Helping Youth Find Identity, Belonging, and Purpose
Review of ‘3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager’
My son Reese begins seventh grade this fall. He turns 13 in late October, but at nearly 5 feet 8 and 130 pounds, Reese looks older. Like other growing boys, he is especially proud of the mustache growing at the edges of his upper lip.
Reese attends a gifted student program at a public high school. As a parent, I am concerned about his interactions with high school students, who are at more advanced stages of physical, emotional, and intellectual development. More importantly, I am concerned about the academic content Reese is learning in that secular environment.
I don’t think these concerns are at the top of my son’s list, however. Reece is fascinated by all the things he’s learning in class. Like most middle and high school students, Reece is also trying to figure out who he is, who his friends are, and how he can make a difference.
According to Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin, Reese’s questions are common. Powell and Griffin work at the Fuller Youth Institute, Powell as executive director and chief of leadership formation, and Griffin as senior director of content. In 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, they argue that youth are trying to form a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose in their teens.
Identity concerns “our view of ourselves.” Belonging pertains to “our connection with others.” And purpose has to do with “our contribution to the world.” Teens form these three things through interaction with a variety of factors, including self-knowledge, others’ expectations, opportunities, and the like.
Doing so is a normal part of teenage development. As longtime youth ministers, however, Powell and Griffin want teenagers to go beyond normal development factors and root their identity, belonging, and purpose in Christ. So each chapter that describes how teens typically answer those three questions is followed by another chapter that outlines “Jesus’ better answer.”
This book is a helpful guide for talking with youth about Jesus-based answers to
their most important questions.
According to the authors, Jesus’ better answer to the question of identity is knowing “I am enough because of Jesus.” For the belonging question, it is, “I belong with God’s people.” And for the purpose question, it is, “I’m invited into God’s greater story.”
As a parent — and as a minister — what I most need to know is how to help my son and youth in my sphere of influence answer these questions in Jesus’ better way.
I have noticed a tendency among some Christians to cocoon their kids, believing that shielding them from interaction with non-Christians is the only way to help them develop into good Christ followers. As the parent of a public-school student, I myself feel the pull of this belief.
The alternative to cocooning is conversation. That is the direction Powell and Griffin recommend, and the path my wife and I are taking with Reese. The idea here is not that parents or youth leaders shield kids from tough or controversial topics, but that we walk alongside and talk to our youth as they encounter these topics.
Such conversations should have three elements, according to the authors: (1) Now: “Listen for what is going on now in students’ identity, belonging, and purpose.” (2) God: “Look for how God is present with students and then explore better Christ-centered answers to their three big questions.” And (3) How: “Help a teenager take the next step toward living out better answers.”
Throughout the book, Powell and Griffin identify questions that open up conversations with youth. An appendix gathers up the 170 questions they used in the interviews with teens that form the research foundation of the book.
The questions are great conversation starters. The only caveat is that you need wisdom to know whether it’s the right time to ask a question, and which question is the right one to ask.
I recommend 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager to parents and pastors alike. You don’t have to agree with every recommendation Powell and Griffith make in order to benefit from the book. Nonetheless, it’s a helpful guide for talking with youth about Jesus-based answers to their most important questions.
Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2021).