Ban the Rewards in Your Children’s Ministry
Published: March 11, 2020
Anything “spiritual” that children do for a reward is a cheap imitation—not worth the plastic the reward is made of. Here’s how to replace the rewards.
We may be getting the outward signs of spiritual growth, but it’s doubtful we’re causing inner change that results in long-term spiritual growth.
Rather than sweat it out in the prayer closet, we give a pencil or candy to get an immediate result.
Attendance has been low at First Church. Those adults who do come just don’t seem enthusiastic. So Pastor Fred came up with an ingenious plan. If people come, they get a bonus buck. And they get a buck for bringing their Bible or a guest. And if they recite a verse, they get two more bucks.
After the service, people file out to the Buck Store where they redeem their bucks for prizes. That oughta get people coming to church and growing in Christ, Pastor Fred figures. But will it? Will people come to church for the right reasons? Will their motive be to grow in Christlikeness or to get prizes? Can you imagine churches conducting their adult Christian education program like this? Can you imagine Jesus treating his disciples this way?
I can hear him now, “Follow me…and I’ll give you a new bike.” Or, “If you love me…you’ll get a new Bible.” How about, “This is how all people will know that you’re my disciples…if you have more bonus bucks than others.”
Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Then why do we institute these manipulative programs in our children’s ministries? Why do we discount God’s work in the hearts and minds of children by using behavior modification programs to seduce them into desired behaviors? We may be getting the outward signs of spiritual growth, but it’s doubtful we’re causing inner change that results in long-term spiritual growth.
One Ringy Dingy
To better understand why children’s ministers institute reward programs, it’s imperative to understand behavior modification-the root of these programs. B.F. Skinner’s theory of behavior modification has influenced education for more than half a century. Skinner argued that all human—and animal—behaviors arise from reactions to external stimuli in the environment—not from forces within. A behaviorist teaches a dog to salivate when he rings a bell, thus changing the dog’s behavior. Or he offers a sucker, and a kid recites a verse.
But is behaviorism consistent with a biblical view of humans? Genesis 1:26 says we’re created in the image of God. A behaviorist might say we’re created in the image of animals. Behaviorism negates the role of the Holy Spirit in spiritual growth.
Behaviorism has crept into our churches in the form of rewards—or bribery—programs. A reward can be anything from gold stars to awards, privileges, tokens, prizes, or public recognition. A reward is bribery when the if/then clause is explicit. For example, if you read your Bible, then you’ll get a coupon for ice cream.
Bribes are so pervasive in children’s ministry for several reasons. First of all, many well-meaning people carry on reward programs simply because they’ve always been done that way. Other people recognize that their program is lacking and have taken the easy way out. Instead of fixing the problems, they use bribes to entice kids. And still others may lack the faith to pray and trust God to do a mighty work in children’s lives. Rather than sweat it out in the prayer closet, we give a pencil or candy to get an immediate result.
The Bible Tells Me So
The perverse problem with rewards programs is that they work—at least in the short term. Elmer Towns writes in Town’s Sunday School Encyclopedia, “During Scripture memory month at one church, a boy learned more than 600 verses to win a free week at camp.”
The big question is: Was the child motivated to learn God’s Word because of its value or to go to camp? Who cares, many Christian educators will say, at least he got God’s Word in his heart. That’s debatable. When’s the last time you memorized 600 verses in a month and were able to recite them one, two, even 10 years later? But that’s another issue.
If we look at God’s Word, we discover that God is more concerned about the heart behind our actions. Seminary Professor James Rosscup who’s studied the biblical view of rewards asserts that in Scripture, “Jesus insists that the motive is the heart of what pleases God. Just doing an act in itself may not be faithfulness. Reward is for why you do what you do.” Let’s take a closer look at what the Bible says about rewards and proper motivation in children’s ministry.
1. The love motivation
Jesus said in John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Love is the proper motive for obedience. Yet we often ask for obedience before the love relationship. We need to introduce children to a loving God who accepts them unconditionally, help them nurture a love relationship with God, and guide them into actions that are pleasing to God.
When my son was 5, I asked him what he would do if talking about Jesus would get him into trouble at school. He said, “I’d talk anyway.” “Why?” I asked. “Because Jesus loved me best” was the pure response of a small child who had experienced our Savior’s love—the right enticement for obedience.
2. Stolen reward
Every time we give children a reward, we may rob them of an eternal reward. In Matthew 6:1-8, we’re told that if we do “spiritual” things to be noticed by people, we’ll lose our reward.
Rewards teach children that their acts of devotion to God are to be measured, noticed, compared, and rewarded here and now. Immediate rewards rob us of our ability to teach children that their obedience to God is an act of worship that God will reward. Just a thought, but could what’s-in-it-for-me-adults in our churches be a result of yesteryear’s reward programs?
3. Unfair comparisons
In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the parable of the laborers who go out into the vineyard at different times and still receive the same amount of pay. Jesus compares this story to what the kingdom of heaven is like, but I don’t think he could compare it to some of our classes.
We keep track of attendance as though there are levels of acceptance in the kingdom of God. I’d like to see every church classroom attendance chart done away with. After all, who are we rewarding with our stars and perfect attendance pins? The parents who get out of bed in time. These charts send a big message to the child who feels like less of a Christian when she sees so few stars beside her name.
4. True reward
Yes, God is a rewarder of those who seek him, but God doesn’t reward the rudiments of our spiritual disciplines. He rewards application, character, and Christian love. Remember the story Jesus told in Matthew 25:34-46. Jesus said that God will reward those who feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, visit the prisoners, and clothe the naked. When’s the last time your program passed out rewards for those kinds of things?
6. An appeal to kids’ sinful nature
First John 2:15-16 gives a strong admonition against reward programs. These verses warn “do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”
Have you ever seen a kid lusting in front of your prize store? Or noticed the tremendous surge of pride in the child who wallops everyone else and sweeps the rewards? If so, think about those experiences and evaluate them in light of God’s Word. Haven’t our “worldly prizes” appealed to kids’ sinful lusts and pride?
Charles Sell in his doctoral thesis “Motivation in Christian Education” asserts that when churches establish incentive programs, they devalue the Word of God. Sell says rewards fail on three counts:
- The gimmick implies that the material to be studied isn’t important enough to study for its own worth. The gimmick rarely results in a child ultimately finding the intrinsic motivation to continue the activity.
- Rewards produce only a temporary motivation-gone as soon as the incentive is gone.
- Rewards don’t cause the child to give his best to the study. The child gives just enough to satisfy the added incentive.
It’s the spinach principle. If you eat your spinach, you’ll get dessert. Whenever we have to bribe a child, that child knows there must be something wrong with the first thing. So, which things in your program are you making out to be spinach to kids? God’s Word? church attendance? Scripture memory? Tread carefully in the land of Popeye.
George Schreyer in Christian Education in Theological Focus sums up this issue the best. Schreyer writes, “Any incentive for learning that works from the external side of a person, that is sought as an end in itself, and that is outside the inward spiritual relationship with God is inadequate for Christian education…Until Christian education can appeal to the learner in such inward strength that his all-consuming urge is to attain a right relationship to God and to know the grace of God within himself, it has not reached its highest potential or fulfilled its supreme obligation.
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