Adolescent Identity in the midst of Malls and — living in an alternative economy

Today’s young people are being socialized in a culture that projects a distorted sense of identity and agency.
[1] Let me explain. Joyce Mercer, a practical theologian and professor of Christian education, makes the bold and startling assertion that American capitalism has remade and restructured childhood.1 Branded at an early age, young people are socialized into a society where consumerism and consumption have become the way people craft their way of life, including their relationships and social order. According to Mercer,

“Consumerism” refers to a way of life structured by and around various practices of consumption and accumulation. In a consumerist society, consumption dominates social practices, such that relationships, activities, space, work, and leisure come to be structured around various practices related to consumption. Consumption becomes a way to achieve social solidarity — relational connections with others, even as it also marks identity and status.2

[2] In a consumer society, consumption is central and becomes the orienting principle, not only for economic and organizational life, but also for personhood. Hence, identity, meaning, and relationships have particular roles within consumer society. Yet today consumerism has become so normative, so familiar, and so sophisticated, that most of us living in its midst assume it’s a given, and don’t reflect on the impact it has on our lives, to say nothing about the lives of our children. For those that do, its complex and multi-dimensional nature make it difficult to create another way.

[3] Vincent Miller, a Roman Catholic theologian, recognizes the difficulty of speaking into consumerism from a Christian perspective. He believes that too often Christians overlook the most important element of consumerism — the fact that consumerism has commodified culture.3 And not only has culture been commodified, but so have human identity and experiences. Until we recognize this reality, no long-term impact will be made in changing the dominant paradigm.

How Did We Get Here?
[4] Before moving forward, it’s important to discover how society got to this point. Consumerism is not new. Yet consumerism has, in the century that capitalism has evolved in North America, embedded within the soil of society particular principles, ideals, and practices. American capitalism has three recognizable periods (the free market economy, Fordist-Keynesian, and late capitalism4), with each having an impact not only on economics, but also politics, culture, and religion.

[5] The first period introduced commodities as something to be exchanged for goods and labor. Yet in order to get consumers into the consumption cycle, manufactures had to convince people that “having” particular commodities would enhance their life and well-being. To do this marketers crafted an ideal “good life” and sought to connect commodities to that ideal. What resulted was a fundamental shift in the mode of human existence, a shift of human existence from being to having.5

[6] The second era wove together capitalism and the mass production that came with the Taylorian era. With the focus on efficiency and scientific management, the birth of the industrial age changed not only practices, but also values and worldviews. Suddenly delayed gratification was overcome by available and affordable goods. Products were now, for the first time, standardized and consumption was accompanied with promises of “the good life.”6 “[E]xcess of productive capacity changed frugality from a virtue to a vice and rendered consumption a social responsibility.”7 Now for the first time consumption was a positive societal value. Consuming, not saving, was seen as the more valuable activity and a significant move was made toward consumption as a cultural imperative.8 In this era, the life of products was shortened and style overtook function, giving advertisers a new challenge: to create a desire for consuming goods outside the actual need for them. What emerged was what Henri Lefebvre names “imaginary consumption.”9 “People were no longer primarily interested in the goods themselves, but in their images.”10 Extending the shift in human existence of the first era, having now shifted to appearing.11 As appearance becomes primary, raw human experience began to lose their hold, for “In the face of a spectacular world with which our everyday lives could never compete, we are reduced to passive spectators.”12

[7] As we live into and out of the third era, human agency is reduced to consumption and identity to consumer, with consumer being tied to a “seems like” or image identity. In this current era, sophisticated consumer society has developed a powerful tool — protean power. Protean power is the power to “turn anything into a product to be packaged, sold and consumed.”13 This power is commodification. Exercised on the ground, with concrete actions, protean power “can change the function of any ‘content’ or belief by transforming it into a commodity, which can then be handled according to capitalism’s laws of exchange.”14 Identity, then, becomes that of consumer, with agency exercised by consuming. Lifestyle, within consumerism, is crafted by the choices one makes in consuming, for how one gets placed within the social strands of society, or status, is based on such choices. With this operating frame, commodification seeps into every area of life, with all human experiences open to becoming commodified. This has created niche markets as consumption is connected with values, and human choices around consumption are tied to their making meaning and seeking to impact the world in which they live.15 Katherine Turpin writes about this as she thinks about its impact on adolescents, “”More than a system of economic engagement in the world, consumer culture offers a story of meaning and purpose to define human existence.”16 With this as the primary narrative, it is not only the current identity of young people that’s at stake, it is also their view of vocation and their understanding the meaning and value of life moving into the future.17

So What Do We Do?
[8] Not participating in the capitalistic system is not only impossible, it simply isn’t sufficient, as it doesn’t get at the heart of the matter. At the heart of the matter is the issue that consumption as a meaning making system and consumer as an identity is not only an insufficient paradigm, it’s also not what Christians believe about themselves and God. This makes the heart of the matter theological. Without addressing identity and meaning theologically, children, youth and young adults (who have breathed the air of consumerism all their life) will by default accept the primary cultural frame of meaning and identity — that of consumption and consumer. Hence, if God’s people are going to raise up the next generation of faithful Christians, we will need to intentionally offer a counter narrative. Said differently: If the church is going to help God’s people discover what it means to live a Christian way of life today, it will need to offer a Christian perspective of meaning and identity and translate it into concrete everyday actions.

