Learn a Verse, Win a Prize. Good Idea or Bible Bribery?

Learn a Verse, Win a Prize. Good Idea or Bible Bribery?

Should Bible teachers use rewards to encourage kids to get with the program? Here are four reasons to be wary.

I’ve recently been asked a few times what I think of rewards in children’s ministry. We’re talking about settings where kids receive prizes for learning Bible verses, bringing friends to church, or participating with a smile. This is common in many churches and Bible clubs. They give kids points, tokens, or play money redeemable for prizes.

Rewards surely have their place. Many parents and schools use them effectively. The question is whether or not Bible teachers should use prizes to reward spiritual behavior.

I generally vote no. I will admit that much depends on the approach of the leaders who administer the rewards, and some are able to do it in an effective spirit. Rewards might show that we value spiritual things, and some rewards for some children in some situations can be good for the heart. But as a standard practice in Christian ministry, I think we ought to be wary of rewards.

In Show Them Jesus, I mentioned a ministry with a rewards system that got out of hand. I used it as an example of why it’s important not only to teach the gospel, but also to build an environment that fits gospel-centered teaching.

A gospel environment ought to be one that’s aware of sin, values heart-level repentance, delights in God’s grace, frees kids from pressure, and treasures Jesus above all else. Most rewards systems I’ve seen in children’s ministry fail to match those goals, for at least four reasons.

1. Rewards tend to work on outward behavior while ignoring or even feeding inward sin such as greed. It’s easy to give rewards for memorization or bringing a Bible to Sunday school. But a gospel teacher should be more concerned that students learn to battle heart sin such as self-pride, greed, and selfish motives. Running a ministry around a rewards system subtly feeds such sins rather than helping kids confront them.

2. Rewards fail to model the grace of the gospel. Although at times the Bible does talk about God rewarding his people for good deeds, the gospel’s main drumbeat says God’s chief blessings are unearned and undeserved. A gospel teacher doesn’t want kids thinking God accepts them because they got the right answer. It’s better to demonstrate how, when it comes to the things of God, the working principle is not achievement but rather grace through faith.

3. Rewards suggest that the joy of serving Jesus is not a great enough pleasure in itself. They unintentionally communicate that candy and toys are more delightful than Jesus. Gospel teachers should train kids to seek Christ as their one great delight. Because he alone is the very best reason for every godly thing kids might do, it makes no sense to reward spiritual disciplines or acts of worship with trifles from the prize box.

4. Rewards pander to our achievement culture. American kids in particular live in a world full of demands to excel and be rewarded, and they bring that attitude (and the pressure) to church with them. They desperately need for our ministries to be different—places that celebrate Jesus and who they are in him rather than personal achievement. Good gospel teachers work to keep any kid from getting a sense of satisfaction and identity out of having collected points or prizes. They teach kids that their worth is in Christ.

Having said all this, I feel for teachers who wonder how they can keep students interested and on task without the incentive of a prize program. The best answer takes a ton of work from us teachers. We have to prep lessons that constantly show our students new and dazzling aspects of Jesus. We must be great listeners too, eager to care for kids and passionate about praying with them. And because raising the bar this way might make us feel pressured or guilty, we ourselves need to know God’s love for us in Christ despite our failures, becoming humble teachers whose message does “not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).

When these things are in place, our students won’t miss the prizes. They’ll have better reasons to join in—more meaningful rewards.

Yes, it takes work and we may have to become comfortable with weakness. But those better treasures we give our students are our reward too.

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Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like. Your email address will not be displayed.)

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There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Tim Miller at 9:59 am

    Whereas we would love it if kids just naturally did the right thing….they don’t. Sometimes extrinsic motivations helps develop habits that we wish for in our kids. I know sales people (adults) who work harder and sell more when there is an offer of reward on the table…. I love it when a kid falls in love with Jesus and the Word of God, and we, as pastors and leaders nee to do whatever it takes to reach the lost…..I have even dyed my hair purple..not because I like it that way, but because it got the attention of a certain group I was trying to reach.

    In trying to get our kids to ring their Bibles to church we started a reward system-the big prize was a pizza party if everyone brought their Bibles (exceptions for visitors and first-timers) I walked to the front of the room and without saying a word the kids started holding up their Bibles….every kid remembered….Was it worth the pizza? It started habits in the minds of kids and their parents, so that we went from 3 or 4 Bibles every week to 30 or 40…sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Does it work for every kid? Nope, nothing does. But whether it is purple hair or pizza, I will do whatever I can fall for Jesus…

    Philippians 1:18 “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,…”

    • Jack Klumpenhower at 11:29 am

      If I were to push back, I would ask, “If it was done for pizza, does it actually have any spiritual value at all? Sure, the behavior it generated looks like a godly habit. But is it possible we’ve actually ended up teaching them to do churchy things only as long as there’s a worldly payoff?”

      But that’s a question for you to answer in your church because you know those kids and you are in the best position to see the effect on their hearts. It could be that the pizza celebration is good for their hearts. And the tone you take with the challenge will have a big role in determining whether or not this is the case. The points you bring up are excellent points that deserve to be part of the discussion. Thanks for adding to it!

    • Vickie ott at 9:26 pm

      Very true this day and time. We as teachers have only an hour on Sunday morning. We want the message and lesson to be carried over At home with family. I feel we need to do what it takes to get these kids into good habits and patterns to want them to learn and know Jesus to the point of wanting to have a personal relationship with Him. Time is short and we as teachers are competing against family’s making the time and commitment to get their priorities straight.

