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Missionising Youth Identity Crisis: Towards a missional hermeneutic of care in youth ministry practice

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Abstract

The intention of this paper is to interpret the ontological conditions of youth identity crisis missionally. This is first done by conceptualising identity crisis as a psychological phenomenon using frameworks of authenticity and attachment to explain the impact of early attachment abuse, abandonment depression, insecure attachment anxiety with God, and self-regulation on the identity formation of the youth. Secondly, the paper introduces a missional hermeneutic that provides an interpretative framework for coping with the crises of identity amongst young people. A missional hermeneutic of care for coping with the crisis of identity formation, therefore, elaborates on the missional basis of biblical interpretation as a powerful framework within which to interpret a skewed, conflicted identity. The author herewith proposes a missional opportunity that can activate the missional consciousness of young people in their time of crisis and identity formation. Furthermore, the author insists that this missional methodology can be a very useful strategy for producing therapeutic change in young people and can help youth ministry workers and pastoral caregivers to reframe the crisis of youth identity from the perspective of 'missio Dei'.
Missionalia 44:1 (85–102) 85
www.missionalia.journals.ac.za | http://dx.doi.org/ dx.doi.org/10.7832/44-1-141
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis
Towards a missional hermeneutic of coping in
youth ministry practice
Victor Counted1
Abstract
The intention of this paper is to interpret the ontological conditions of youth2 identity3
crisis missionally. This is first done by conceptualising identity crisis as a psychologi-
cal phenomenon using frameworks of authenticity and attachment to explain the im-
pact of early attachment abuse, abandonment depression, attachment-anxiety with
God, and self-regulation on the identity formation of the youth. Secondly, the paper
introduces a missional hermeneutic that provides an interpretative framework for
coping with the crises4 of identity amongst young people. A missional hermeneutic
for coping with the crisis of identity formation, therefore, elaborates on the missional
1 Victor Counted is Research Associate, Department of Practical Theology and Missiology Stellenbosch
University, South Africa Religion & Society Research Cluster, School of Social Science & Psychology,
Western Sydney University, Australia V.Counted@westernsydney.edu.au or connect@victorcounted.com
2 It might be difficult to give a definition of “youth” in this paper because of the on-going debate on who
is a youth. Nel (2000: 97) has noted that the concept of youth is comprehensive and inclusive. The
idea of youth is often looked at as being age-related and connotes specific age brackets. Sometimes
between 18 and 35 years, and sometimes between 18 and 25 and so on. These age categorizations
does not really explain who a youth really is, as František Štěch has pointed out in his paper “Who
are Youth in Theological Perspective?” Stech described youth as young people, adolescents or young
adults whose age varies from early pubescence to late young adulthood. This “youth” perspective
suggests a period of transition and formation from childhood to adulthood. Owing to this point, Stec h
saw youth from a theological perspective as a community in transition and not as a strictly age-related
group, but rather a viewpoint, the special way human beings relate to God. Theologically, “we may see
youth as inseparable from our whole humanity or from the human condition.” In other words youth
is an integral part of one’s identity that also expresses “‘kairos’, a very opportune time, distinct from
others by its characteristic features (e.g. longing for love and acceptance, searching for meaning,
openness, excitement, activity, creativity, hope, pursuing development, expecting the future to come,
etc.) but yet inseparable from totality of human being.” (Stech 2016, p.263). Youth is therefore looked
at in this paper through the lens of formation and human expectation, and as a community in transiti-
on awaiting God who reveals Himself within their ontological crisis and experiences.
3 Identity is another important concept I want to define in this paper. My interest is not to look at the
identity of the youth as it were but to understand the different ontological experiences that form the
youth’s identity and belong to the youth’s humanity in their everyday life. In other words, I am looking
at how the attachment abuse, abandonment depression, insecure attachment experience with God,
and experiences of self-regulation impact youth identity and in the process is seen as some sort of
ontological crisis. These experiences are what I have conceptualised in this paper as identity crisis. I
am not referring to their identity in Christ at this point.
4 The crises of identity has been conceptualised in this study as the constellation of attachment abuse,
abandonment depression, insecure God-attachment anxiety, and experiences of self-regulation as
part of the ontology of being a youth living the world.
Missionalia 44:1 86 Victor Counted
basis of biblical interpretation as a powerful framework within which to interpret a
skewed, conflicted identity. The author herewith proposes a missional opportunity
that can activate the missional consciousness of young people in their time of crisis
and identity formation. Furthermore, the author insists that this missional methodol-
ogy can be a very useful strategy for producing therapeutic change in young people
and can help youth ministry workers and pastoral caregivers to reframe the crisis of
youth identity formation from the perspective of ‘missio Dei’.
