In my roles as a Christian author, Primary School Teacher and Girls Ministry leader in my local church, I am in the fortunate position to speak with many young people – especially young women. Recently I was talking with a young girl who expressed that she was feeling depressed and anxious, as well as wrestling with an eating disorder. In my ministry this is an all too common experience. Despite growing up in a loving and supportive home, she was struggling with finding her worth as God’s child. She had sought acceptance, identity and belonging from what ‘the world’ had taught her to seek after. After listening to her story I recalled a question that presses upon many Christian youth workers, teachers, and parents: how can we help young girls seek their identity in Christ?
For those of us who are Christian, becoming a follower of Jesus shifts our primary identification with the world to identification with God’s salvific plan. As the Apostle Paul notes, we are no longer dead, but alive; no longer slaves of sin, but children of God – we are a new creation. It is no secret that Christians will – and have – struggled with this change, as it is easy to revisit our old ways.
For young girls, matters of identity are further complicated. Here I hope to outline some of the distinctive challenges that young women and girls face when developing a Christ-centred identity, and then present a model that can guide youth workers, parents, teachers, and other carers of young girls to help these young women find liberation in their identity in God.
What is a Christ-centred Identity?
Many conversations with Christian girls reveal there is much confusion about what their identity in Christ looks like.[i] Evangelical theologian Mark Medley notes that “Human life is… recognized as a relational matrix, a nexus of interconnections that forms and transforms our own identity.”[ii] A Christ-centred identity develops as girls are grounded in all the relationships they have, it is both-and. Establishing a secure relationship with God, but then following this and precisely because of this, God is able to influence one’s relationships and associated interpersonal identity, transforming and redeeming, rather than destroying. When secular markers of identity surround young girls, developing a distinctively Christian identity is difficult. Identifying the barriers that inhibit young girls is the first step in addressing the problem.
Barriers to Christ-centred Identity Development: Sexism, Stereotypes, and Social conditioning.
Over the years ideas about how men and women reflect the image of God have been perpetuated from patriarchal perspectives. The message that women are subordinate to men has infiltrated society and underpins stereotyped social expectations. Consequently, women then lose their value and worth as equal rulers in the kingdom of God. This way of thinking and living has opened up many doors for misuse, oppression, violence and inequality for women in life and relationships.[iii] The world creates a value system, expectations, and norms that damage people, particularly in this case women. Yet when women move into the church and replace worldly culture, stereotypes, values and expectations with Christian ones, this is not necessarily the penicillin to their identity issues: Christian culture has its own shortcomings.
The Christian perspective is that God created both man and woman.[iv] Two distinct image bearers, yet beyond the obvious, it is difficult to determine just what exactly distinguishes women and men. God created us different, but the question remains, how much of the difference we observe today is biological and how much of that is social-sexist conditioning? Cross-cultural studies in anthropology, hormone and chromosome studies suggest that there are no simple answers for this question. One study concludes, “It is very difficult to separate out behavioral differences from learning.”[v] Do girls instinctively choose pink because they are intrinsically drawn to it or because they have been socially conditioned to like pink? The same goes for the value of girls; are they being socially conditioned to believe that they are of less value than men? Over the years the media has used “pseudo-scientific,” biological and neuroscientific evidence to “reinforce…old fashioned stereotypes and roles”.[vi] If girls are still being taught, whether directly or indirectly, that they are subordinate to men, or designed to follow men (but not lead them), then they will be less likely to embrace the calling God has for them, be it in in ministry or in business, believing that it is ‘not Christian.’
These stereotypical and social-sexist expectations create barriers to Christian girls developing a Christ-centred identity.
Media Influence, Consumerism, and Peer Pressure.
Media platforms in our hyper sexualised, consumerist culture are sending implicit messages that condition young girls in unhelpful ways. Researcher Selena Edwing argues that:
“to be happy and normal, young women should be thin, sexy and beautiful. They should spend much time and money on achieving that look. And here are the women they should look like—celebrities, supermodels, and porn stars, sometimes young women who do nothing but dress up and party hard—the new role models for today’s young women.” [vii]
These images and messages infiltrate the lives of young girls through the internet, magazines, gaming, billboards, school, radio, social media and television. The media is negatively reinforcing a social script about the value and worth of these girls and teaches them that they are objects to be beautified and sexualized for men.
