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.
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.)