Keywords: missional hermeneutic of coping; youth identity crisis; self-images and
authenticity; God images and attachment; youth identity formation; mis-
sional opportunity
1. Introduction
Elsewhere (Counted, 2015b, 2016a, 2016b, 2016d) the author has established that
staying true to self and resolving a relationship conflict with God due to the effects of
attachment abuse, abandonment depression, separation with loved ones, etcetera,
are the building blocks of youth identity crisis. These negative and conflicting expe-
riences often give young people problems coming to terms with what their identity
should look like in relation to the “mission of God”, i.e. missio Dei, which is styl-
ishly explained as the story of God’s walk with humanity from beginning to end and
humanity’s response to God’s invitation to become part of his mission, even in the
time of crisis (cf. Wright, 2006). The experience of negative emotional impulses of
insecurity and abandonment or identity crisis in general applies to all of humanity
from time immemorial, even with the early church (cf. Bosch, 1991) and it is still
true today as we move into the third millennium. But it is even more applicable
to contemporary youth born in a time where old paradigms of life are collapsing.
Against that background, this paper will highlight the experiences of identity cri-
sis among young people today and suggest a hermeneutical key for unlocking these
experiences missionally. Hence, the author proposes how the story of God’s mission
to the world can provide a fruitful framework within which to interpret youth iden-
tity crisis and provide a missional hermeneutic for coping with the crisis of identity
formation. The author will thus pay close attention to the missional interpretation
of youth identity crisis as an opportunity for representing the character of God, after
the youth is reduced to a ‘weak’ state of mental experience due to the effects of a
compounding internal conflict.
2. Conceptualising Youth Identity Crisis
Bosch (1991) saw how the looming crisis of identity in the early Christian Church
was portrayed through emotional outbursts, as the then Gentile Christians struggled
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis 87
with their identity when the faith of the Church was tested. According to Bosch,
they were asking relational and emotional questions such as, “‘Who are we really?’,
‘How do we relate to the Jewish past...?’, ‘Is Christianity a new religion or a con-
tinuation of the faith of the Old Testament?’, ‘How do we relate to the earthly Jesus,
who is gradually and irrevocably receding into the past?’” (1991, 85). These and
more were questions related to the crises of identity confronting the early Gentile
Christians at that time. These questions spotlight the kind of emotion-laden crises
the early Gentile Christians were facing, as the Church was undergoing an “almost
complete transformation” (Bosch 1991, 85). The identity crisis in the early Chris-
tian Church, according to Bosch, was fueled by the “increasingly hostile attitude
toward the church displayed by Pharisaism” (1991, 85).
In a similar study on Emotions in the Christian Tradition, Roberts (2014) ar-
gues that the early Christians’ experience “express a character that is attuned to the
way things are [today]: to our nature as creatures, to God’s nature as God, [and]
to the relations we bear to the goods and evils of life” (Roberts 2014, 34). Due to
our nature as creatures, we are left within the confines and crisis of our “world” to
discover ourselves and experience God for ourselves in relation to what our identity
should look like. Therefore, it is on this basis that the author gives a definition to the
phenomenon of identity crisis, in particular the subcultures of ‘self and God images’
as the constellation of the human identity and our nature as creatures - necessary
to discover the core of our existence as we stay true to self and maintain a positive
relationship with the divine (to read more see Counted 2016a, 2016b). Identity
crisis is therefore a time of testing and a “period of transition, on the borderline
between a paradigm that no longer satisfies and one that is, to a large extent, still
amorphous and opaque” (Bosch 1991, 366). This is also a point where “danger
and opportunity intersect”, says Bosch (1991, 366). The author proposes that this
‘danger’ can be linked to a polluted attachment contagion, resulting from lack of
secure attachment relationships with caregivers/attachment figures, which often
lead to feelings of insecurity, anxiety, fearful-avoidance, low self-esteem and self-
deception in social relationships with self, close others, and even with the divine
(cf. Bowlby 1989; Granqvist, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2010; Davis, 2010; Counted,
2016a, 2016b, 2016c, 2016d).
