Here’s why grace is the key component in your teaching toolbox.
He was a boy with a knack for trouble.
Maybe it was his love of creativity, hunger for freedom, or low tolerance for boredom. Maybe it was life circumstances, age, or family poverty. Or maybe it was his parents or his past.
Regardless of the reason, he was a troubled, tortured 10-year-old. Bullied. Disparaged. Abused. Abandoned. The boy was a walking time bomb of anger, shame, and pain.
In Sunday school he provoked many of his teachers to the point that they quit. He manipulated and disrupted, harassed and disappointed, pushed and discouraged. Nobody wanted to teach the class he was in.
And then one day a new teacher arrived.
She was young, energetic, and loved children. The boy tortured her fiercely, but she remained positive and refused to quit. She showered the boy with grace and loved him without strings. She listened to him without judgment and blessed him without reason. He’d never had a teacher like her before. She befriended him and learned his hobbies, interests, and dreams. She forgave failure, overlooked flaws, and gave him second chances.
The teacher caught his attention; then captured his affection.
And I’m eternally grateful she did—because I was that boy.
I was a short kid who was tall in trouble. Most teachers, especially in public school, sent me packing to the principal. I spent most of fifth grade learning from the board of education. In reality, I was a good kid, but my family was gripped by substance, physical, and emotional abuse. I struggled to interact and had few friends. Learning was a chore.
By my preteen years I was broken, bruised, and bitter. I no longer cared and trusted no one, especially teachers. I misbehaved largely because it was the only time anyone noticed me.
A Saving Grace
Thankfully, it was a teacher’s grace that saved me.
What turned me around? What great technique or teaching strategy did my Sunday school teacher employ? I actually remember none of her classroom methods. What I remember is how “fruity” she was. She lived Galatians 5. This teacher was filled with Love and Joy, clothed in Peace and Patience. She was kind to a fault, good to the core, and faithful to the end. She was gentle, in control and was everything I wanted and needed in a teacher.
My teacher was Jesus in the flesh.
Our Greatest Need
Every human hungers. We desire emotional and physical security and long for power, control, pleasure, and validation. We yearn for interaction and community. But our greatest craving is the spiritual need for Grace.
Every child’s heart thirsts insatiably for unconditional acceptance, irrepressible blessing, and unbelievable serendipity.
That’s why Grace is so amazing.
Stealing God’s Grace
But let’s be honest.
Far too many children’s ministries are hopelessly wired to behavioral philosophies and practices that steal Grace and replace it with works righteousness. For the past four decades we’ve swallowed the “bait, bribe, and beat” approach to classroom management. We use prizes, candy, toys, food, badges, stickers, and other incentives to motivate good behavior and foster spiritual practices (inherently employing guilt when they fail). When children repeat a memory verse perfectly, they win the prize. If they don’t, they lose. When children bring friends and Bibles, they earn tokens to spend on trinkets, toys, and tasty treats. We promise children with perfect attendance special prizes, recognition, or activities.
The Problem With Rewards
The problem with this approach is that extrinsic motivation doesn’t last. Once the motivator—the prize—is gone, the motivation is gone, too. This is a researched fact that’s been widely noted in child development since the 1970s. As author and speaker Alfie Kohn put it: “The fact is that extrinsic motivators do not alter the attitudes that underlie our behaviors. They do not create an enduring commitment to a set of values or to learning; they merely, and temporarily, change what we do.”
It’s no wonder the most bribed and gimmicked generation in church history—the Millennials—are walking away from church when they graduate. Collectively speaking, we’ve created consumers. We marketed them stuff to earn, not a Savior to love and sold them perfection, not Grace. We tricked and treated them like dogs, forgetting they’re not beasts. Humans are created in the image of God, not dog. We got it backward.
The good news is that many children’s ministries have recognized the reward trap is a massive failure. Even public educators are ditching bribery. Incentives simply do not produce long-term results. They’re temporary fixes at best.
Plus, they completely deflate a child’s hunger for Grace.
Grace is what I needed when I was 10.
Grace is what every child needs today.
“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” —Ephesians 2:8-9
“Extortion turns wise people into fools, and bribes corrupt the heart.” —Ecclesiastes 7:7
How Sweet The Sound
Jesus was a master teacher who motivated through Grace.
He didn’t incentivize his disciples or use guilt to gain attention. Jesus didn’t reward good disciples with prizes or punish those who rejected him with shame. He never promised special healing to the faithful and he never baited crowds with free meals if they listened to his lectures.
To teach with Grace isn’t easy. It’s messy and murky. It’s often nonsensical and counterintuitive. Grace finds flight against rules, but it’s not without consequence. It’s liberal in application and limited in our justification of using it. Grace isn’t fair, but it’s always right. Grace is often a surprise ending, a magical moment, or a shower of pleasure.
A Biblical Example
In a controversial Bible passage recorded only by John, a woman is caught in adultery and dragged at dawn to receive rabbinical justice (John 8:1-11). The rabbi’s responsibility was to hear the evidence, pronounce a verdict, and oversee punishment.
Guilt wasn’t in question. She was caught in the act.
