Riding the Highs and Lows of Teenage Faith Development
Identity Formation and the Importance of Moratorium
Photo by Darius Anton
Deon is a high school junior with good grades, good extracurricular involvement, good parents, and seemingly good faith. He has been in church since age 8; his parents became Christians at that time and have been committed to Christ ever since. Deon has inherited their faith in many ways, most notably an intense desire to “do all the right things.” He does not drink, smoke, or swear. His dating style seems impeccable. He is only considering colleges with active campus ministry groups. Students, staff and parents alike point to Deon as the model for the youth ministry. “He’s exactly what we are hoping will come from our program,” they say.
Then there’s Eva, a senior who has been involved in church on and off since junior high. Lately she’s been more off than on, but that wasn’t the case six months ago. There was a long stretch when she was committed to the youth group and seemed to have an established group of friends. When she stopped showing up, it was learned that she had talked with her small group about a series of doubts she was having about Christianity. She questioned the pressure to follow so many rules and she wasn’t sure about everything she read in the Bible. Well intentioned, her group tried to convince her of the merits of the Christian life. She told them that she thought she needed to do her own thing for a while and “figure herself out.”
Finally, meet Brandon, a college student who has just joined the junior high volunteer staff. When interviewed about becoming a volunteer, Brandon confessed his regrets about previous mistakes, “I spent my first year at college pretty much just being selfish. I did what I wanted-parties, dating, whatever. I took some world religion classes, even went to some of their services, just to check them out. I learned a lot though, and although I see now that it wasn’t the wisest, I’m grateful for it. I tried it all and realized that I want Jesus, I want the church. This is where I belong.” Other leaders and parents are concerned about what to do with Brandon’s story. They think he might, even unintentionally, encourage kids to experiment like he did.
If you were to guess which of these three has the most developed identity, who would you choose? How would you decide? The answer may not lie where you expect.
Background: The Development of Four Basic Identity Phases
Beginning in the 1960’s, psychologist James Marcia (based on Erik Erikson’s work) developed four basic phases of identity development: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium and achievement. 1 The characteristics of each phase are as follows:
- Diffusion: This status can be understood as the “don’t know, don’t care” status. This stage describes adolescents who have not experienced any identity “crisis” or even done any exploration, nor do they have a stable set of commitments. Persons in diffusion have simply not thought about their identity. They are not sure what they believe about key issues such as religion, politics, gender roles, or occupation, nor are they concerned with them.
- Foreclosure: This is a status in which adolescents have definite opinions about their identity, but those opinions have been inherited from external forces rather than cultivated from within themselves. They have stable commitments, but have not experienced exploration or crisis. For example, they vote how their parents vote, not because they have chosen to agree with their parents, but because they have never questioned the political views they inherited.
- Moratorium: The moratorium status is the stage in which individuals challenge what they have inherited. They question who they are and what they believe and are unable to land on clearly defined beliefs and standards. This is the stage in which individuals challenge what they have inherited. For this reason, they will often express doubts and uncertainties about what they believe.
- Achievement: The goal of identity development is to reach the achieved status. It is the status wherein individuals have explored who they are and what they believe and hold stable commitments to a set of beliefs, values and standards. Their identity is defined, and they have thought through their perspectives.
The phases are progressive: foreclosure is further along than diffusion, moratorium is further along than foreclosure, and achievement is the most developed of them all.
Let’s return to those students we met at the beginning of the article. Can you match the student with the status? Deon is foreclosed. Eva is in moratorium. Brandon is identity-achieved. 2
Implications for Our Youth Ministries - Responding to Moratorium
Recently I (Meredith) was catching up with a woman from my church who was celebrating her son’s graduation from college. I added my congratulations, and as she thanked me, she remarked, “We’re just so excited he got through it. And we’re a little relieved that he survived the theology courses.”
I was bit confused by her comment, but she explained, “Oh, you know, they’d teach something or other in his Biblical Studies class and he’d come home and say, ‘Mom, they said that such and such event didn’t really happen in history,’ and we would say, ‘It’s okay, it’s not really like that,’ and explain that he didn’t have to buy into what the professors were saying.”
This student’s school was not a “liberal” or hostile environment when it came to religion. In fact, he went to a Christian school with a very respectable reputation in evangelical circles. This woman’s son was on the verge of moratorium as he entered college. He was beginning to question the faith narrative he had inherited from his family as he encountered the new material of his theology courses. At this point, his parents had the opportunity to walk through moratorium with him, but chose instead to push him back to foreclosure. They reiterated their own answers, downplayed his questions, and led him back into the settled, secure place he knew as home.