Bowlby (1982) viewed the attachment system as one of the motivational bases
of human behaviour, which provides an explanatory framework for understanding
social relationship conflicts in relation to our identity. The attachment phenom-
enon explains how social relationships are determined by the nature of the internal
working models of an attachment system. Internal working models are the mental
representations of ourselves in relation to our identity and close others, which de-
velop through the effects of a particular set of activating triggers, e.g. our mental
Missionalia 44:1 88 Victor Counted
states, environmental demands, or emotional needs, during a parent-child bond-
ing experience. This sense of attachment resonates with each and every single one
of us, and as a result, when we are deprived of quality attachment by a relational
partner or experience some kind of insecure attachment in an unhealthy relation-
ship, we seek out ways to compensate for such relationship elsewhere or decide,
out of own volition to explore a new relationship in a more ‘stronger’ and ‘wiser’
relational partner otherwise known as a substitute attachment figure (SAF). The
role of the SAF can be that of an “affect regulation tool” (cf. Kirkpatrick, 1998:
961-973) and/or as a “security-enhancing figure” (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2004:
174). Relationships with relational partners, SAFs, or attachment figures, e.g. par-
ent, friends, a deity, etcetera, are maintained due to the attachment functions they
afford in relation to a general ‘set-goal’. For example, from being a target for our
proximity-seeking behaviours, to acting as a safe haven providing security, to being
a response to loss or separation (cf. Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012), and serving as a
source of emotional strength and support in times of difficulty.
An unhealthy attachment experience can constitute a huge crisis of identity for
a youth, especially when they experience any form of insecure attachment such as
early abandonment, attachment abuse, unavailability of an attachment figure (cf. Ains-
worth, 1978), and even more so when coupled with other social and environmental
self-encounters (cf. Masterson, 1976). These difficult experiences do in fact influence
the identity crisis of young people as they trigger their insecure attachment tenden-
cies (like attachment-anxiety, attachment-avoidance, and disorganised attachment)
toward potential future relationships. An insecure attachment experience with a divine
personality (especially with God) who sometimes may be perceived as unavailable or
insensitive can expose the youth to a state of crisis, which is a state where the youth
feels abandoned and struggling with an undesirable, imaginary ‘bad place’. Such a
state of crisis can even lead to a split personality (Barach, 1991; Sadock & Sadock,
2007), where we see the youth trying to avoid their present self-realities and stay true
to self by living in the ‘future’, creating images of a positive, promissory, hyphenated,
and religious self (Counted, 2016a, 2016b). Authenticity scholars like Wood et al.
(2008) and Counted (2016b) see this experience as the consistency or congruity
between one’s primary experience, symbolized awareness, and outward behaviours.
These self-tendencies are some of the ways young people externalise their crisis of
identity in relation to how they experience an attachment figure (AF), stay true to
themselves, and experience their social environment (cf. Barry, Nelson, Davarya &
Urry, 2010). Hence, a negative attachment contagion is not only self-destructive but
also represents the threshold of an identity crisis.
Furthermore, Masterson (1976, 1981, 1985) and Moltmann (1974) support
this conceptualisation of identity crisis, referring to it as a time of a depleting nar-
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis 89
cissism, which plumbs the youth into an ‘ugly’ self-discovery and a search for au-
thenticity (Bialystok, 2009; Counted, 2016b), a journey with the potential of self-
creation/split-personality to satiate the attachment needs with the divine or another
attachment figure. Hence, as the youth struggles with the difficult experiences of
attachment and abandonment both in the past and present, they experience some
kind of destructive ‘acting out’ and ‘acting in’ while relating with the social environ-
ment and attachment figures. According to Dykstra (1997), such internal conflict
is externalized by displays of tensions discharged in the social environment as a
result of attachment separation caused by divorce, sudden death, or separation
from loved ones, abandonment depression, attachment abuse like unavailability
and inaccessibility of an AF, et cetera.
Such acting out or acting in often leads to a self-discovery crisis, which is a
regulatory experience employed by the youth to remain true to their self and main-
tain a positive attachment experience with close others. Self-regulation or splitting
often highlights the experience of an identity crisis and acts as a way of dealing
reasonably with an internal difficulty that involves a “radical alternation between
two extreme or caricatured selves, with neither self fully determining one’s iden-
tity” (Dykstra 1997: 30). A youth applying self-regulation while dealing with their
identity crisis can be both loving and idealizing, and at the same time, hating and
denigrating, according to Eagle (1987).
