Disconnected and Struggling: Understanding Teen Identity

May 2, 2024
Aaron McGinnis - Browncroft Students Director
Aaron McGinnis

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“In the heart of every person is a deep-rooted question: ‘Who am I, and how do I fit into the world around me?’ In other words, ‘what makes me ‘me’?'”

Axis Guide on Teen Identity

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“Sweet Caroline, BA BA BAHHH!!!” echoed the voices of 350 enthusiastic teenagers as they hoisted their friends onto their shoulders, blasting the classic tune through tiny plastic kazoos. This year at Flower City Work Camp, I witnessed a fascinating cultural moment, and one that points to something deeper.

Working closely with Gen Z, there’s always been something that puzzles me: they love old music. It’s so prevalent that the second most popular playlist at Browncroft Student Night on Wednesdays is “Oldies but Goodies.” What is it that draws them in? Is it the good vibes, the soulful lyrics, or perhaps the nostalgic guitar solos and smooth voices? Maybe. But I think there is something even more powerful that appeals to this generation: the feeling of connection and belonging. 

These songs were the soundtrack to their parents’ lives—the tunes sung with friends, at school, and within communities. Through these songs, Gen Z gets to join in that story and do the same, creating an atmosphere that is in stark contrast to the world they live in every day.

In this day and age, we are more individualistic than ever. And our teens are spending more time alone than ever before. Even activities designed to foster camaraderie (like team sports) are rapidly becoming platforms for individual success.

The true path to identity is not to search out our own hearts, but to search out God’s.

As our society grows increasingly individualistic, as our interests niche, and as our communities become more specialized and disconnected, the questions of “who am I?” and “where do I fit in?” continue to top the charts week after week. In a world that undervalues collective experiences, our youth feel disconnected from the larger narrative. More and more, they are told that, the more unique their interests, the more niche their clothing, and the more individualized their experiences… the closer they are to discovering their true selves.

But it’s not working. Rather than fostering empowerment, the burden teens feel to craft a unique identity and figure out who they are “all on their own” has led to one of the greatest mental health crises of all time.

Why? Because we were never meant to do this alone. Our identity isn’t found in isolation, but in intimate connection with our communities, our families, and most of all, with God Himself. The true path to identity is not to search out our own hearts, but to search out God’s.

Our young people want to be connected. They want to be part of a bigger story. They want to live a life that’s bigger than themselves. When it comes to identity formation in teens, the gospel is more relevant than ever.

Our young people want to be connected. They want to be part of a bigger story.

So what is our role as adults? Whether it’s warmly embracing teens on Sundays, affirming their place as valuable members of the Church, engaging them in faith discussions around our kitchen tables, or extending them invitations to church events, there are a myriad of ways to show our teens that they are an integral part of the Body of Christ. The question is, are we doing it? Are we a church that perpetuates the isolation of teens? Or do we foster a community that warmly welcomes them into our ministry spaces, purposefully walking alongside them toward a deeper connection with their Creator?

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“The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God… Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him… Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him, I will find myself, and if I find my true self, I will find Him.”

New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton

About The Author

Aaron McGinnis - Browncroft Students Director
Aaron McGinnis

Aaron McGinnis is the Student Director at Browncroft Community Church. A Roberts Wesleyan graduate with a Communications degree, Aaron previously taught filmmaking in Charlottesville, VA. He now enjoys camping with his wife, recording music, and playing disc golf as he awaits the arrival of his second child.

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