What should that mom have done differently? And what can we as youth workers do to promote, instead of hinder, healthy identity development in students who have similar experiences?
First, even though the symptoms of moratorium might make us fearful, we can remember that it is incredibly common for first year college students. In the midst of some of the less than ideal experiences of moratorium (which include lower social satisfaction and increased engagement in unprotected sex and substance abuse), we need to monitor our own fears so that we don’t push students with doubts or questions back into foreclosure, rather than help them reach achievement.
Second, remember that it is progress to move from foreclosure into moratorium. A study done by the University of Guelph of 108 first year students tracked their identity status over their first year. The major result was a decrease in diffusion and an increase in moratorium. 3 Another study tracked identity status development over a three year period and examined its relationship with particular growth patterns. 4 The data indicated that 80% of students’ progressive growth (meaning they moved from any one status to a different, more advanced status, such as from diffusion to foreclosure, or from moratorium to achieved) occurred for freshmen entering college in moratorium. Most diffused youths showed unstable development. Those with committed statuses-that is, achieved and foreclosed-were most likely to remain stable. However, foreclosure was likely to predict an unstable or regressive developmental pattern overall.
So back to our students: what can we do to encourage Deon, Eva, and Brandon in their identity development? Perhaps Deon needs to be encouraged in all the truly positive aspects of his life, while also knowing that it is okay to ask questions and to explore how to take ownership of his own beliefs. Brandon would benefit from the support of a community who listens to and appreciates his story. Adults can also help Brandon learn to communicate his story to students in ways that promote their identity development without glorifying high risk behaviors. Students can see that asking questions about faith is acceptable and that there is room in their church community to be a Christian and have doubts. Eva needs to be encouraged to continue to question the world around her rather than feel pressured to accept a belief system offhand. Her church community can invite her to continue her season of searching within the community rather that off on her own. If Eva is welcome to search within the life of the church, she will be more likely to allow the perspectives of Christian adults to influence her thinking as she decides what she believes.
In order to help us all think more about this very issue, Kara Powell discussed these phases and their implications for youth ministry with Chuck Bomar. Chuck is a church planter for the Colossae church in Portland, Oregon, and formerly worked with college students and overseeing children and youth ministries. He also founded collegeleader.org, which is focused on training ministry leaders working directly with college-age people.
FYI: How should a youth worker respond to parents who are concerned by what they see in their students when it’s likely a reflection of the students’ moratorium status?
Chuck: I try to remind parents of their own desire for the child to be an independent adult. Every parent wants their child to be an independent adult. Then I try to help parents see that a certain amount of exploration is a healthy and probably necessary step in the path toward independence.
FYI: In what ways do our youth ministries push students into Marcia’s stage of foreclosure?
Chuck: I think the biggest way we push students into foreclosure is that we automatically teach conclusions. As adults, we’ve thought through faith, and we’ve thought through what it is we believe and why we believe it…and then we come to conclusions. Then we come to our kids and we teach them our conclusions, and then we teach them how to apply our conclusions. By doing that we tend to rob students of a healthy faith development process.
FYI: What specific tools does a youth ministry need to give to students in order to support them in moratorium?
Chuck: We need to love them. I don’t mean to sound cliché, but in 1 Corinthians 13, the first word used to describe love is patience. And while I don’t mean to discredit the other attributes in the passage, to truly love kids is to be patient as we walk with them through tough questions.
FYI: What can a church as a whole do to contribute in positive ways to the moratorium and achievement process?
Chuck: One of the most practical steps a church can take is to get high school and college students into the homes of older, more mature believers. That gets students involved in relationships with people who have reached a more achieved identity.
FYI: Your role in your previous church included overseeing children and student ministries. In what ways do our children’s ministries send messages that are unhealthy about identity and faith even before kids enter our youth ministries?
Chuck: What I’ve seen is that much of our teaching in children’s ministries is basically conclusions and application. So the kids learn that Christianity is little more than law because we’ve only taught them behaviors and adult-derived conclusions. Yes, Deuteronomy tells us to impress principles upon our children, but we are teaching Christianity as behavior management instead of a faith covenant.
FYI: Do you think we underestimate what kids and teenagers can handle in exploring issues of their faith?
Chuck: I do. However, I would say that kids will go as deep as we will take them. And I would emphasize the words take them. We have to meet them where they are and bring them along.
This article also appears in the November/December 2008 issue of The Journal of Student Ministries, reprinted with permission.