Defining Identity

To dive deeper into this conversation, and unpack some of the tough questions with Christie, we invite you to watch her recent interview with Keith Ferrin, story teller, author, and speaker, and friend of the KidMin community.

Christie Penner Worden
8 minute read

How do we help kids truly know who they are, rooted in identity, and confident children of God?

How do we tell them the truth without pretending the world around them won’t answer what we struggle to talk about?

The word “identity” has caused confusion over the last number of years. And I wonder if we have been part of the problem, as the Church, misusing or abusing the word, from a place of misunderstanding, fear, even bias? I am choosing, in my life and in my ministry, to run toward the thing that is causing so many to run away from the Church. I am choosing to sit in the tension of not knowing, of learning, of walking with, with the hope of watching fewer walk away.

If you find the word identity complicated, there’s a simple reason why that may be: identity has come to mean simultaneously what makes me unique and what allows me to belong. My identity is mine, and it is unlike any other, it is my humanity, my DNA, my fingerprint, the sum of my parts that cannot be replicated. Yet it is also what allows me to fit into, belong in a certain culture, or people group, and find my tribe, so to speak. It may also be what disqualifies me from fitting in with other people groups. So, if you are struggling to really settle into the definition of identity (let alone how you would choose to identify), imagine being a child right now, with the same questions and the same feelings, yet without being fully formed or developed?

The question of identity is complex and deserves tenderness, gentleness, and the learning posture of a willing listener.

There are a few reasons we’ve grown wary of the “identity” conversation in the Church:

1. We are afraid of getting it wrong. While this is a healthy concern, we should be more afraid of bad theology than of where a conversation may take us; and

2. We’ve decided parents should handle it. Whenever we create an “us vs. them” scenario with parents, we’ve forgotten that we are called to be family first. We are called to walk in community and discipleship with one another. “Equipping” with resources is not the same thing. The church community can be a place for this conversation if we first decide that these are our families—our kids.

The problem for some of us is that we immediately assume the conversation will be about gender and sexuality when the word “identity” comes up. Even though we know that our identity is a kaleidoscope of so many variables and defining features, we limit the conversation with each other to the part of it that we can make some of us the most uncomfortable.

What if the conversation was about so much more than the intimacy of gender and sexuality? What if identity could be about truly seeing one another, mining for the** Imago Dei**  in one another, and operating from a working assumption that each one of us is created in the very image of God and this is a particularly good place to begin the conversation? What if we have been starting the conversation about identity in the wrong place altogether?

Identity is not an issue to be solved; it is a wonder to behold.

As I have studied and learned and written about identity over the last couple of years, I’ve learned something about myself that has been both freeing and clarifying: some aspects of my identity have changed over the years. Identity isn’t a static state of being. An evolving identity is both natural and unavoidable. I have also learned these descriptors are not the fullness of who I am. Because I have found that, equally natural and unavoidable, are the things about me that never change, no matter my personal evolution.

When I was eight, I did not want to be a mother.

I did not dream about getting married. I was neither a mother nor a wife. But I am both of those things today. Not only did I become the things I didn’t think I wanted, my heart and mind for both evolved as my body and spirit responded to the life I was living. In fact, I am many things I didn’t used to be: middle-aged, a pastor, coach, auntie… And the things I used to be--blonde, short, opera singer—I have outgrown (I traded blonde for strands of naturally occurring glitter somewhere around the same time I evolved into middle age. Sigh).

So, I wonder what would shift in the conversation if we chose to focus on what is true about each one of us—the things that never change? What if we could actually name what defines—no, identifies—us as image bearers so that a child would always know who, and what, they are?

Identity statements usually begin with “I am…” To truly know who I am, I must know what is always true about me. Even when life happens, even if I don’t understand, even as my world, my body, my story changes over time. And beyond all the facts that my life will point to about who I am and how you know, there are a few things that I am, and always was, and always will be because God’s word says so:

I was made in the image of the Creator. I am known by a loving God. I am here on purpose, for a purpose, with good purpose. I was made good (Psalm 139).

I am loved by Jesus, Savior of the world. I am lovable even when I am unlovely. I can love because I was first loved. Jesus is how I know what love looks like (1 John 4).

I am not alone. Jesus gives me His Spirit, and this Spirit will never leave me. I get to walk with the Spirit. I am led by the Spirit of the Living God (John 16).

I am a child of God. I am a co-heir in the Kingdom of God. I am the Father’s, and He is mine. (Romans 8).

I am part of God’s great big story, and He invites me to participate in it. I matter to it (Hebrews 11-12).

We have the chance to tell kids the truth about who they really are while it is still being formed, while they are still asking questions, while they still want us to be part of the conversation. And while we navigate the tension between uniqueness and belonging, what changes and what does not, I have learned that one truth allows me to be fully myself and fully belong: the more I look like Jesus—the closer I follow and walk in his ways---the more I become the me I was made to be. And that is not only good news, it is a solid foundation upon which I can live my life, no matter how my story unfolds.

To dive deeper into this conversation, and unpack some of the tough questions with Christie, we invite you to watch her recent interview with Keith Ferrin, story teller, author, and speaker, and friend of the KidMin community.

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