Identity vs. Application

In his recent blog post, Application vs. Information , Chris Wesley suggests when they go to church, teens wonder, “What does this have to do with my life?” According to him, “The tendency is to fill their head with doctrine, church history and tradition; however, if it doesn’t connect to their life it’s pointless. What teens need is application.”

While I agree teens need to understand why faith matters to them and the world around them, Chris' statement makes me nervous. This is because I most associate the word, application, with the three points we youth worker's make at the end of a talk, when we tell kids how to take what we've said and apply it to their lives in three easy steps. This approach is problematic for several reasons.

First, Scripture is not one size fits all. Since each person in our ministry is unique, Scripture will mean something different to each. In response to the same Scripture passage, God might call three different people to respond in three very different ways. As a result, despite our best intentions, our strategies for application also cannot be one size fits all. 

What's more, when we tell people how to apply a Scripture passage or doctrine to their life, we limit them, essentially making them feel as though the strategies we've delineated are right while other responses are wrong. This fosters legalism, not grace; Conformity rather than creativity.

Beyond that, this approach inadvertently teaches teens that faith is easy and that the process of applying it to our lives is simple. In actuality, though, faith is messy. The process of applying Scripture to our lives is complicated and time-consuming. So, too, is the transformation that results from having wrestled with what Scripture means to us, a process that is short-circuited when someone else tells us what Scripture means or how we should live it.

According to Chris, the solution to this is to “show” teens “why what our faith teaches matter & how to use it”. Fundamentally, I struggle with this because as youth workers, it's not our job to show teens anything; It's our job to help them discover God for themselves.

To this end, instead of telling kids how to apply Scripture to their lives, let's create space for prayer and reflection so they can wrestle with it themselves. Instead of delineating three easy application steps at the end of our talks, let's ask teens, “How are you going to live this out in your lives?” and then unleash them to do it. Then, let's process their experience with them, acknowledging God's presence in the messiness that comes with trying to live out our faith in the real world. Finally, let's give them even more opportunities to practice their faith by serving together and exploring relevant Scripture in the moments when it matters most.

Now, unlike Chris, I don't think these things will help teens learn how to use their faith.

Then again, I'm not so sure my goal in ministry is for students to learn how to use their faith. I'd much rather faith become so central to their identity that it makes them more like Jesus.

So to Chris' ultimate question: "Do you agree application comes before information?"

Sure, application is more important than information. But identity is far more important than application. 


Chris Wesley


I appreciate your response to my post. I think identity is important; however, it's going to be difficult for us to find our identity if we do not know how to discover it. My post was about how we need to show teens skills, habits and tools so that they see why their faith is important. Once they see why it's important, they'll engage in it, once you show them ways of engaging then they can discover their identity.

Again great points, and I appreciate the way you approached the post.

Posted by Chris Wesley, over 9 years ago

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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