Challenge is a vital resource in a youth leader’s tool-belt, but it is often the tool least used. It’s a tricky area isn’t it? As I support youth leaders through Thrive, I often hear concerns and frustrations with some of the attitudes and behaviours of the young people they are discipling. Yet, I rarely hear stories of challenging these behaviours or working with young people to address these attitudes. Why is that?

No one enjoys being challenged. We don’t like to feel that we have something wrong but that does not mean we don’t want them pointed out to us. It’s a bit like the ‘classic’ example of the work colleague who struggles with body odour issues: no one wants to point out the problem, but you can guarantee the culprit wants to know so they can rectify their odour. If it was you, you’d want to know, right?!

So why do we struggle so much to point these things out? Why is it difficult when our whole role is to enable young people to grow and develop?

Young people don’t need another friend yet it seems to me that youth leaders want to be their friend. They want to be liked and don’t want to rejected. But what the young people need is a spiritual parent; someone who can love them, cheer them on and be honest enough to point out errors or negative attitudes.

A spiritual parent disciples with encouragement and correction, as well as praying and role modelling. Young people don’t need us to be their mate, and it’s probably a sign of a unhealthy relationship if we are. It is not right for an adult leader to be friends with a teenager. We should be friendly but we shouldn’t be friends. It would be inappropriate for us to share certain aspects of our lives with them and we need to remember that we are in a position of authority and so the relationship cannot be equal. That being said, friendships can develop once the young person becomes an adult and leaves the youth group, and this can be healthy. I have several friendships, which I particularly value, with people who were once in my youth group, but these relationships only became friendships when they were adults. Let’s not confuse what our role is and if we are needing friendship, make sure you are looking elsewhere for these needs to be met.

Challenge is difficult but we should care enough to confront. Discipline is a sign of love, that we care. The person who points out the body odour issue is usually the one who cares the most (unless they are doing it to be spiteful and enjoy seeing someone squirm, but let’s assume the best for this post!).

I worked with one young lad who seemed to enjoy always putting others down. His language was derogatory of those around him and he gave off an air of superiority. He was a great lad and I think he thought he was being funny but actually it was quite offensive. So I challenged him. At first I took him to one side and just pointed it out. Then I started to mention it a bit more publicly when I caught him making such comments. What worked in the end, was making it into a game. Whenever he arrived at youth group, I would challenge him to see how many encouragements he could offer others that evening. Fortunately he was up for the game. He is now one of the nicest adults I know and is humble and kind, and a good friend of mine.

There was another lad who I mentored for a season. We met each month but I felt he wasn’t being honest with me, rather he would tell me what he thought I would want to hear. After a few months, I had to challenge him on this and so I pointed out that he doesn’t have to be honest with me, but if he didn’t want to be, it wasn’t worth us meeting. I reassured him that I was committed to supporting him, that I thought he was great and that God loved him. I also reminded him that any weaknesses he reveals would not change my attitude towards him, although it may increase my respect for him. I then gave him a choice of whether to carry on the mentoring relationship or not. He immediately opened up and we had a very honest conversation.

So how do we confront young people on attitudes and behaviour issues? Here are 5 simple steps to bear in mind:

1. Keep a context of encouragement

We need to be heaping on purposeful praise consistently. This buys us permission to confront because the young person knows we are on their side. The world loves to criticise it rarely praises. We need to be different. Look out for as many different, specific ways to encourage all those you lead. You then have a godly context to correct negative attitudes. Don’t try to challenge outside of this context as it will seem hurtful and painful.

2. Challenge is best done in a good relationship

We should not challenge if we don’t know someone very well unless they give us permission to do so. We need to nurture an honest relationship where they know that we care for them and want God’s best for them. We need to be doing this with all the young people we lead. Inevitably there will be some young people with whom we build better relationships than with others. This is why a team of leaders is essential. We all click with different people and so hopefully over the breadth of the team, all the young people will be well connected with one of the leaders.

3. Be specific

Be honest and specific about what the issue you see is. Don’t embellish or exacerbate the issue but equally don’t trivialise it. State it honestly and why it needs to be changed. You may want to point out the negative effect it has on others or how other might perceive them. Give them opportunity to question your concern and also to clarify the problem.

4. Set ways to improve and change

Now you can be specific in setting ways they can try to change their behaviour. This is so important.We act the way we do usually because we don’t know how else to act. As their leader we need to help them think through what they could do differently. Give them some suggestions and help them to set simple goals to change the narrative of their attitude.

5. Pray

We can try our best to be good but the reality is that it is only through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit that we can be changed. Make sure you pray with them, and pray for them over the days and weeks ahead. Keep checking in with them and encourage them to pray about your conversation.

Challenge does not have to be a big deal and certainly don’t make it the major topic of future conversations. Keep it in the context of a loving, parental oversight and reassure them in the weeks ahead that you are on their side. My experience is that they will be so grateful for us being caring enough to confront them and to help them become more Christlike.

If we do this often enough, I have discovered that young people start to come to me with their own issues which they have identified and ask for some help or accountability to change. This is when we know we are getting the reality of our spiritual parenting right, and needs to be what we aim for.

Is there someone in your youth group who has an unhelpful attitude or behaviour that you need to confront? What might you do to address this issue?

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