Four Types of Resistance

In Olympic training pools there are powerful jets installed on one side that blow air across the surface of the water. Not to keep the swimmers cool. There is a mist that hovers above the water as result of exhale bursts and splashing created by their strokes. By blowing away the mist, the athletes are able to inhale air with a higher oxygen level, enabling them to practice at peak levels.

This is one example of a concerted effort on the part of Olympic trainers to “lower resistance” during training, so that athletes know what their peak performance feels like.

Whether you’re a teacher, minister, parent or cleric you know that one of the difficulties of working with youth is their resistance.

Four Types of Resistance

1. Intellectual. Having a different point of view, disagreeing with one’s logic or reasoning and ignorance. This type of resistance is falsely assumed by most Christian apologetics and thus explains why so much “apologetics” and “evangelization” is so woefully ineffective. It is the least prevalent form of resistance in young people today.

2. Spiritual. Sin is a choice to step out of relationship with Christ. The more seriously and repeatedly we do this the more resistant we become to re-entering that relationship.

3. Physical. Many people, especially males experience, learn and process kinesthetically—touching, moving, creating and yes, even destroying. I’ve seen some pretty resistant young people open up while mixing cement in Mexico, riding horses or after I sent them rocketing to the clouds as a result of jumping onto a giant air pillow in mountain lake. (see “the blob” in the video below)

4. Emotional. Often resulting from an experience of disappointment or hurt. The blame was either consciously or unconsciously ascribed to God. Saying “I’m agnostic” or “I’m an atheist” or “Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites” are all symptoms of emotional resistance. These sound better than saying “I’m feeling disappointed because God…” or “I’m having some feelings about God and the Church I don’t understand.” or “I’m angry that God…” That level of awareness is rare in adolescence and even when it is there, it will likely not come out in a classroom, youth group meeting or confirmation class.

You can make the most compelling case for apostolic succession, but if a young person hates the Pope because he represents a God whom he believes took his father—you’re wasting your time. The best way to address emotional resistance is to “roll with it.” Fighting it, arguing it or persuading it will only increase its intensity and make it make your ministry (or life) more difficult.

These young people need acceptance, permission to be where they are, feel what they feel, and most importantly, a safe place. If you become that safe place, you have the privilege of showing them a more accurate and loving picture of the God they resist. (All of the above applies not only to young people, but to young and older adults as well).

Three tips for recognizing and overcoming resistance:

1. Listen for the question behind the question. If someone asks about the abortion issue, before jumping into a defensive rant, ask “Would you mind sharing with the class (or me privately if you prefer) about how you feel about abortion. They’re going to listen to you ONLY after they feel heard and understood. What they might be asking is “Am I (my friend, my mom) going to hell because I/they had an abortion?
2. Practice the Skills of Active Listening. Pay close attention to what is being said. Repeat back to them what you are hearing and ask them if they feel you understand them.
3. Acknowledge and Validate Feelings and Opinions. Everyone is entitled to their own feelings and opinions. One eye roll, one sneer, one sideways glance to another person in the room whom you know thinks their question or answer is ridiculous or stupid, and your toast. The student (or adult) feels disrespected and only reinforces whatever feelings or opinions they currently have about God, the Church and Christians.

These are just a few. What are some ways you address resistance in youth ministry, catechesis or evangelization?

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  1. Fabulous post!!! This is amazing!

    I love, love, love your tips! You’re right, often there’s a question behind the question. Redirecting it and getting them talking helps bring that out.

    I definitely think we need to be a safe place, a landing place for the emotion they feel. How do you suggest we do that without leaving the negative emotion as the last thing felt by the teen or the group?

    I agree, I don’t run across intellectual very much, or at least not without some type of emotional attachment.

    “Saying “I’m agnostic” or “I’m an atheist” or “Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites” are all symptoms of emotional resistance.” That’s fascinating! Awesome strategies for dealing with this too!

    Thanks so much for this post!!

  2. Dorian Speed says:

    Yes, excellent post – love this taxonomy, and I replied to it more extenstively here: Why Catechesis Isn’t (just) Apologetics

    I will say that I’m a little confused when you say that intellectual resistance is the least prevalent form of resistance in young people today – can you expand on that? I am assuming you are referring to the relativistic outlook so many of our teens have towards the big questions of faith – if it makes you happy, that’s what you should believe, that kind of thing. But I certainly encounter quite a lot of kids who want to, um, argue about the specifics of church teaching. Maybe it’s me? Or maybe you just mean that what looks on the surface like an intellectual (albeit sometimes heated) discussion is really, at base, a sign of emotional/spiritual resistance.


  1. […] buddy, Roy Petitfils, made some fantastic points recently on dealing with resistance. He classified four types of resistance that I found extremely useful, so I thought I would present them here and comment a bit […]

  2. […] interested in us or our message, many will either back off completely or try to push through their resistance in one big push. Neither of these are effective over the long […]

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