Models matter: Key insights on character-forming discipleship with teenagers
I spent hours working on a sermon I’d be delivering as a guest speaker for the winter retreat. I meditated on a Bible passage, journaled my thoughts, and prayed for guidance. My eyes grew tired while scouring the Internet for relatable examples and illustrations. I even attempted to balance comedic and serious stories while working on my delivery and timing.
But none of that turned out to be what was important to the students.
By the end of the sermon about Christ and identity, the students learned that Christ can and does meet them right where they are. But what they talk about to this day is how they remember my “ugly crying,” my tragic story of grief, my act of vulnerability and how I felt free, and how it made them reflect on their own honest journey toward faith and identity.
Afterwards, several students confided in me. “I struggle with an eating disorder,” one student confessed. “I struggle with body image,” another student lamented; “When I’m at the gym, I don’t think I’m ever strong or muscular enough.”
One male student even admitted: "This is the first time I've ever seen a male pastor cry. I think I needed to see that in real life—that pastors are people too. And that us guys, especially Asian American guys, have emotions, and it's okay to show them." Later that evening, he broke down in front of his male friends, confessing his own identity struggles.
We see, we want, we do
As leaders, we might find ourselves investing so much time on our sermons that we forget we are often our students' primary models of learning. Don’t get me wrong—preaching and teaching are very important! But to our students, the way we live out our lives is the greatest sermon we will ever preach because our students are paying close attention to how we talk, what we share, how we react, and especially how we treat others.
In other words, what we do as leaders is often more important than what we say. Our Gen Z’ers can spot photo-shopped, filtered leadership; they want genuine models. In matters where trust is involved, what we model and what we say have to align and match up. Students want models who are honest about their own faith journeys—journeys that are often messy and tousled around. They want models who are open about struggles and doubts because they suspect these are the most human things to do in front of a perfect God.
What does this mean for how we think about discipleship? Since we know that young people will be influenced by models, our task is not to change that reality, but to help them identify and evaluate whose actions are influencing theirs. We must also recognize ourselves as models, which means prioritizing our own spiritual formation impacts students more than we may realize.
Why are models important for developing character and virtue in students?
FYI is conducting research on character development (the internal process of forming virtue) and cultivating virtues (the qualities required to follow Jesus well) such as compassion, hope, forgiveness, perseverance, humility, love, and gratitude. We've discovered that when it comes to developing character marked by these virtues, young people are frequently influenced by models that help them understand and uncover their inner desires.
Researcher Luke Burgis, a student of psychologist Rene Girard, examined mimetic desire, the tendency for us to imitate or copy the desires of others. This means that other people act as models or mediators, influencing our perception of what is desirable. Thus we potentially imitate and are influenced by what we see in others and what they value or desire.
We see this play out in real life. At my church we have a youth choir. Unfortunately, no one wanted to sign up. But as soon as Michelle, a compassionate and influential student, talked about joining the choir and actually did, more students decided to join.
Burgis believes there are 3 kinds of desire mediators: internal, external, and a mix of both. Although external mediators have a wide reach, internal mediators are the most impactful in our lives:
- Internal mediators are people like friends, family, youth workers, and anyone with whom you have direct contact and interact with in some way. Michelle was an internal mediator to the students at my church.
- External mediators are people outside your personal network, such as celebrities and historical figures.
- Social media is an example of an in-between model, because it's a space where an external person has the potential to become internal in our life. We follow people we don't know, thus the lines of reality become blurred. This is why some of my students say they're friends with Justin Bieber—because at one point, he retweeted or responded to their tweets.
Why are models important in character-forming discipleship?
Scripture contains elements of mimetic desire. One of the goals of teaching, for example, is to produce disciples. Disciples are expected to emulate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:12, 1 Peter 2:21, Ephesians 5:1-2). Christ, too, imitates God (John 5:7, John 15:9-11). As a result, our desires become more Christlike. Christ should be our ultimate model—especially of desires, character, and virtue. However, teenagers benefit when they have several examples of Christlike models they can learn from and emulate.