However, when young people apply the self-regulatory defense to counter their
identity crisis they often go through life ‘splinteringtheir self-realities and at the same
time “relating to people as parts – either positive or negative – rather than whole
entities” (Pruyser 1975: 36). According to Pruyser, when young people experience
this type of crisis, they will be unable to maintain a consistent, healthy commitment
in their social relationships with close others, and even with God. Moreover, due to
their poor frustration tolerance, they will have difficulty maintaining a positive image
of their attachment figures and even of themselves, particularly when their AFs are
not physically and emotionally present for them. Such self-conditioning automatically
makes the attempt to create a single unified self-concept that a youth recognizes as
himself or herself in both good and bad moments infertile. Pruyser further reasons
that such radicalization of the self makes the youth prone to a crisis of identity - “a
’good’ self that engages in immature, clinging, passive, unassertive behaviours and a
‘bad’ self that wants to grow, assert itself, be active, and independent” (Pruyser 1975:
40). Ultimately, the bad-self continues in an unending struggle of wandering and self-
discovery, developmentally disjoined, and challenged by hyper-selectivity while build-
ing and destroying relationships with close others and staying true to self (Pruyser
1975). Dykstra (1997) believes that such self-creation potential of the ‘bad self’, al-
though not in all cases, eventually hardens the youth into having a consistent lack of
Missionalia 44:1 90 Victor Counted
tolerance for ambivalence, makes the youth anxious of social relationships, and cre-
ates a self-ambiguity within the confines of interpersonal relationships and spirituality,
thus constituting the identity crisis. This will be discussed later as the crisis of identity
formation, since it represents a significant time of testing and a period of transition
the youth undergoes that ontologically belongs to their humanity as they discover and
define their identity in the present life.
3. Introducing A Missional Hermeneutic
The propositions of Wright (2006) and Hunsberger (2011) for a ‘missional her-
meneutic’ took a turn on missiologists, as they saw the bible as a tool that not only
provides the basis for mission but also elaborates on the missionary nature of the
religious life. Wright (2006) and Hunsberger (2011) argue that the story of God’s
mission to the world ought to be the lens through which the believer should read the
bible as it provides a fruitful hermeneutical framework for understanding our nature
as humans. Consequently, in an attempt to define the nature of the missional herme-
neutic of the bible, Hunsberger (2011) first presents the bible as the product of God’s
mission for dealing with the human experience. This missional perspective converges
a swelling tide of imagination, arising from the emphasis of the story of missio Dei,
which can be surmised within the context of ‘Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus the Messiah,
Church, and New Creation’ (Russell 2014: ¶3). The missional story starts and ends
with the revelational portrait of what the future new creation in God should look like
in relation to God’s character. More in-depthly, a missional hermeneutic also includes
‘the multiplicity of perspectives and contexts from which and within which people
read the biblical texts’ (Wright 2006: 39) and recognises that the ‘writings that now
comprise our Bible are themselves the product of and witness to the ultimate mission
of God’ (Ibid: 48). Drawing from this background, the primary tenet of a missional
hermeneutic is that it sees the bible as a missional phenomenon.
Wright provides us with a summary of what a missional hermeneutic really is:
A missional hermeneutic, then, is not content simply to call for obedience to the
Great Commission (though it will assuredly include that as a matter of nonnegoti-
able importance), nor even to reflect on the missional implications of the Great
Commandment. For behind both it will find the Great Communication—the
revelation of the identity of God, of God’s action in the world and God’s saving pur-
pose for all creation. And for the fullness of this communication we need the whole
Bible in all its parts and genres, for God has given us no less” (2006: 60-61).
The ‘Great Communication’ of God’s mission to the world starts with the creation
story: God created the heavens and the earth. Human beings were wittingly crafted
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis 91
in the image of God as the pinnacle of His artistry, functioning in His image over
the rest of God’s creation. From the earliest beginnings, “humanity was created for
missional purposes to represent God before creation by reflecting God’s character,
with one another and with the world” (Russell 2014: ¶4). The opportunity that lies
in this missional intention of God is discussed in this paper as a missional herme-
neutic of coping.
And like the abandonment and attachment history of most crises of youth iden-
tity, the Great Communication of the missional intention of God was flawed by a
‘Fall’ - an error of the past, which has been corrected by the emergence of Jesus
the Messiah through the nation of Israel to rebuild the mission of God through the
Church to the world. As a missional response to youth identity crisis, a missional
hermeneutic sees the crisis of youth identity, firstly, as a missional phenomenon,
and secondly, as a unique opportunity that not only provides the basis for embody-
ing the missio Dei in our everyday lives, but also elaborates on the nature of the
missionary life as a story of God’s walk with the youth from beginning to end rather
than just about their salvation. This perspective calls young people back to God’s
mission as a missional community that embodies God’s image before the world as
they interpret the crisis associated with their identity in order to hear God’s living
voice, giving them the answers to life’s complex questions.
