Not too long ago, I was in Phoenix to watch the Suns play the Lakers. Of course, I wore a Lakers jersey. They are my team, and I came to enjoy the game and show my support. A lot of other fans were wearing jerseys to the game, but hardly any of them were the purple and gold of the Lakers. I stood out, I was in enemy territory, but I was not about to hide my identity as a Lakers fan. I root for the (usually) better team, and I know there are millions of Lakers fans back in LA.
One of the greatest pressures teens face is acceptance. We all want to be liked, but teens especially are trapped by the desire to craft an identity that is both unique and still just like their peers. We all want friends, and we all want to get along with our peers. But this craving for acceptance can lead people down a dangerous path of foolish decisions followed by disappointing emptiness.
The idol of acceptance will lead people to change their identity. A young person who was doing well while attending one school can change radically in another school with a new culture and a new group of friends. It is as if they went to Phoenix, saw all the other fans, and either hid their Lakers jersey or bought a Suns cap. Without an understanding of our true identity in Christ, we will change who we are like we change clothes.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, they were having an identity crisis. They began growing in grace in Christ but were quickly pulled into Jewish tradition and legalism. He identified himself as an apostle from God, not of men (Galatians 1:1), and clearly stated whom he was interested in serving, “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
In a culture that demands conformity, how can parents and youth workers help a teen who is changing for the worse in order to be accepted?
Identify Teens Who Are Pursuing Acceptance apart from Christ
There are some warning signs that a teen’s behavior is changing because of a desire for acceptance—a sudden change in clothing, a change in personality, defensiveness towards friends in their class. Especially when teens are thrust into a new church, new class, or new school, teens have both the opportunity and pressure to conform to a new identity.
This is a heart issue. It’s impossible to please God and self. A heart whose only desire is to please self and others is motivated by pride. They want the “praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43).
Help Them Recognize Their True Acceptance in Christ
Paul wrote that by God’s grace, “He [God] hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). While God may not always approve of our behavior, He loves and accepts us unconditionally because we are in Christ. We fear rejection, but great security comes from knowing that God will not reject us if we have accepted Him.
Personally Show Them Love and Acceptance
The truth of God’s acceptance will not be real to young people unless we model it in our own relationship with them. Are we friendly toward the kids who “like” us and cold toward the kids who are struggling? Do we engage the quiet ones that sit in the back, or do we let them struggle to gain acceptance on their own? Our place as mentors in the lives of young people is a huge opportunity and responsibility to show them how Christ treats people.
Teens that change to find acceptance from their peers simply don’t know God that well. A heart that genuinely desires to please God is motivated by love for Him and an appreciation for His sacrifice on the cross. Preach Christ’s love, demonstrate that spirit of appreciation in your own life, and intervene on behalf of those teens who are caught in the trap of acceptance.