Taking Exception with Exceptionalism

Recent analysis of a decades-long survey has revealed that American teens view themselves more “special” than ever.

The American Freshman Survey, which began in 1966, has polled roughly 9 million college freshman asking them questions regarding their drive to achieve, intellectual self-confidence, leadership ability, social self-confidence, and writing ability.  Analysis of this research has revealed an interesting trend; though students’ perceptions of their intellectual and social abilities has increased, their overall performance in these areas has decreased.  The result of this discrepancy is what some psychologists are referring to as “ambition inflation”.

Psychologists suggest that the ever-widening chasm between students self-perception and actual ability creates unrealistic expectations in teens and might be partially to blame for the significant increase in anxiety-related illness and depression in young adults since the 1970s.

In an article by the Daily Mail Reporter, psychologist Jean Twenge blames this boom in narcissism on several trends “including parenting styles, celebrity culture, social media, and easy credit, for allowing people to seem more successful than they really are.”  “What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,” Twenge said.  However, Twenge argues that American culture has viewed the common characteristic of self-confidence in successful individuals as a contributing factor to their success.  This unfortunately does not appear to be the case.  She observes that, more than self-confidence, self-control is a greater catalyst for success.

Statements like these should cause youth workers to reconsider the role of ministry in the identity formation of young people.  If the findings of this survey are correct, it could be argued that the current youth culture, with its emphasis on nurturing high self-confidence and exceptionalism, could actually be detrimental to healthy identity formation in teens.

As youth workers, let us not confuse our role as spiritual and formational guide with the role of dispenser of feckless adulation.

Rather than injecting their self-esteem with steroidal praise, our task is to teach students how to accept and overcome failure, how to experience the character-refining nature of spiritual discipline, and how to unify the winding tributaries of calling, ability, and passion.  The American culture of exceptionalism has fed our young people the lie that if they want something passionately enough and refuse to listen to the naysayers, they can achieve their dreams.  While it may seem counter-intuitive as Americans, youth workers should speak the truth that for an overwhelming majority of people this is not the case.  Therefore, our role is to equip and encourage young people to navigate the uncertainty of every day life in light of Christian hope.  Instead of incessantly prodding students to follow their dreams, maybe the role of the youth worker is better suited to guide students in actualizing their Christian potential and understanding their place in the world.

How would this approach change the face of your ministry?  What can you do to free students from the expectations of exceptionalism?

1.  Focus on developing spiritual and personal discipline.

In the book Mapping Christian Education, Maria Harris and Gabrielle Moran advocate an approach to religious education that incorporates the entire prism of person.  This not only involves intellectual development but also the practices and dispositions that contribute to a disciplined and mature Christian life.  Our ministries are in a unique position to provide a variety of opportunities from our rich tradition of spiritual formation and worship.  Differing ways of prayer, service, and Bible study can help students more readily discern their spiritual gifts.  They also equip students with disciplines that serve to draw them closer to God.  Work in your ministry to offer a variety of different opportunities that plumb the rich spiritual depths of church ritual and tradition.

2.  Focus on guidance more than support.

If our ministry is to focus on offering a variety of spiritual activities, then it is imperative that your ministry is equally equipped to provide adequate spiritual guidance for youth as they reflect on these new experiences.  Instead of forcing students into cookie-cutter ministry roles and expecting them to succeed, help your youth discern their particular skills and passions and then build the ministry around these gifts.  Work extra hard to find creative ways to utilize everyone’s gifts in a unique way.  For instance, youth ministries invariably have that junior high student who spends copious amounts of time playing video games, listening to music, watching movies, etc.  What if you partnered this youth with an adult or team of other students to do video game/movie/music reviews from a Christian perspective?  You could allow this youth to publish his/her review on your youth website and in your newsletter.  By doing this, you subvert the exceptionalist culture by affirming the passions and graces given to each individual student in their own spiritual context.  The overall goal is to take the passions of a particular student and redirect them toward Christ, not impose our own expectations of what we think a Christian teenager should be passionate about.  Admittedly, this approach requires considerably more ministerial awareness and might necessitate a restructuring and refocusing of your ministry on a regular basis depending on the types of students you have within your ministry.  With that in mind, it becomes even more crucial to truly know your youth (either through their relationship with you or another adult leader) and guide them as they discern their particular calling and ministerial gifts.

3.  Focus on grounding identity in Christ.

As we offer students a variety of spiritual experiences and guide them into a better self-understanding, hopefully youth begin to view themselves as dearly loved children of God saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.  By affirming the God-given passions and gifts given to our students and continually guiding them through practices of discernment, we relieve them of the rigid structure of expectations imposed on them by our exceptionalist culture.  By valuing each person on the basis of their own intrinsic worth and spiritual gifts rather than on their ability to exceed at some arbitrarily prescribed task, we begin to embody the love that is truly revolutionary and counter-cultural.  Surely this is what is meant by the scriptures that speak of avoiding favoritism within the community of faith.  Everyone’s gifts are vital to the community of Christ.  In 1 Samuel 16, God guides Samuel to anoint David as the new king of Israel saying, “The Lord does not look at the things human beings look at.  People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  Because Samuel chose to look with the eyes of God instead of the eyes of man, David later became known as a “man after God’s own heart.”  How many of our students would be known as “youth after God’s own heart” if we would only free them from the impossible expectations of our exceptionalist culture?


  1. Todd, this is a brilliant summation of one of the critical spiritual needs of today’s youth. It gives enormous insight into the lives of today’s teens that few in Christian ministry fully understand. With your permission, I’d like to reprint this on United Methodist Insight. Thanks!

    • Thank you for your feedback Cynthia. Please feel free to reprint this with a link back to the youthworker movement website. Thanks again.

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