4. Towards A Missional Hermeneutic of Coping
Drawing from Hunsberger’s (2011) proposition, a ‘missional hermeneutic of cop-
ing’ would take God’s people back to the task for failing to live in God’s character, as
the people of God. This perspective announces the confronting effect of God’s love
over the nature of identity crisis to enable the afflicted assume a new promissory
self emerging out of God’s identity (cf. Counted 2016b). It is against this backdrop
of God’s intention that Hunsberger (2011) argues for a missional hermeneutic to
remind us of the mission of God to the world, one borne out of perfection to ‘pu-
rify’ us within the ontological confines of our being and existence. Hunsberger
further argues that this missional opportunity starts by coming to grips with the
Great Communication of the bible in relation to our ontological and pathological
placements (identity crisis). A missional hermeneutic for coping with the crisis of
identity formation, therefore, seeks to draw us closer to the mission of God as we
understand our crisis of identity as part of the Great Communication of the scrip-
tural story of God’s redemption. This missional hermeneutic also beckons on the
youth and youth ministry workers and pastoral caregivers to interpret the crises of
youth identity in light of God’s perspective.
The proposed missional perspective tends to have a gravitational pull towards
what, according to this author, is the most fundamental aspect of what makes our
Missionalia 44:1 92 Victor Counted
crisis of identity missional and an opportunity for mission. With caution, none of
these hermeneutical perspectives are sufficient on their own to provide a robust
missio-logical interpretation of youth identity crisis.
5. Personalising the missional direction of God’s story
Hunsberger starts with an emphasis: “The framework for biblical interpretation
is the story it tells of the mission of God and the formation of a community sent to
participate in it” (2011: 310). Wright (2006) in his book “The Mission of God”
explained this more clearly, as he offers an elaborate rationale for interpreting the
scripture from the perspective of missio Dei, in which the reader finds themselves
as part of the biblical story. This is a shift from what the bible means to the reader to
what the bible is for the reader. It is an understanding that includes the “missional
basis of the bible” and excludes the “biblical basis for mission” (Wright 2006:
103, 106). Therefore, in terms of helping young people in their crisis of identity,
the first step to a missional hermeneutic of coping would be to see young people
as a community sent to participate in the missio Dei because, indeed, they are part
of the story of God’s mission. This first step starts with the process of inclusion, an
understanding that includes the missional basis of young people in a way that helps
them find themselves in the revelational portrait of God’s Great Communication.
This inclusiveness allows the youth ministry worker or pastoral caregiver to draw
the attention of the youth to the inclusive character and intention of God, one that
enables the youth to see themselves as part of a global and intergalactic enterprise.
Wright adds, “The God the Bible renders to us, the people whose identity and
mission the Bible invites us to share, and the story the Bible tells about this God
and this people and indeed about the whole world and its future” (2006: 108-109)
are the basis for understanding the plot of the story of God’s mission. In other
words, when youths see themselves as part of the narration of the purposeful story
of God’s mission for the world, it gives tangible meaning to their crises of identity.
A missional hermeneutic of coping, therefore, starts with this first task of inclu-
sion as the youth ministry worker or pastoral caregiver loosens the meanings of
the crises facing the youth with the aim of re-reading the meanings as a whole
story of God creating and redeeming the world. This first step answers the ‘why’
and ‘where’ questions in Louw’s account on the ‘Meaning of Suffering’. According
to Louw, this becomes the quest for understanding God’s identity as it relates to
youth identity. When young people understand the missional direction of the story
of God’s mission, such revelation can reveal a deep longing to locate God in their
attachment and abandonment history in terms of providence, support, and protec-
tion (cf. Louw 2000: 16). In asking Where is God in my experience and what is
His will?” the youth may encounter the presence of God by envisioning their difficult
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis 93
attachment and self-experiences in light of God’s story. This perspective frames a
sense of coping upon which a hermeneutic is undertaken as young people explore
their experiences and all that lies behind it in relation to God and his mission to the
world. Such missional posture allows the youth to rest on the promise of the ulti-
mate story of God to lead them back to the image of God as new creations in Christ.
Over all, having a missional direction of the story of God’s mission allows the
youth to forge meaning in their helpless and difficult experiences; as a faith com-
munity being sent to fulfil the missio Dei (Goheen, 2008). Most importantly, this
first step would also require an understanding of the meaning of missio Dei in
a more personal and transformative way. This revelational understanding of the
mission of God transcends the traditional understanding of the phrase in terms of
sending, “in reference both to the mutual sending among the persons of the Trinity
and to God’s sending of Israel and the church”, and thus the youth (Hunsberger
2011: 312).
By encouraging the suffering youth to personalise the missional direction of
God’s story for their lives, they are empowered to participate in the missio Dei as
they practice a self-hermeneutic process that becomes, in itself, an embodiment of
the good news they are called to proclaim (cf. Brownson 2002). This hermeneuti-
cal process may not entirely erase their crises of identity but would re-frame it (cf.
Capps, 1990), so that the quality and character of the youth-in-mission can become
a reflection of God’s intention.