[9] While to unpack this an in depth argument is needed,18 let me offer at least a few ideas of what this way forward might look like from a Lutheran understanding of Christian identity and meaning. First, and foremost, our identity as Christian persons is rooted in baptism. In baptism, Lutheran Christians understand that we are not objects created to be pawns in the consumer game, but subjects of the love of our creator. Humans are persons, persons whose identity source is God’s gracious love. In baptism human nature is named, claimed, and put to death. This reality is as important to acknowledge today as it was for Paul and Martin Luther. The desire to turn in on one’s self and to disconnect from God’s greater story is real. Yet this path only leads to emptiness and death. As humans we cannot, by our own power, overcome this reality. In baptism naming our human nature and limitations is not the end, and in fact is only the beginning. New life in Christ frees us from this bondage to sin, and frees us to live differently. This new life and freedom allows Christians to be people of hope, to be light in the darkness and to be bearers of good news when bad news is all around. And in baptism Lutheran Christians understand that personhood is a communal journey. Our identity in Christ is defined not only by God’s love for us, but also in relationship with others. This is good news to young people that have been the target of market research all of their lives and know firsthand the link between performance and college tuition.19

[10] Second, amidst the consumer-driven society lies another economic system. While consumerism is driven by consumption within a capitalistic system, God’s economy is centered on love and the unfolding of God’s kingdom in the world. With God’s gracious love as the operating principle, God’s ongoing work is to make this love known through the unfolding of God’s creative and redemptive love in the world. We, as baptized Christians freed from our human nature, are invited to join God in this mission in the world. Because identity formation in young people is so closely tied to the cultural ideology in which they are embedded, drawing out an alternative economic system is vital. Turbin notes both the vulnerability and the opportunity present in this moment. “Adolescents are … poised to provide prophetic voices for the renewal of the understanding of human vocation and at the same time are subject to the deep influence of sinful structures lived out by their forebears. This offers a unique moment of educational intervention.”20

[11] Third, within God’s economy human existence shifts from objectifying humans to understanding ourselves as subject of God’s love and discovering agency and an invitation to participate in God’s mission. In baptism not only are humans freed from their sinful nature, but they are empowered and gifted by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians are not only changed ,but are also released and sent! This is good news; God’s people have work to do! Now is the time not only to proclaim this good news to young people, but also to fan the flame of the Holy Spirit within them and invite them to join in God’s work in the world. If the church is going to help young people discover a Christian way of life in the 21st century, God’s people are going to have to reframe their identity and discover their agency within a different economy. This shift will not happen with lofty ideals and sophisticated language, but with concrete everyday practices and words spoken in the language of God’s people.

[12] I cannot think of a better way to close this piece, then in the words of friend and colleague Kendra Creasy Dean.

Words matter to Christians not primarily because they spread our ideas or accomplish our goals, but because they proclaim our love. For both God and humans, love is a self-communicating impulse. Love goes out from itself toward the beloved; love cannot be contained. God reaches for us in the act of creation, in deliverance, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, but above all in the Incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So we preach, pray, dance, and sing because — like the ebullient leper who ignores Jesus’ instructions to stay mum about his miraculous healing — we tell anyway (Mark 1:40–45). We cannot stand still, and we cannot keep quiet about someone who loves us this much. Once we realize that Jesus is on the move, and that our house in on his list, we cannot go on living as if Jesus doesn’t matter.21


1. Joyce Mercer, Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood (St. Louis: Chalis Press, 2005), 73. For more see chapter 3.

2. Ibid., 73.

3. “The most pernicious effects of consumerism are manifest not by changes in the ‘content’ of beliefs but in their underlying form. Religious and ethical beliefs are commodified — reduced to objects of exchange and consumption, to shallow, interchangeable commodities.” Ibid.

4. Ibid., 79.

5. Vincent J. Miller, “Taking Consumer Culture Seriously,” Horizons 27, no. 2 (September 1, 2000), 281.

6. Mercer, Welcoming Children, 80.

7. Miller, “Taking Consumer Culture Seriously,” 282.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 283.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 280.

14. Ibid., 280–281.

15. In a world where culture is another object to consume and choice is the meta-value, identity and status become intimately connected to the economic system of consumerism. Status is marked by one’s ability to choose and society is stratifying based on such choices in conversation with the current understanding of some cultural ideal (defined by fashion or trend or value). Hence, those “with more limited choice-making power are at the lower end of the status hierarchies in a consumeristic culture in which identity and status are demonstrated by consumptive choice.” (Mercer, Welcoming Children, 92) Identity is formed from outside one’s self, outside of tradition and history, and against a bar that is temporal and based on choice with ethic being mere sentiment. In this realm, identity formation has the self at the center and has to develop, reconciling conformity and uniqueness, while also trying to locate one’s status in the social order. And identity’s ultimate goal is personal fulfillment. Vincent Miller states, “In its desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of choice to meet its own needs, the therapeutic self is precisely the consumer self. Its engagement with the world is one of choosing the goods most consonant with its own particular lifestyle.” (Miller, “Taking Consumer Society Seriously,” 291) Choice, therefore, gives the illusion of personal freedom, yet protean power has subtly made every aspect of life a commodity and consumerism has the final say. Miller reminds church leaders that “This logic is our cultural default” (Ibid., 282) or the water in which North Americans swim.

16. Katherine Turpin, Branded: Adolescents Converting from Consumer Faith, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006, 4.

17. Turpin writes, “adolescence can be understood theologically as a period of life whose members serve a prophetic function for the whole of humanity. The understandings of the meaning and value of life, of human vocation, and of relational structures that adolescents confirm or deny will be those that area offered to future generations.” Ibid., 18.

18. This article is part of an essay that will be published in a forthcoming book, A Faithful Future: a conversation of the Missional Church and the First Third of Life, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing.

19. Turbin, Branded, 21.

20. Ibid., 19.

21. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2010, 140–141.

Terri Martinson Elton

Terri Martinson Elton is Associate Professor of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry (CYF) and Director of the Center for CYF Ministry at Luther Seminary.