Affinity is the new Identity

image from whyismarko.com Is "affinity" the new "identity"?  In the 1960s, youth culture's top priority was discovering identity (Who am I?).  As the century moved on and youth culture played more and more of a significant role in Western society, autonomy (How am I unique?) was upgraded to that primary role.  But now, suggests Mark Oestreicher, affinity (Where do I belong?) has moved to the top.[1]

Churches and parachurch ministries have done well in the last 50 years addressing the identity and autonomy of adolescents.  Age-specific youth groups have become a major hallmark of the way ministry is practiced.  These groups have focused on helping preteens, teens and tweens discover who they are and how each is created uniquely by God.  Adolescents have been for the most part affirmed in their identity and autonomy by churches and ministry organizations.

But the times have changed.  Oestreicher, the president of Youth Specialties, has spent tremendous energy surveying the youth ministry landscape in North American.  He has come to the conclusion that our churches and para-churches have been far too slow responding to the shift towards affinity.  "Youth ministries," he writes, "are built on assumptions and values and methods that are outdated for the teenagers we passionately want to serve today." [2]

This hypothesis resonates with my own research.  In many cases, youth ministries in themselves have been extremely successful in helping students and young adults find a rooted confidence in God as well as in providing a tangible experience of God's intentions for the Church in terms of community and incarnational faith.  But in terms of helping youth and young adults gain a sense of belonging in a larger, wider movement outside of their own segmented age group, our organizations seem to have really fallen short.  In other words, once someone graduates from youth group, our churches really struggle to know how to provide a welcoming and engaging environment. 

There are many possible approaches to the present situation.  One approach involves continuing the status-quo of cookie-cutter age-segregated games and discipleship programs that provide tremendous identity and autonomy of discipleship for teens and tweens but fail to incorporate young people into the body of a local church.  While this approach was once necessary, it seems inappropriate and inadequate to address the issues facing adolescents in the current age. 

Another approach is what Oesteicher terms "youth ministry 3.0" – a contextualized, present-focused, communion/mission-oriented ministry.  This approach promises to be a bit messier (not in regards to gross-out games), with a shift in emphasis from deciphering how to create the greatest weekly program to discerning how to create the best possible network of leadership-development and equipping-culture for young people.  By necessity this will mean that youth ministry must exhibit more integration with parents and church leaders while still promoting the identity and autonomy of adolescents.  Considering the actual and potential network of belonging, youth ministry needs to move towards a mentality of being there, in person, in communion with God, in active-practice of faith for the specific needs of the student.

[1] Oestreicher, Mark.  Youth Ministry 3.0: A Manifestor of Where We've Been, Where We Are, And Where We Need to Go. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008, 43.

[2] ibid., 43.

Ken Castor

Ken Castor is a husband, dad, pastor, writer and teacher. He serves as a professor at Crown College, Minnesota, where he equips students to pursue Jesus-Centered Faith and Next Generation Ministry. For 20+ years he's focused on equipping the next generations in places like the U.S., Canada, and Northern Ireland. He's the author of Grow Down (Simply Youth Ministry, 2014), Make a Difference (Broadstreet, 2016), the Blue-Letters Editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible (Group, 2015) and numerous other articles and Bible Study guides. But, whenever possible, he gets down on the floor and builds Lego with his kids. Connect with him @kencastor.

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