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Ban the Rewards

Anything “spiritual” that children do for a reward is a cheap
imitation-not worth the plastic the reward is made of

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.

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 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

4 thoughts on “Ban the Rewards

  1. Beth Fazakerley

    I don’t think I agree with this. When I was a kid I memorized a lot of verses in Awana. To this day, the Holy Spirit brings them to my mind when I am tempted and it keeps me from sin. I received lots of rewards and it was that that motivated me to do it. When we work, we get paid. In our children’s ministry, we give out points and pins to our kids. They love to collect them. The pins have great messages on them about who they are according to the Bible. We give the kids points for coming, bringing their bibles, friends and learning verses. It helps them to develop good habits. Adults shouldn’t need this kind of motivation. I give them points if they catch me forgetting to pray when we start. This is a double bonus. We teach them to always start with a prayer, they remind me to pray because I tend to forget, and they get to think they won. We all did.

    • Christine Yount Jones

      Thanks for your insights, Beth!

    • Marissa Horan

      Beth, I am struggling with the idea of rewards because not all our kids have support at home or struggle with memorization. But I want to encourage them to begin these basic habits as children such as bringing their Bible, learning verses and knowing how to look up verses in the Bible. I am intrigued by your pin reward. Would you mind expanding with more information on what you do and how the kids are rewarded with pins. It reminds me of a friend of mine that collects pins at Disneyland and I like it because I feel the focus is off “stuff” as a reward but motivation.
      I love the idea of points for a reminder to pray, my kiddos would catch me a lot on that one!
      I’d really appreciate an insight you may have as I am looking at possibly closing our “store” but need an alternative incentive that makes more sense.

  2. Brian Liechty

    I agree and believe George Schreyer summarized it best; that IF “incentive learning” (or behavior modification or what ever you want to call it), is sought “AS AN END IN ITSELF” or “that is outside the inward spiritual relationship with God”, then it should not have a place in Christian education. Our motivation behind using incentives should not be just to get kids to do something worthwhile, but to get them to seek and have a relationship with God! Using incentives and rewards are simply a tool or method to teach kids: to seek first God and His Kingdom, and then God will reward/bless them for their obedience.—-God does not need our help in rewarding kids, but using rewards and incentives is an easy method of getting kids to see this Biblical principle and to put into practice things that will benefit them now and for their future. (I would imagine that some children’s ministries over emphasize the reward and not the purpose behind it. This would be wrong. Our purpose should always be to draw a child’s attention to the gift giver and not just to the gift. It should be to develop Godly character and Chrsitlikeness and not just “what will God bless me” with today.)
    I too believe that children will receive a benefit of putting God’s word in their heart regardless of their motivation. Obviously we want the children to “value” the right reason for memorizing scripture, but I don’t think you can characterize churches using incentives for the only reason of behavior modification to “seduce” them into desired behaviors. Incentives should be in no means a major focus of a Children’s Ministry program. A church use of rewards and incentives can be used to bring to light some Godly principles and truths to children, but should never overshadow God’s love for them or His power working in their lives. Kids should be taught that their love, relationship and obedience to God and His word can and will bring blessings upon their life……but using incentives and rewards is just a quick and simple tool for kids to see this principle.

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