Let’s talk about youth ministry bribes, prizes or incentives.
Giving candy to students who successfully memorize the week’s theme verse. Free pizza for anyone who brings a friend to youth group. Giving iTunes cards to anyone who has perfect attendance for the semester.
I’ve seen all of that stuff. I’ve even done some of that stuff.
It’s all harmless, right? Nothing wrong with a little bit of positive reinforcement for positive behavior, right?
After a few years, it started to leave a bad taste in my mouth; the whole idea of earthly rewards in return for eternal spiritual practices.
But today, we’ve got the research to back it up, and maybe we should think twice before we bribe students toward positive spiritual behavior.
In his book Drive, Daniel Pink outlines a research study done by psychologists Mark Lepper and David Greene.
Lepper and Greene monitored a preschool for several days in order to identify the children who most enjoyed drawing during their free play time. Once they’d identified those children, they offered some of them the opportunity to draw a picture in exchange for a prize – in this case, an achievement ribbon of some sort.
The others were given the opportunity to draw a picture “if they wanted to.” Nearly all of them did.
A few days later, students monitored the class again and what they discovered was staggering. The students who’d been offered the reward were significantly less likely to spend their free play time drawing than those who hadn’t been offered a reward.
They later repeated the experiment with different groups of children, and later with adults. The results were the same.
In fact as Pink points out, there are at least 128 different studies that come to the same conclusion – bribing for specific behaviors has an adverse effect in the long-term.
The takeaway is clear. While a bribe might make someone more likely to do something once, it won’t help them to develop an ongoing habit of that thing. In fact, it might do the opposite.
Tell a student that you’ll give them a Snickers bar if they memorize The Great Commission, and although they’ll be more diligent about doing it once; they may become less likely to memorize Scripture as a habit-for-life.
So, what to do instead? How do you motivate students to acquire solid habits if bribing them might just do the opposite?
Spark their intrinsic motivation. Don’t just encourage them to memorize Scripture. Talk about how memorizing Scripture has changed your life. Make a game out of it or make it more fun. Help students to do it because they want to do it, not because they want your prize.
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Smarter Youth Ministry exists to help you learn how to manage their time and resources better so that you can do more ministry with less frustration. All of that having been said, you most likely know him as the creator of “Lamentation or Taylor Swift Lyric.”