  2. Tim Miller at 11:54 am

    Yes, Jack this is a topic worth ruminating… Every time we paint or polish we have to ask is this for Kingdom purposes, or to make me look good? Our ministry vision was: ” to offer the most inviting environments and the most compelling message to children; so they may have a joyful, life-changing
    relationship with God, and impact their world for Christ. This includes kid friendly Bibles with fonts big enough to read, and colorful rooms…we want them to come to our place instead of Chuckie Cheese… I am not a Calvinist, so I believe I can do something to make a difference….why we choose music, why we do small groups, why we have name tags…everything we do needs to be done on purpose for purpose and everything needs to e evaluated in light of (hopefully) God-ordained mission, vision and values….
    Sometimes we even do things to quiet down one group of girls so another group of boys will hear the message…..And sometimes it feels very much like what C.S.. Lewis said, “I ma mercenary and self-seeking through and through. I’ve never had a selfless thought since I was born…. Maybe that is why i need to pray more and talk less.
    Your post was very though-provoking…thanks for waking me up and stimulating the little grey cells as well as my heart..

  3. Marisa Ulrich at 3:01 pm

    Thank you for your insights here. Our church is about to implement a program that leans far too heavily on these things. I really have qualms about whether my children should attend. Unfortunately, there are no other children’s programs offered in our rural community. Whatever we decide will take much much prayer, I think.

  4. Tricia at 11:22 am

    I am being asked to create a Bible memory verse program for our church this summer which would typically include prizes, but I do get concerned how much we are feeding their flesh rather than their spirit.

    Does anyone have any practical alternatives? I wondered about letting teams of kids compete to win a prize – but the prize is to earn a gift to give away (like purchasing a gift to give to a homeless shelter) in order to teach the concept that it is better to give than to receive. Other ideas?

    • Jack Klumpenhower at 12:10 pm

      Your approach sounds good to me. A little friendly competition often helps make Bible memory more fun, as long as the winners and losers aspect is treated lightly. I play competitive games with my students when we do Bible memory, but without prizes, except that sometimes the “losers” get a consolation prize of sorts by getting to act as judges while the “winners” show off their knowledge by reciting the verse. I’m very careful to try to keep it fun and lighthearted. I think the attitude of the teacher is what matters most.

  5. Katie Teesdale at 5:31 am

    I have googled this topic because I am in the process of changing my opinion here. Formerly, I would have totally agreed with you that giving a piece of candy for a beautiful spiritual act seems to decompose it to a self-seeking thing. But as I sit here reading Psalm 23 and realizing that I’ve had it memorized since I was 8, I am so incredibly thankful for the motivational tootsie pop I was given one Sunday morning over 20 years ago. I was, like most children I’m sure, never going to be motivated to memorize scripture for the promise of some distant future blessings. But for a small piece of candy and an impressed look from a Sunday school teacher? Of course! The spiritual blessing has now manifested its fruit and for that I am grateful. When I was a child, I had a head for memory and a dark heart that desired only candy and other temporary pleasures. Now my heart is bigger and my ability to memorize scripture is commensurately smaller. I plan to now offer candy to my children with a reminder that the verse they are planting in their heart will be sweeter than any piece of candy I can offer.

  6. Lindsey Smart at 1:28 pm

    I am getting ready to implement memory verses into our chilcdren’s ministry and have been thinking about incentives. I am a public school preschool teacher and really do believe that most kids need to be positively reinforced (even if these means taking notice of their effort). Most kids are not going to just learn memory verses to learn memory verses. That being said, I do think that we can get carried away with rewarding every little behavior and missing the point. Plus, keeping up with all those “bucks” or treasure chest toys can get tedious. I’ve been really considering having a jar where each child puts something in the jar (like a rock) when they’ve learned their memory verse (our memory verses usually last about 4 weeks) once the rocks reach a line, the class celebrates with their choice (pizza party). My thought is that 1) kids are reinforced, but also learn delay of gratification (seeing that the rocks have to be compiled) and 2) it’s a team effort. Hopefully kids will be encouraging each other to learn the verses and working together. I think at a young age, we’re developing habits and also helping kids feel good about learning. Hopefully if we’re instilling the values and importance of the Bible while we’re celebrating, we can build their instrinaic motivation.

    • Jack Klumpenhower at 6:45 am

      Thank you for your comments, Lindsey. The teacher’s attitude makes a world of difference, doesn’t it? I think a skillful teacher can use some rewards and still retain a classroom atmosphere like the one I described, and it sounds like you can probably pull that off. I use verbal encouragement all the time, which could be seen as a reward, so I realize the line between an encouraging environment and a rewards-based one gets fuzzy and requires a teacher to sense what’s happening in kids’ hearts and respond accordingly. The idea to make the reward a group project is probably a good step, I would think. My main desire when it comes to rewards is that kids learn that the Christian life is not a performance for God or others, but rather an effort undertaken WITH God and others. Our spiritual growth is first of all a work of God, and for all our lives it continues to be received by grace, through faith. So in addition to celebrating the memory verse success as a group achievement, you might also want to celebrate it as God’s achievement in the lives of your students. Thank him together for what he accomplished in those kids. Make sure your students sense that God has been with them throughout the effort, strengthening them. Give him, not them, the glory. Then go ahead and celebrate.

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