorship through teaching young people to ask and answer their questions fuels a life-long faith journey. As youth workers, this approach gives us direction to work through the overwhelming complexities associated with development and the ability to resist the temptation of focusing merely on behaviors. Nurturing self-authorship encourages an ever-increasing (developmentally appropriate) capacity to see oneself and others as authors—authors who, like Jesus, live in decisive and intentional ways to join the Author in writing this magnificent, beautiful, blessed story of life, love, and restoration. This is the life-long journey youth workers are calling students toward. May our charge be nothing less.
How are you defining spiritual growth? How do you think your students would define it? Ask leaders, parents, and students for their own take on defining spiritual growth/formation/maturity (whatever language you tend to use in your context).
How do you (and the other adults on your team) answer the questions, Who am I? What is my place? Why am I here? How are you helping students answer these questions?
What implications does the concept of “self-authorship” have for your ministry relationships and programming approaches?