Our role as youth workers is to be the right internal mediators of desire—or to help young people find the right internal mediators by assisting them to follow and model after healthy adult disciples whose desires demonstrate Christlikeness.
If we want to help our students identify people who can offer them healthy models, Burgis believes they can ask themselves two questions:
- Who embodies the lifestyle that I would most like to have?
- Other than my parents, who were the most important influences on me in my childhood?
So many of our actions are imitative. Imitation is a quick way to learn. Consider how we imitate our favorite artists or popular students at school. You can tell a Billie Eilish fan from a Taylor Swift fan because fans frequently imitate their models. At school, students mimic their desired models by dressing like them, speaking like them, or even walking like them.
At the winter retreat, many students saw me as an internal mediator. They heard my story, saw my vulnerability shared in a safe place, and saw how it gave me a sense of freedom. And that, in turn, helped them desire vulnerability and freedom for themselves. Thus they began not only to share more openly with me, they also learned to open up more with friends who make them feel safe and trusted.
What I didn't realize was that the senior pastor of the church had been modeling vulnerability long before I came to speak. He not only preached the importance of being transparent with our church community, but he lived it out in front of the congregation and students. He would admit his errors and apologize to his staff and church. He discussed the complications of preaching on forgiveness when he still struggles forgiving his father for alcoholism and abuse. He spoke about the ways he felt he’d failed as a father, and what he was doing to have stronger, better relationships with his children. It made sense why this particular church was open to vulnerability. It was modeled for them. Models matter.
Exchanging a negative model for a Christ-centered one
During our retreat, I spoke with each student who opened up about their identity struggles and worked with them to identify their models of desire. The student who was having body image issues named two models: the captain of his wrestling team and a bodybuilder he follows on Instagram. According to the student, these men had the physique that commanded respect and prestige. I asked him, “If these models are supposed to inspire you, why do you think they’ve negatively impacted you?”
He answered, “The captain of the wrestling team is popular, but he doesn’t really know I exist. We’re not friends, so I feel like I have to get strong and ripped just to be at his level and get noticed. And the bodybuilder is merely on Instagram and does not even know me.”
Once we was aware of his models, I asked him to think of some models who had a direct relationship with him (internal models), as well as those who brought out a positive and healthier side of him—if possible, a Christ-centered model.
Who do you know is strong, has a good physique, but has a healthier view of body image? Who embodies both the faith and the healthy lifestyle that you would most like to have?
The student was able to identify his youth pastor, who also works as a physical trainer in the mornings at a local gym. "What do you like about your youth pastor?" I inquired further. "I like how disciplined he is going to the gym at 5 a.m. and with his physique by decreasing his love for eating sweets," he replied. I can tell he's still having fun and not letting it bother him."
"Where do you think his healthy view of his body image comes from?" I continued. "I believe it stems from his faith in God. He says he tries to honor God by staying healthy. And the fact that God loves him unconditionally takes the pressure off of him to be swole."
I told him that was an interesting response and that perhaps he needed to hear it again for himself. I also suggested that if following the bodybuilder on Instagram made him feel bad about himself instead of inspiring him to get healthier, he might want to unfollow the person.
Modeling for character formation
As a youth leader, you are a model of character. Your students are paying attention to your actions and responses. More importantly, they’re often coming to you confused or unsure of their own inner desires, wishes, and dreams. It is up to us to model Christlike desires and narratives for them. Helping young people identify positive, healthy, and Christ-centered role models is an important step in character development.
Tweet this: Youth leaders, our students are paying attention to our actions and responses. Let’s help teenagers connect with Christ-centered examples for character-forming discipleship
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 Luke Burgis. “How to Know What You Really Want.” Psyche, December 15, 2021. https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-know-what-you-really-want-and-be-free-from-mimetic-desire.
 For a more in-depth discussion of mimetic desire see: Burgis, Luke. Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. St. Martin's Publishing Group, 2021.
 FYI also has resources to help students trade unhealthy narratives for healthier, Jesus-centered narratives. See Powell, Kara, and Brad M. Griffin. 3 Big Questions That Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections. Baker Books, 2021.
Photo By: Francois Olwage
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