A direction to the story of God’s mission would produce in the youth a kind of
‘dislocation’ (see Brownson 2002: 313), which accompanies the experience of
being ‘called’ and ‘sent’ and would generate in our young people a critical principle
by which their coping becomes evidently self-correcting and redemptive.
6. The missional purpose of the crises of youth identity formation
The second aspect of a missional hermeneutic looks at the purpose of biblical
writings as it “pertains to the character of the biblical literature itself” (Hunsberger
2011: 313). Hence, if the first step to a missional hermeneutic has to do with rec-
ognising scriptural narratives as essential core of the missio Dei, then the second
missional hermeneutic should deal with the purpose and aim of those narratives,
thus emphasizing its “authority by virtue of their formative effect” (Ibid: 313). The
emphasis at the second step to a missional hermeneutic of coping is not to focus on
what the crisis mean to the youth per se but how God is present within the crises
and how the difficult attachment and self experiences equip the youth for mission.
Thus this second model emphasizes the need to focus on God who reveals Himself
within a crisis. This model draws our attention to the purpose of the difficult expe-
rience of youth identity crisis which is to know God and grow in the knowledge of
Missionalia 44:1 94 Victor Counted
God as a better witness in the face of adversity and the crisis of identity formation.
By knowing God and witnessing to his mission to the world through their suffer-
ing and identity formation, the youth is invited into the process of discipleship as
Christ’s followers on a journey through their earthly ministry (cf. Guder, 2007;
Hunsberger, 2011). While preparing and encouraging the youth to see their suf-
fering in light of the missional purpose of God (e.g. as it relates to the suffering of
Christ on the cross), they are also transformed as people of character, embodying
the very image of God.
Ultimately, the purpose of youth identity crisis as it relates to the mission of God
is to contribute to the continuing formation of the missional identity (and con-
sciousness) of the youth. This identity formation happens as the powerful story of
God’s grace is told within the context of a missional community in transition; in a
way that enables young people to see themselves as part of the big story of creation
and ‘sent’ to the world to represent the missio Dei (Guder, 2004). This revelational
portrait of missio Dei makes it possible to use the experiences of identity crisis to
equip young people for missional purposes (Goheen 2008).
As the author proposes this missional hermeneutic for scores of theologians
and youth ministry workers and pastoral caregivers, a continuing work is required
in order to elaborate on the ways in which youth identity crisis can be understood
from the perspective of divine purpose - as it transforms and prepares the youth-in-
mission as a witness (Hunsberger, 2011; Louw, 2000; 2008).
7. The missio-cultural locatedness of youth identity crisis
Two aspects of the ‘missional hermeneutic’ framework (missional engagement
with cultures and missional locatedness of the readers) have been merged into
one in this third missional hermeneutic of coping procedure because of their em-
phases on community, culture, and location. Hunsberger (2011: 314) is of the
opinion that the “approach required for a faithful reading of the Bible is from the
missional location of the Christian community”. This is a movement away from the
purpose of the scripture to looking more intently at “the character[s] of a mis-
sional hermeneutic from the other side of the coin – from the position of the com-
munity being thus formed” (Hunsberger 2011: 314). Barram (2007) understood a
missional hermeneutic as more than a linguistic interpretive structure of the missio
Dei from the scripture. As for Barram, a missional hermeneutic is an approach to
scriptural text rooted in the conviction of God’s mission in and for the world. This
entails reading the scripture as a community called by God for his purposes here
on earth, as was the Christian community in the New Testament who were caught
up in the mission of God as they read the scripture from their social and cultural
location (Barram, 2006; 2007).
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis 95
In the same vein, the author argues that a robust missional hermeneutic for cop-
ing with the crisis of identity formation in youth ministry practice should move away
from its general purpose to look more fruitfully at the practical and cultural issues
within the youth community that might trigger a crisis of identity. This third process
pays attention to the history of abandonment and difficult attachment experiences
that might have led to the crisis of youth identity at the first place. Hence, interpret-
ing cultural and societal proclivities that lead to attachment abandonment and at-
tachment abuses in families can be a step in the right direction for understanding
the youth as a community in displacement who within the whole story of God’s
mission is also part of a faith community.
The most resourceful way of understanding the cultural and missional place-
ments of young people undergoing a crisis of identity would be to aim at faith-
fully emphasizing the cultural and missio Dei roles within the missional purpose
of God. A missional hermeneutic for coping with the crisis of identity formation
should therefore consciously and persistently approach the issues of identity crisis
within the youth community by highlighting the cultural engagements of the story
of God’s mission and the shared experiences of young people to a range of critical,
located questions. Questions that point to the church’s foremost missional purpose
of empowering and liberating those that are down and broken within a contextual
community. Knoetze (2015) sees faith communities as the solution to the decep-
tive games played by organisations, families, and youth in a distrusting community.