Those who believe that a perfect image is their main goal in life – a common social message for young girls – enter into a phenomenon called self-objectification. Self-objectification can result in women “submitting their bodies to constant surveillance, comparing themselves to media images, and ending up feeling intensely ashamed of their own bodies.”[viii] This can lead to all kinds of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders.[ix] As girls spend time around these kinds of perfect yet unattainable media influences, they can fall prey to consumerist deception. This consumerist deception hinders young girls from developing Christ centred identities, in the image and likeness of Christ, and instead the emphasis is placed on conforming to the ‘image’ of the world, the external appearance to the detriment of their God-given gifts (such as leadership). These girls no longer live Christ-centred lives, but find themselves living self-centred and consumer driven lives instead.
Lisa G. Micminn, author of The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life states, “We have, by divine intention, an insatiable longing to belong, to have an identity in something bigger than ourselves.”[x] If one does not have a healthy and strong relationship with God, then their identity is constrained and a product of, or subject to, the health or dysfunction of their present relations. God provides a transcendent reference point that allows one to rise above the limitations and failings of their concrete relationships. Many girls are aware that the choices they are making are not what they would instinctively choose. However, when the girls do not have a strong relationship with God first, the peer pressure they are facing to conform far outweighs the feeling that they actually have a choice at all. For example, many girls confess to being pressured by their partners into having sex. The girls feel pressured by their peers to fit in and not be rejected by their peer group.[xi]
Developing a Christ-centred Identity: Rite of passage and the importance of community.
Though believers are declared righteous when they receive salvation, there is a work of the Holy Spirit that still takes place in developing the outworking of Christ-likeness in life. Initiation into salvation is associated with the term “regeneration”. Being “born again” implies the establishing of a parental relationship, but also a family relationship with brothers and sisters (vertical and horizontal). These take place together and are intimately part of the redemptive work of God. “Trinitarian theology understands that the telos of the human person is to live in communion with God, other persons and with creation.”[xii] A Christ-centred life therefore, considers the way Christ lived and makes choices to live life from the Spirit within, growing daily in His spiritual likeness and relational nature. Christ-centred identity is discovered as believers move closer toward an undistorted relationship with the Triune relational God, within the family relationship of Christian community and with creation.
Over the years a common Christian approach to identification with Christ has been one-dimensional: teaching the girls to follow God’s commands.[xiii] In today’s society these Christian girls need more.[xiv] I believe a more comprehensive multidimensional approach would include at least education, mentor relationships, and supportive community.[xv] Research into rites of passage for Christians conclude “true identity…is realized through developing relationship with God, self, others and creation.”[xvi] If an environment is created to guide the development of a Christ-centred identity, Christian girls will have a safe place to be mentored, to grow spiritually, psychologically, socially and to belong. This creates opportunities that the Spirit can use so that adolescent girls can develop a Christ-centred identity.[xvii]
Strategies in developing a rite of passage program: Love God, Love Self, and Love Others.
A Christ-centred identity begins with having knowledge and a correct understanding of the Triune, relational God.[xviii] Christian girls cannot gain understanding of God just by giving them a few key scriptures. They need to know God in the full context of the bible. As the girls are presented with the true image of God, their personal revelation as a valuable daughter of God will be the driving force behind their commitment to develop and live a Christ-centred life.[xix]
As noted above, these girls are living in a culture that bombards them with implicit media messages. Comparing and contrasting a Spirit-lead life with a worldly life creates learning opportunities to discuss sexuality,[xx] healthy and positive body image,[xxi] having a voice,[xxii] consumerism and the deceptions in media. Providing mentors and role models from a range of Christian environments to teach and set an example, creates a safe space to test their thoughts, share their struggles and fears, and gain wisdom and guidance for the journey.[xxiii] A community that loves unconditionally and supports the girls creates an environment where they are able to take risks and fail, knowing their community will continue to support them. I propose that this type of community support is vital for the girls as they form their identities because they will stumble, fail and have personal challenges that they may feel ashamed or embarrassed of at times. I suggest that girls who are inspired, empowered and equipped to make Christ-centred, Spirit-lead choices and have the freedom to fail with the unconditional love and support, to run to when they make a mistake, can learn to value who they are. Why? Because they begin to identify themselves as daughters of God—valued, accepted, loved, purposed and covered by His grace and that of their Christian community.