The punishment was clear: death by stoning.
Jesus heard the charges and scrawled something in the dirt. Most rabbis wrote out the allegations, so he likely scribbled: “You shouldn’t commit adultery.” Then Jesus stood, invited those “without sin” to throw the first rock, and went back to scribbling in the dirt. Whatever he wrote rocked these lawyers, forcing them to leave “one at a time,” eldest first.
Eventually, only the woman, afraid and ashamed, stood before Jesus. She had no accusers, but she was far from free. It was Jesus’ turn. He was the only One without sin. He had every right to lecture her lifestyle and bad choices.
But he didn’t.
He let her walk away.
It’s an amazing story of Grace. Despite a full-court test to obey societal rules and procedure, Jesus flips the classroom for a different lesson. He looks into this naked woman’s tearful eyes and, shockingly, frees her. The Law of Moses was chiseled in stone, but Jesus scribbled her sin in dirt. Perhaps, as Jesus commanded her to “go and leave” her sinful life, he wiped away that dusty charge forever. Grace always cleans the slate.
Teach About G.O.D.
Children’s ministry leaders and teachers can learn deep insights from this story. Essentially, Jesus reveals how to teach with Grace by tattooing this woman’s soul with G-O-D.
“ Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, ‘Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?’ ‘No, Lord,’ she said. And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I. Go and sin no more.’ ” —John 8:10-11
The most difficult part of teaching with Grace is overcoming our prejudices.
Every teacher is tainted by faulty perceptions, biased ideas, and incomplete judgments. Many of us are quick to judge even this woman. She’s a “loose” woman or a home wrecker. She’s a whole bunch of adjectives unfit to print. Or perhaps none of that is true. We know nothing about her except her sin.
But it doesn’t matter. Even if she were all those bad adjectives, Jesus still baptized her in Grace.
No one condemns you. I don’t condemn you.
He wiped away her guilt and set her free.
Similarly, when we create learning environments soaked in Grace, we unleash freedom within children. When failure becomes just another way to solve a problem, a child learns to take risks. When faults are accepted and flaws are forgiven, a child learns liberty and autonomy.
This is why incentive-based classrooms fail. When we reward good behavior with prizes, candy, or privileges, we reduce risk to selfish ambition (“what’s in it for me?”) while autonomy is tethered to winning or losing. The first step to teaching with Grace is to lose the incentives. Instead, create learning environments rich in relationships, empowerment, and individuality. Prepare fun, safe, and inspiring lessons.
It’s also critical to drop any biases. Give every child a chance, no matter what you’ve heard and no matter what they’ve done. Wipe the slate clean every week. Believe in their best…and don’t be surprised when you get it.
“Go….” —John 8:11
Have you ever noticed the first two letters of God spell “GO?” Our God is a dynamic God. He moves, creates, and chases. He is alive.
The first command Jesus gave this freshly freed woman was, “Go!” Get out of here. Go do something different. Jesus knew she couldn’t stay there. Staying put wasn’t an option for her, nor is it for children, who constantly seek opportunity. In fact, if you don’t feed opportunity, the opportunistic ones will take advantage. Misbehavior is largely taking advantage of a situation or teacher.
We teach with Grace when we release children to live out the lessons and empower their abilities, skills, and interests. How well do you know your children? Master teachers use their kids’ passions to teach Truth and motivate mission.
That’s what my teacher did with me.
She learned that I liked to write, so she encouraged my skills through writing blurbs, articles, editorials, poems, bumper stickers, metaphors, and scripts. She gave me opportunity, and it changed my life. This article proves it.
“And sin no more….” —John 8:11
When my son was 10, he found his passion for the electric guitar after watching the movie “School of Rock.” He took lessons, grew his hair, listened to the blues, studied fingering techniques, played “Guitar Hero” video games, and read music biographies.
One day, early in his playing guitar, his Sunday school teacher asked about his future dreams. My son confidently stated, “I want to rock for Jesus!” His teacher grimaced and rebuked his fantasy, stating, “Maybe you should pick a more realistic dream.” He was crushed. He loved his guitar and he loved Jesus.
When he told the family about her critique, we reminded him to never let the “dream crushers” kill what God is building. Today, my son has mad guitar skills and is highly sought to play with bands. He also still loves Jesus.
Jesus didn’t just free the woman. He didn’t just give her a mission, he gave her a dream. Go and don’t do this again. He pronounced a vision for maturity.
Teachers As Dream Builder
As teachers, we must craft beautiful visions for every child. T.E. Lawrence once penned, “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”
Like Jesus, we need to leave G.O.D. (Grace, Opportunity, and Dreams) on every child.
We need to bathe children in Grace. We must engineer missions of opportunity that employ their interests, skills, and talents. Finally, we must envision beautiful, life-changing dreams, not for our will or glory…but rather for God’s.
It’s Grace that changed me. It’s Grace that’s still changing me.
I suspect you feel the same.
So go…teach with Grace…and leave the reward trap behind.
Rick Chromey (https://www.mannasolutions.org/) is the director of leadership and online training programs for KidZ At Heart International (kidzatheart.org). He has empowered children’s ministers for over three decades.