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.

Liked this blog post? You’ll also like this one – What Youth Leaders Can Learn from the World’s Top Sushi Chef


Aaron HelmanAaron Helman is on a mission to end youth worker burnout by providing the training and resources that you haven’t been taught… until now.

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.”


9 Replies to “Bribe Your Youth Group – Are Prizes or Incentives a Good Idea?”

  1. Jeremy
    • May 19, 2015

    Great post. That is something I have always wanted to know about. I am glad that someone did some research on it. Thank you for posting.


    Reply 1 Response
    1. Nick Diliberto
      • May 19, 2015

      Yeah, it is cool to see some research to back that up 🙂 Glad it was helpful.

  2. chris
    • May 19, 2015

    True to an extent and maybe if we suggest they do something to get daily or weekly prizes. However there is valid motivation in say the AWANA store where kids work all year on books and scripture to obtain shopping dollars. Same goes for camps where teams compete with scripture memorization and challenges to obtain the camp prize. Overall yes we need to communicate that the piece of plastic toys or pizza that will be gone and digested is not the goal, its to hide Gods word in their hearts. Otherwise aren’t the things we do in life helping us obtain rewards and jewels on our crown in Heaven? That is motivation for me!

  3. john O
    • May 20, 2015

    thanks for all that you for the kingdom! Your generosity and passion ignites the flame in my heart each time I read your posts.

    Reply 2 Response
    1. Nick Diliberto
      • May 20, 2015

      Thanks for your comment John 🙂

    2. robert
      • May 21, 2015

      you have a valid point… how many verses were they likely to have memorized without AWANA/a carrot motivating them…

  4. Drew
    • April 4, 2016

    Interesting thoughts. I tend to agree on the not “bribing” piece, but recognition for steps in faith can actually serve as an encourager as well (not going legalitic, BUT actions do matter). I’m not saying that we are doing things for approval of others versus serving God, however, us (as pastors) recognizing those actions in a positive way can also lead to positive associations with the group/social environment.


    Blessing and encouragement to each of you.

  5. Tyson Branizor
    • May 2, 2017

    Thank you for your article and the research you have cited. I have never given out prizes for positive reinforcement at church but I have used prizes to encourage attendance (mainly for the lost) for certain events. We typically use our student events as outreach events. A example is our End of School Bash every year. We typically handout hundreds of invite cards at the schools and around town. On these cards we typically advertise prize giveaways. I’m curious on what you think about this? I have typically operated with the assumption, “They might come for the wrong reason but hopefully they stay for the right one”.

    Reply 1 Response
    1. Becky Forkel
      • May 7, 2017

      Hi Tyson.
      Thanks for the question! If your intent is to get teens to your church or give them an opportunity to have a relationship with Jesus, then use whatever means that God tells you to use! It’s all about salvation and sharing the hope that Jesus gives us with teens. God knows your heart and He is the author of creativity, so ask Him to give you the knowledge and wisdom to know how to reach the teens in the area that you are called to minister.


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