Just as the Trinity works together in a loving community, God’s image bearers are designed to contribute and benefit from relationship with people and all of creation. Sociologist Lisa Mcminn, states “People experience the fullness of God’s nature as expressed through humanity when they allow other image bearers, young and old, male and female, to teach and lead them.”[xxiv] Relationship with people and all of creation is a pivotal part of maturing and growing into the image of Christ.[xxv] Lisa Mcminn further explains that a sense of responsibility for all of creation is strengthened within believers as they are taught to think of others and lay aside things they can do for themselves for the wellbeing of all.[xxvi] I propose that the girls can live and learn alongside others, serving people and stewarding creation just as Christ did.
As Christian girls are surrounded by a community of people who guide them in developing an undistorted relationship with God, loving themselves as daughters of God and caring for all of creation, they learn how to live an authentic Christ-centred life. If we are teaching these girls how to truly live a Christ-centred life then our hope for them is to build resilience to the pressures from society and walk confidently as girls who seek their identity in Christ.
Author Note: Special thanks to Samuel Hill for his contribution to this article.
About the Author: Carly Thompson is a Master of Arts students at Alphacrucis College.
[i] Amy F. Davis Abdallah, “A Rite of Passage: Helping Daughters Reach their Godly Potential,” Priscilla Papers 27, no. 1 (Winter 2013): 8
[ii] Mark S. Medley, “Becoming Human Together: Imaging the Triune God,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 23, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 290.
[iii] [iii] Ted. Bunch, “A CALL TO MEN: ending Violence Against Women,” http://www.vawnet.org/assoc_files_vawnet/endingmensviolence.pdf [retrieved June 30].
Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Third Edition (Gran Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge UK: Cambridge UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 98
[iv] Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version)
[v] Lisa G. Mcminn, Growing Strong Daughters: Encouraging Girls to Become All They’re Meant to Be, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007), 33.
[vi] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, (Londan: Icon Books, 2010), 237.
[vii] Selena Ewing, “The Faking It Project: What Research Tells Us About Magazines in Young Women’s Lives, “ in Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, ed. Melinda Tankard Reist (North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2009), 102.
[viii] Selena Ewing, “The Faking It Project,” 103.
[ix] Selena Ewing, “The Faking It Project,” 105.
[x] Lisa G. Micminn, The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life, (Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2006), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 2, Location 212 1915
[xi] Clive Hamilton, “Good Is The New Bad: Rethinking Sexual Freedom,” in Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, ed. Melinda Tankard Reist (North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2009), 86-87.
[xii] Mark s. Medly, 290.
[xiii] Amy F. Davis Abdallah, “A Rite of Passage,” 8.
[xv] Mark S. Medly, 290. Matthew 22:37 (NKJV).
[xvi] Amy F. Davis Abdallah, “A Rite of Passage,” 9.
[xvii] Amy F. Davis Abdallah, “A Rite of Passage,”,9-10.
Lisa G. Mcminn, Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy a broken world, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 1, Location 247-588.
[xviii] Amy F. Davis Abdallah, “A Rite of Passage,” 12. Mark S. Medly,189.
[xix] Lisa G. Mcminn, “Growing Strong Daughters,” 17-31.
[xx] Consider specific age groups and contexts as to how much information and which particular topics are covered here.
[xxi] Amy F. Davis Abdallah, “A Rite of Passage,” 13
[xxii] “A woman who has a strong voice will have confidence in her ability to think for herself and confidence in what she has to say. Yet she will also learn to listen, discern, and trust a community of voices that keeps her grounded in a faith community, and connected to the wisdom expressed throughout history even as she expresses her personal thoughts and ideas.”
Lisa G. Mcminn, “Growing Strong Daughters,” 94.
[xxiii] Be it the media, music industry, local women (young and older), mothers, grandmothers, women from the bible or big sister type role models.
[xxiv] Lisa G. Mcminn, “Growing Strong Daughters,” 20. People “miss out on the richness of this experience if they assume they can achieve spiritual maturity in the absence of community.”
[xxv] Image bearer is referring to one who lives a life that imitates the triune God, not a physical resemblance. “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” Ephesians 5:1-2 (New King James Version)
[xxvi]Lisa G. Micminn, “The Contented Soul: The Art of Savoring Life, Chapter 8,” Location 1473-1480.