Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, shall we?

I want you to think back to fifth grade. That’s right, all the way back to when you were about ten or eleven.

What was it like when dinosaurs walked the earth back then?

Just kidding. I couldn’t resist. I work with middle schoolers, after all–you have to expect dumb jokes from me once in a while.

When you were ten years old, though, what was your identity? Chances are good that when you were that age, you wrapped your entire identity into one neat package–“I’m a soccer player” or “I’m a ballerina” or “I’m an artist”. Maybe you hadn’t quite latched onto something yet, and your answer would be a bit more vague: “I was a leader, in the form of a bully” or “I felt alone all the time, and spent my hours reading books”.

Jump forward a year. Did your identity change in sixth grade?

What about seventh grade? And eighth grade?

Let me give you a little glimpse of how my own identity evolved through the years of middle school. In fifth grade, my identity was “smart kid”. In sixth grade it was “class president”. In seventh grade it was “athlete”, and in eighth grade it was “fashion queen”.

So, if you’re paying attention, my identity wavered between my intellect, my talents, my athletic ability, and my hobbies all in the course of four years. That’s a bit daunting to realize as an adult, this many years later. So it’s no wonder that I vividly remember feeling utterly lost in understanding who I was back then.

I suspect most of you can relate, when you remember your own awkward pre-teen years.

As we know, it’s already challenging to work your way through middle school. Kids tackle their changing bodies and growing minds along with grueling activity schedules and a bevy of temptations to indulge in. Add to that mix the fact that most students are desperately trying to find their identity during these tumultuous few years, and it’s easy to see why so many kids latch onto the first thing they stumble across: Hockey. Choir. Alcohol. A boyfriend or girlfriend.

How can we help these kids navigate the choppy waters of identity crisis?

We walk a fine line as youth leaders, parents and older siblings, since we’ve been through the struggles before and want to help our kids succeed. But we can’t do it for them. We vacillate between giving advice and simply listening, and that’s normal. But I think our best bet in helping our students travel down this road to discovering their identity is two-fold: we can offer a variety of things to experience, and we can impress on them one basic message that their identity is not based on what they do, but rather on who they are in God’s eyes.

In offering a variety of different things to experience, we give our young teens the ability to broaden their horizons, discover new talents and joys, and to learn more about themselves. I think we can easily build this into all of our ministries and lives.

Expose your kids to different Bibles stories, drawing from the Old and New Testaments. Teach them about different heroes and historical figures from all different eras. Allow them to try a variety of prayer techniques. Offer different service projects with different organizations regularly.

Even when you’re spending time with small groups of students, you can help broaden their world by taking them to new places. In my free time, I’ve taken kids to Thai and sushi restaurants, old churches and cathedrals around our city, art and science museums, as well as symphony orchestras and musicals downtown.

When we’re setting up mission trips and serving opportunities, I’m constantly on the look-out for new ways to expose our kids to all sorts of different things. Our middle schoolers have worshipped in inner-city churches of different races, worked side-by-side with homeless people, prayer-walked down tiny city streets, cleaned up houses for wealthy widows, worked with children of all ages, and been to several different states and worked with several churches on various service projects. Some of our students had never left their home state before, and nothing delighted me more than seeing them discover an eye-opening truth about themselves while doing something they’d never been exposed to before.

Even more importantly, though, is that message that their identity is not based on what they do, but on who they are in God’s eyes.

I think it makes a difference in our student’s lives when they constantly hear that they are treasured, adored, blessed, redeemed and have a future to hope for, through the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.

As 1 Peter 2:9 reminds us, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Our culture today feeds us the lie that our merit is based only on what we can produce. We’re expected to yield results, whether it’s our physical bodies looking their leanest, or our brains producing one spreadsheet after another. As adults, we battle this lie on a daily basis. Sometimes, however, I think we fail to see how the lie has trickled down to our middle schoolers.

It’s of the utmost importance that we constantly remind these kids, in the midst of their personal identity crisis, that they are God’s dearly and beloved children, and that their identity is not based on what they can produce, but what they are–and they are so special to our Heavenly Father that He gave up His perfect Son for them for the forgiveness of their sins when they do fall short. Through the Holy Spirit, they will be empowered to navigate the choppy waters of life, knowing and believing that they are forgiven and renewed for the next step of life.

And that’s a story that is way more interesting than your story about seeing dinosaurs walk around when you were in middle school.