Giving youth pastors the tools they need to make and shape disciples.

How to Challenge Youth Spiritually Without Pushing Them Away

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Reaching young people and fostering their spiritual growth is a delicate art and for youth pastors, it’s more like walking a tight rope between what we ought to say and what we have permission to say.

Confrontational tactics like preaching AT students about what the Bible says, without depth of relationship and permission, it will backfire, leading to withdrawal or resentment.

Foundational Principle: Permission to Discipleship

Do you have permission to speak into a kids life? To effectively disciple a young person you need the permission of 2 people, the student and parent.  

  • Student Meetings: Explain your desire to journey alongside them, offering guidance and support for their spiritual growth. Emphasize a safe space for honest conversations and exploration – not judgement or preaching.
  • Parent Meetings: Discuss your vision for youth ministry, highlighting the importance of open communication and mentorship. Frame yourself as a resource, supporting the parents’ role in their child’s faith development.

Jesus asked people to follow and gave people permission to leave the group at anytime. Jesus was the rabbi, a respected teacher, and we are youth pastors who, quite frankly, we often don’t even have as much right to spiritually lead/coach students as a middle school assistant basketball coach.

Jesus was building a movement while we are building organizations hamstrung by public opinion, often poor leadership a hurt feelings, we are not the same. This being the case, we can still be effective at challenging students even if we are not in formal discipleship relationship. 

Here are a few techniques for challenging students in a non-confrontational way


  • Use lighthearted jokes and anecdotes to disarm tension and open pathways for deeper conversations.
  • Share funny stories about biblical figures to make them relatable.
  • Remember, humor shouldn’t trivialize faith, but create a positive atmosphere for exploration.

I joked with a young lady in church lately after we had a conversation about not wanting to be around people and I said, “well, it’s kind of the only way we can disciple others.” Our pastors message was all about this and I tapped her on shoulder, I sit behind the youth, and said, “He’s talking to you”. We had a good laugh. 

Thought-Provoking Questions

  • Instead of simply delivering information, encourage students to wrestle with scripture and their beliefs.
  • Use open-ended questions like “What do you think this passage means?” or “How does this relate to your life?”
  • Guide them to discover answers for themselves, fostering deeper understanding and ownership of their faith.

Jesus was the Master Question ask-er with Who do men say that I am? And what would you give in exchange for your soul? You can do the same. 

3. Comparisons (Non-Judgmental)

  • Compare current events to biblical stories, drawing parallels that encourage reflection on applying scripture to modern life. (Paris Hilton) (Lillies)
  • Use fictional characters (movies, books) who exhibit both strengths and weaknesses in their faith walk. Discuss their choices and the consequences.
  • This creates a safe distance from direct personal scrutiny, but still prompts critical thinking about personal faith application.


  • Active Listening: Pay attention to student responses, building on their thoughts and concerns.
  • Create a Safe Space: Assure confidentiality and a judgment-free zone for honest exploration.
  • Celebrate Small Victories: Acknowledge and encourage their progress on their personal faith journey.


Through humor, thoughtful questions, and safe comparisons, youth pastors can challenge students towards deeper spiritual growth without confrontation. Building permission for discipleship strengthens this process, leading to authentic conversations and genuine spiritual development. 

Watch how Coach Deion “Prime Time” Sanders “disciples” his football team.

I have a 4 part small group series on Questions Jesus Still Asks and I’d love to get it into your hands. It has fun, question type games you can use as icebreakers and discussion questions. My students are leading these studies so I am going to throw in the leadership, small group prep notes I gave them and maybe you can use them with your own students. 

Sign up for my newsletter, the Youth Ministry Round Up and receive these four small group lessons and the student small group leader tips.

More Discipleship Resources

The Disciple Project Outreach Manual

The Process: A 4 Week Discipleship Series

Submerged: Going Deeper With God

Follow 5: 5 Core Values of a Disciple Series

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