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An elementary-aged girl eating cotton candy that she got as a reward in her children's ministry,
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Are Rewards a Token for Classroom Success?

To give (prizes, points, rewards, candy, and treats) or not to give? That is the question.

Some experts say that giving kids tokens, rewards, candy, and the like destroys their intrinsic motivation. Yet churches still have their Bible Bucks stores and report that kids are more motivated than ever. So who’s right? Let’s take a look at this issue from three different perspectives.

1. Rewards Work

When you work, you get paid. When you go to school and do well, you’re rewarded with stickers, prizes, parties, and good grades. So why not give out Bible Bucks in Sunday school when kids follow the rules, participate, and learn?

Our Reward System

Our ministry successfully uses Bible Bucks as a reward system for our children in first through fifth grade. Kids earn Bible Bucks for knowing the Bible verse, attendance, bringing their Bibles, class participation, and demonstrating fruit of the Spirit in their actions. Kids also earn 30 Bible Bucks when they turn in their completed monthly devotionals. During class time, we limit the number of Bible Bucks kids can earn to no more than seven.

Our Bible Bucks store is filled with candy and prizes, starting at five Bible Bucks for candy and going as high as 700 Bible Bucks for lava lamps. Children in our middle school program run the store on weekends and program nights. They also stock the store when the supplies are low.

Our kids often save their Bible Bucks and buy gifts for their brothers and sisters for Christmas and for their parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

The Results

Bible Bucks have served as a great motivator for our children to learn their verses, do their devotions, save for gifts, and serve others. I see no drawback to a system that offers kids incentives to do well.

In fact, I have to ask: If a child who’s typically disruptive in class will sit during Bible time and participate because she’ll be rewarded…then how can there be something wrong with that system? Before long, the same child will be able to participate with no problem. And at the end of the day, does it really matter if we give children a Bible Buck to learn their Bible verse that week? Isn’t our end goal to have children hide God’s Word in their heart so that they can use it when they need it? Bible Bucks are a fun, positive way to do just that-and they work.

Gwen Kelley is the children’s ministry director for Allegheny Center Alliance Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

2. Reward-Based Motivation: Just Say No

I know reward-based motivation is popular, and I can’t deny such strategies work—even with high results. But what succeeds with children loses traction with teenagers and fails with adults. After all, what “treats” would entice you to memorize Scripture, bring friends to church, or carry a Bible? Adults won’t play those games and neither should children.

No Long-Term Change

Reward-based motivation techniques are a faulty idea because they fail to create long-term behavioral change. Numerous educational studies, most recently outlined in Daniel Pink’s new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, reveal reward-based motivation is only a temporary solution.

Why Rewards Fail

Rewards produce “works” righteousness.

Do this, get that…and the “that” isn’t spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, and so on) but material prizes. The consequence is that children quickly salivate for pleasures and lose interest in the original task or desired behavior. Ephesians 2:8-9 says we’re saved by grace, not by works, so no one can boast. Reward-based motivation is actually anti-grace. Yes, it produces results–but it also provokes winners and whiners, not to mention selfishness, arguments, pride, and division.

Rewards erode relationships.

“Trick and treat” motivational techniques also backfire when building community. They pit child against child and children against leaders (who must adopt roles as judges, cops, and lawyers).

Rewards devalue self-worth.

Kids who win a prize may feel pretty good at first, but reward-based motivation eventually ensnares kids to keep “performing” to earn approval. Perfectionism emerges, as does self-doubt, feelings of inferiority, and insecurity…and that’s the winners. Kids who don’t win feel even worse.

Rewards aren’t fun.

The only ones laughing are the winners. Everyone else is either frustrated, disappointed, conflicted, confused, bored, or apathetic. Trust me; just look around.

The Verdict

Ultimately, rewards feed the inner greed and are rooted in a Darwinian survival of the fittest strategy that treats humans like animals (e.g., behaviorism). Plus, when we must bait the Bible and massage the Message to attract interest, what does that say about our view and value of Scripture?

Personally, I prefer to feed the need and shower children with unconditional grace and surprises (including candy!). I’d rather build authentic relationships and real community. I want to empower kids to serve life-changing missions, relish opportunities to affirm gifts and encourage uniqueness, and hunger to create smiles in a safe and secure environment.

It’s the only way to leave them truly thirsty!

Rick Chromey, D. Min., ( ) is a children’s ministry and leadership consultant, trainer, and professor.

3. Getting…to Give

There’s ongoing debate on the topic of rewarding children for spiritual disciplines and good behavior. Both sides to this argument have valid reasons why they do or don’t reward children. Here’s my take on that argument.

Our Ministry’s Experience With Rewards

Last fall something happened that made it very clear to me about what I was supposed to do in our ministry. We were finishing up our new children’s building. One of the rooms was going to be a prize store where children could cash in the points they earned for good behavior, Scripture memory, and so on. The finished room looked like an actual store, complete with display counters, shelves, and register. I was ready to stock the store with prizes such as skateboards, candy, and toys.

But my plans suddenly changed in a completely unexpected way. On one extra-special Sunday, we’d given away four bikes to children who brought guests with them. It was a big deal with a lot of surrounding hype. But all that hype was eclipsed when all four of those children—independently—turned around and gave the bikes they’d won to other children in need. I was blown away!

That week I woke up in the middle of the night and felt God speaking to my heart. The plan he wanted me to follow was very clear. Here’s what we’ve implemented in our ministry.

Kids earn prizes for spiritual disciplines.

They get points for things such as attendance, bringing their Bibles, learning the Bible verse, good behavior, and so on.

Kids can redeem their points for prizes.

They bring their points to our store—the “Five Loaves and Two Fish” gift shop. Remember the story of the little boy who gave his lunch to Jesus? Jesus took that small amount and created a miracle by feeding more than 5,000 people. Inside our store, kids see our slogans: “It is better to give than to receive” and “Place your basket in Jesus’ hands…Miracles will happen” on the walls. And yes, the store is full of “prizes” that the kids can purchase. But all the prizes are items that will help other people.

Prizes That Give Back

A few examples: For eight points, kids can purchase a paintbrush that’ll be used to help paint a local family’s home. For 20 points, they can purchase a bag of groceries that’ll be delivered to a family in need. For 80 points, they can purchase a goat for a family in India. We work closely with our outreach and missions teams to make these things happen when kids purchase the items. On the wall, we posted a giant world map. Today, there are dozens and dozens of pins on the map that mark places around the world where our kids are helping others through the points they’ve given. The kids get reports, pictures, and notes that let them see their points at work.

The Takeaway

The response is phenomenal! Kids’ lives are changed. Kids are truly learning that it is better to give than to receive. They’re excited about helping others. Groups of children work together to pool their points so they can earn larger gifts—for others.

Kids want to make a difference. We’ve seen our kids work much harder to earn the prizes that go to others than they did for prizes they were earning for themselves. They’re excited about giving to others. We believe God is using our system to instill in our kids a lifetime of giving and living for others.

Whichever side of the reward debate you fall on…consider this different approach. I believe it brings the best of both sides together for the greater good.

Dale Hudson is the children’s pastor at Christ Fellowship in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

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