How would you answer this question: What is your identity?
As a follower of Jesus, our identity is in Jesus. However, sometimes adults might mention things like our jobs, family, hobbies, or athletic teams being connected to our identity. These things might be fun and important, but they should not be our identity. Identity is who we are at the core and who God designed us to be for His glory.
When it comes to sexuality, most adults do not connect their identity to their sexual orientation. Today, 7% “identify” as LGBTQ+ today. That means 93% live a heterosexual lifestyle according to research (see reference below). Sexuality does not play as significant part of one’s identity in the adult years as it does during adolescence.
UNDERSTANDING ADOLESCENT DEVELOPMENT
For an adolescent (ages 11-26ish years), they would struggle to answer the question with clarity. What is your identity? Oh, they might blurt out an answer when asked, but that does not mean they have landed on who they are as a person in this world. This is because of their development. They don’t know who they are yet. Adolescents are no longer a child (marked by puberty) but are not quite an adult either (marked by responsibility in culture). They are in the middle space heading toward adulthood. In the 1940s/50s adolescence lasted just a few years, but today, as you can see and probably experience in this age group, adolescence is getting longer for a variety of reasons, and this is impacting the sexual orientation of the next generation.
For the past 20 years, I have been connecting with, ministering to, and researching adolescent development and how it connects to theology. I have researched, led focus groups of teens and twenty-somethings, worked with them weekly, been involved in interviews, written articles, and even books in this area. If you are interested in knowing more, please see the resource list below.
Part of the adolescent task is to discover who they are and how they fit in this world. This is called adolescent psychosocial development and is helpful to understanding the stage of life they are in. This stage of life can’t be avoided in development, but it is certainly not an excuse for treating adolescents like children. The outside culture, brain development and how their bodies are growing impacts how they see themselves. Students between the ages of 11 to 26ish are in the midst of trying on different “selves” to discover how they fit with those around them. These selves are shaped by the family systems, academics, athletics, social media, friendships, music choices, diet, body shape and many other factors. For many adolescents, the influence of the culture around them is how they identify themselves, specifically their sexuality. This is extremely important to understand.
Gen Z (born 1997-2012) is in the center of adolescent development. In 2022, this makes them 10-25 years old, and in the center of student and young adult ministry in local churches. They are still trying to figure out their identity which includes their sexuality. With the combination of their own psychosocial development, the loud, but small LGBTQ+ community, sexual experimentation, university teaching, the culture around them, hero opinions like celebrities and athletes, it is not surprising the increase in those who self-identity as being part of the LGBTQ+ group during adolescence, but many change their “identity” monthly. Keep in mind the LGBTQ+ community of adolescents is still a relatively small percentage of the whole (see reference below).
This creates unique challenges for reaching and keeping the next generation with a biblical worldview including sexuality.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you are a parent, teacher, coach, youth worker, or volunteer.
AS FOLLOWERS OF JESUS, OUR IDENTITY IS NOT OUR SEXUALITY
The influences listed above are contributing to this idea that we can “identify” as whatever we would like. Adolescents need to be asked, “What happens when our feelings change tomorrow? Will you identify as something else?” The world uses the word “identity” to describe sexuality. This is troublesome and dangerous for adolescents in the middle of development.
When scholars in science and university can’t define basic terms like “woman” and “man”, this causes conversations to be difficult. We need to walk alongside adolescents with love by helping them understand where their identity is from. God is the creator and sustainer. Our feelings change like the wind and so do many adolescents’ sexual preferences. Guided by the objective truth of the Bible, our purpose is to follow Jesus with faithfulness despite our changing feelings. Sexual orientation cannot be someone’s identity. Pursuing holiness over happiness must be the goal of every follower of Jesus. We must come alongside the next generation to model and teach this.
LOVE ADOLESCENTS WHILE THEY EXPLORE IDENTITY
Keep in mind this is a season of life moving from childhood to adulthood. It is called adolescence which comes from the Latin root meaning “to grow up.” Every 11–26-year-old is struggling for their independence while growing up. Part of growing up is discovering their identity and they are figuring out who loves them for them. Read that sentence again. So many adults care about adolescents for what they can do like getting good grades and scoring goals on the soccer field. We need to love them for them regardless of the struggle they are going through. This is the messy middle between truth and grace. We need to love them through this process of discovery and growing up. This is a relational marathon, not a sprint.
GRACE IS WHAT BRINGS US HOME
Remember it is grace that brings all of us home, not the law. Do you remember the parable Jesus shared about the prodigal son in Luke 15? The son offended his father by asking for his inheritance before his dad was dead. The father gave it to him. This is amazing grace already. The son ran off and spent all the money on wild living, came to his senses and headed home. The son thought he might be a worker for his father, but the father loved the son despite the lifestyle the prodigal was living. Jesus shares the father was waiting, saw the son and ran to him. The father broke the Jewish laws to run to his son. He was lost, but now he was found. The father expressed love toward the son. It was grace that brought the son home, not the rules and regulations. Maybe you are walking alongside a struggling son, daughter, classmate, friend, relative or co-worker. We can walk in the messy middle of truth and grace, but keep in mind grace in the context of relationship will be the most helpful when someone you love is in the midst of living an LGBTQ+ lifestyle.
Adolescents are in this discovery season, and they need adult followers of Jesus to come alongside of them especially when they are wrestling with temptation. Remember their identity is not in their sexuality, this is a long relationship and grace will bring them home, not rules.
In the next blog, I will share our ultimate purpose and how it relates to the LGBTQ+ conversation.
Questions to Contemplate
1. Before this blog, what did you know of adolescent development?
2. Did it surprise you that adolescence is from age 11 through the mid/late 20s today?
3. How can you gently remind teens and twenty somethings that their identity is not in their sexuality?
4. How can you express grace to the next generation even if they are struggling with their sexuality and gender?
5. What does love look like next?
REFERENCES + RESOURCES
✍️ Credit :: Jeff Baxter
Next Gen Pastor
🎨 Credit :: Matt Rhodes
Creative Associate Director