Knoetze believes that through participating in the missio Dei, “the church will have
to be open to, as well as reach out to, people who are hiding behind masks and
are expressing fear and hate” (2015: 8). If this is done, Nel (2000) reasons that
the church can help the family and youth as a hermeneutic and an agogic commu-
nity to find their identity in a relationship with the Trinitarian God. Knoetze further
articulates the role of the church in achieving this hermeneutical step succinctly:
The faith community must position herself in such a way that she knows and is
known intimately by the African families and youth. As part of the missio Dei, the
church will have to make an effort to listen, understand and want what is best for
the families and youth in Africa, accepting differences and respecting uniqueness
in a way of confirming their humaneness. In this, the church is both a hermeneutic
and an agogic ‘lebensraum’ (Nel 2000:18–25). Communication and relationships
are built on trust and commitment. Where these two features are experienced, fami-
lies and youth will share and be intimate. Where there is a lack of trust and com-
mitment, instead of intimacy in relations and family, the church will experience a
distance in its relation to the community.
It is this author’s conviction as well that faith communities have a major role to
play here, as Nel and Knoetze have pointed out. The emphasis, however, is to un-
Missionalia 44:1 96 Victor Counted
derstand the way in which issues of youth identity crisis model engagement with the
culture of communities and families involved. The church can also start by asking
critical questions such as, ‘How does our understanding of community and family
affect the way we relate with our loved ones?’, ‘How has the circle of parental abuse
and apathy become a norm in our communities and affected the way young people
relate to God, self, and their social others?’, and ‘How can the church build and en-
courage better family models that can encourage and strengthen secure attachment
relationships between parents and their children?’ These questions and many more
could help the church understand the missio-logical issues related to the cultural
locatedness of the youth-in-crisis and engagements of communities with the youth
culture, as faith communities set the path straight for reconciliation and healing.
8. The prophetic-missional voice of the youth in crisis
The ‘prophetic pathos’ (Mills 2007: 110-136) of the scripture is often seen “challeng-
ing conventional norms” (Counted 2015c: 204) as it portrays the prophetic persona
as a liminal being existing on the margins of society by virtue of being the voice that
“performs social destruction and thus embodies the community’s own existence on
the borders between life and death” (Holt & Sharp 2015: 75). The prophetic persona
plays a huge role in shaping the missional basis of the bible as a prophetic account,
with implication for the religious life (cf. Evans 2000; Chung 2012). The prophetic-
missional voice, therefore, penetrates into the word-event in terms of how the youth
verbally appropriate the meaning of their identity crisis. This aspect of coping has
profound consequences in the way youth identity crisis is interpreted in itself.
The term ‘prophetic’ has been discussed in the past (cf. Capps, 1990; Bosch,
1991) on a state-based level, mostly referring to how the prophetic persona in the
bible critiques the contemporary life, as it moves away from the missional direction
and purpose of God in a time of crisis. It is proposed here that the term ‘prophetic’
can also be used on a personal, relational, and pragmatic level to keep the youth in
check overtime by testing the actual crises of identity over what is most essential to
it: a prophetic-missional voice. This step can help the youth forge meanings that in-
fluence the outcome of their lives in a time of crisis (cf. McCullough & Willoughby,
2009), and can strengthen the emotional and social traumas associated with their
identity. Furthermore, having a prophetic-missional voice can also mean relating to
the crises of youth identity in terms of God-control and God-regulation, i.e. some
sort of self-control and self-regulation that is missionally inspired. It has more to
do with distancing the youth from the psycho-historical limitations of their milieu
in order to shape and stabilize their perceived world order in terms of God’s order.
Against this background, the argument is that the crisis associated with youth
identity formation results from the lack of vocabulary to interpret and regulate at-
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis 97
tachment insecurity and existential self-experiences, whereupon, when the youth
fails to grasp an achieved understanding of the meaningfulness of their identity cri-
sis, their emotional security is threatened and their sense of identity remains elusive
to them. However, as the youth experiences the limits of their own human ability, it
is important to encourage them, at this point, to have a prophetic-missional voice
that reminds them of God standing with them by having a purpose for them in rela-
tion to his missio Dei story. Such a prophetic trigger can disabuse the threats of
nothingness and helplessness in the experience of identity crisis, as it relates the
hopeless self-experiences of the youth to a world of order that stands in conso-
nance with the mission of God.
