Identity formation for all ages?

Identity formation for all ages?

Identity formation is considered one of the key elements of youth work.  As young people progress on the journey from dependence to interdependence, they are engaged in a process of trying to either find or establish their identity.  Whether this identity is ingrained in their very nature or something established by their social circumstances is an often debated subject. But it is unlikely that this is an either/or discussion, as both nature and nurture are likely to be determinants in the process.  There can be no doubt that our social circumstances do influence our perception of ourselves and how others perceive us, whether this is where we live, our family, our experiences, etc.

The reason why we associate identity formation with young people is probably due to the influence of Erik Erikson’s work on developmental psychology.  Erikson argued that humans (particularly in Western culture) develop through eight stages in a somewhat linear fashion.  He argues that during this period of adolescence we attempt to find our own identity, struggle with social interactions, and grapple with moral issues.  If we do not successfully negotiate this stage, then we will experience some form of role confusion.  The youth worker often has a key role to play in this process of assisting the young person to understand themselves, whether this be providing opportunities to form new interests such as sports or music, assisting in spiritual formation, work around sexual identity, or engaging in political discussions.

However, we should not just limit identity formation to an adolescent process.  Our identity is constantly changing.  Some of this change is caused by a change in our social circumstances.  Marriage, parenthood, illness/disability, commencement of studies, retirement or moving house may result in us becoming a spouse, a parent, disabled, a student, a pensioner or a migrant.  Each of these will affect our perception of ourselves and the perception others have of us.

Likewise, it is not just our social circumstances that result in a continual identity formation. Our values and beliefs are also constantly changing.  As we interact with the world around us – whether through what we watch on TV, the people we meet, or the things we read – our values and beliefs change as we interpret the information and form our opinions.  This is not a new phenomenon and some interpreters claim that this is what Jesus was referring to when he said “The eye is the lamp of the body.” (Matt 6:22 NET).  Nonetheless, it can provide for interesting situations, for example when you meet up with someone for the first time in a long time and both of you have a perspective of one another which is rooted in who you each used to be, and rather than taking into account how values, attitudes and opinions have changed in that time.

The early Christians had a similar experience.  David Horrell, in his book Solitarity and Difference[1], studies how the early followers of Jesus created a group or social identity, which is their outworking of a change in identity through an encounter with the Christian gospel.  He notes that “the identity of a group according to social identity theory has cognitive, emotional, and evaluative dimensions, and is further defined by ‘norms’ that stipulate ‘a range of acceptable (and unacceptable) attitudes and behaviours’ for members of the group.  Moreover, distinctions drawn between ingroup and outgroup members serve to enhance a positive – and necessarily comparative – sense of group identity.” (p92)

For these early followers, they embarked on a process of forming a group identity that was to some extent distinct from the Jewish, Greco-Roman and other cultures from which they came from, but which at the same time was not hostile to them.  An example of this can be seen in Romans, where Paul addresses the Jewish Christians in chapters 1-7 (see 2:17) highlighting that they are children of Abraham through faith, not by obedience to law which is not open to the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.  And then in chapters 9-13 he appears to address the Christians who do not come from a Jewish background, highlighting the rich heritage of the Jewish faith and their interaction with YHWH (God) (e.g. 9:4-5).

For Christians today, we still wrestle with this concept of identity formation and how we continue to be shaped by the Christian gospel.  Our Christian identity and associated values,should not be static, but should be constantly transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2).  Such a continual renewal should result in our reflection on our theology (our understanding of God and how He interacts with the world) and either cause us to revise our theological positions or re-affirm them anew.  Theological reflection is therefore a response to our continual encountering of the Christian message and should both shape our identity and our practice.

Likewise, the other features of our identity will affect how we engage and respond to the Christian message.  Whether we are a spouse, a parent, disabled, a student, a pensioner or a migrant will affect how we both interpret scripture and the Christian message, as well as how we practice it in our worship, mission and discipleship.  Therefore, no single model of church is likely to suit everyone and there is a need to create space for a variety of ways of worshipping, doing mission and discipling each other.  The question for us as a church is how we might facilitate and equip people for this.

Graeme McMeekin
Vice Principal

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[1] Horrell DG (2005), Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics, London: T&T Clark