Consequently, this missional hermeneutic of coping at this stage takes a missio-
logical approach in order to communicate the prophetic dimension of the missio Dei
to the youth in crisis, as they are reminded of God’s love and presence in testing times,
through his mission for and with them, and indeed, the world. Having a prophetic-
missional voice can also mean having a missio-logical perspective that engages in
linguistic conventions in order to down-regulate the experience of a compounding
internal conflict so as to reflect the character of God in a time of crisis.
As an affect regulating means for young people, a prophetic-missional voice fa-
cilitates God’s control, God-monitoring, God-regulation, missional well-being, and
authentic imago Dei behaviours by serving as a system that uses information about
the present crisis of youth identity to change that crisis. For this reason, a prophet-
ic-missional voice emerge when the youth is encouraged to exert control over their
own responses in a time of identity crisis so as to maintain a spiritual well-being,
live up to missional standard, and override a difficult attachment condition while in
pursuit of a desired future (cf. Baumeister & Vohs 2004; Carver & Scheier 1998).
Barkley equally saw this process as “any response, or chain of responses, by the
[youth] that serves to alter the probability of the [youth’s] subsequent response to
a [difficult] event and, in doing so, functions to alter the probability of a later con-
sequence related to that event” (1997: 68). As for Louw (2000), this can mean ap-
plying the transcendent quality of God to our daily lives using metaphorical theology
that views God as “the inspirited body of the entire universe, the animating, living
Spirit that produces, guides, and saves all that is” (McFague 1993: 20). Counted
(2015b) also sees this process as an indication of a relationship experience with
God using ‘God concepts’ that suggest a transcendent connection of some kind.
Granqvist and Kirkpatrick (2008) on the other hand describe this process as the
application of the ‘God attachment language’ that allows the individual to see the
divine as a strong and enduring attachment figure in a time of crisis.
A prophetic-missional voice that responds to the crisis of youth identity caused
by attachment abuse, abandonment depression, attachment separation, depleting
Missionalia 44:1 98 Victor Counted
narcissism, self-discovery, and etcetera using prophetic filters would bring about
a change of attitude that have the character of promise amid an internal conflict.
Therefore, on this basis it is argued that having a prophetic-missional voice and
applying the three proposed models of a missional hermeneutic for coping with
the crisis of identity formation, i.e. seeing the suffering youth through the missional
lens of God’s story, explaining the missional purpose of the crises of youth identity,
and addressing the missio-cultural locatedness of youth identity crisis, can redeem
and transform the youth as the people of God; on a mission to the world by exam-
ple of their own lives. This hermeneutical key would help the youth-in-mission to
submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit as they reinvent and reinvest themselves in
the character of God as a community in transition hoping for an emerging future
through God’s mission.
9. Conclusion
This article aimed to highlight the experiences of youth identity crisis and to provide
a missional hermeneutic for youth coping with the crisis of identity formation. The
introduction of a missional framework as coping mechanism would enable youth
ministry workers, or pastoral caregivers in general, to fruitfully provide therapeutic
change for youths suffering a crisis as a direct effect of an attachment abuse, early
abandonment, insecure attachment relationship with God, or self-discovery experi-
ence. The proposed hermeneutical methodology offers four guidelines for helping
young people in youth ministry practice. Firstly, helping the youth to see their suf-
fering in light of the whole story of God’s mission to the world, allowing them to
see themselves as part of God’s missional community. Secondly, it is argued that a
missional hermeneutic of coping would help the youth forge meaning in their ex-
perience as they are led to uncover the missional purpose of their identity crisis for
themselves. Thirdly, a missional hermeneutic for coping with the crisis of identity
formation provides sufficient explanation for understanding, on a deeper level, the
cultural and community factors engendering the crisis of identity among young peo-
ple within a familiar context. This approach helps the youth ministry worker and
pastoral caregiver to address issues related to attachment abuse and abandonment
depression from its community and cultural roots. Finally, it is proposed that hav-
ing a prophetic-missional voice could be helpful in the process of coping as youths
relate to their crises of identity using prophetic languages (in form of vocabularies
or metaphors or God concepts) that strengthen and reassure them of their role as
a missional community, living the missionary life in the world.
In submission, it is hoped that the missional hermeneutic introduced in this
paper will help strengthen the work of youth ministry practitioners and pastoral
caregivers, as they apply this methodology in their practice in order to help the
Missionising Youth Identity Crisis 99
youth-in-crisis to alter the meaning of their identity crisis with the knowledge of
the missio Dei. The author hopes that this missional shift would enable the youth
to find themselves as part of the missional story, on the basis that the structure of
their thought and the structure of their reality mirror each other, thus, seeing their
crisis of identity as a missional opportunity to live out the character of God in an
inspiring way.
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