The Value of Potential in Ministering to Young People

Have you ever purchased a bouquet of flowers that were still buds? We buy them, because we believe in the potential of those buds to open into full bloom. Because we believe in that potential, we give them water and the other things they need to succeed. If we didn’t believe in the buds’ potential, we would probably just walk away.

When you major in education, one of the first studies to which you are exposed is actually one from the 1960’s. Rosenthal and Jacobsen revealed the dangers of an educator misunderstanding a student’s potential to succeed. Teachers were given fake test scores for various students. Struggling students were given scores that would indicate they were successful students. Successful students were given scores that indicated they were struggling.

At the end of the study, students were tested again. This time their scores were compared to the actual scores on the original test. They found that struggling students made more progress than would have been normally expected and successful students made less progress than they might have normally. Further study showed the teachers interactions with students were the type that led to more growth when they were working with students they felt had the most ability to learn and grow – regardless of any actual evidence to the contrary discovered when they worked with the students.

In education circles, the study and its results became known as the Pygmalion Effect. Usually taught to education majors as a cautionary tale, it can actually impact ministries in a positive way. When you or other volunteers work with young people served by your ministry, what are your expectations for the future of those young people? If you don’t know, you need to find out, because it makes a huge difference.

Do you assume, they have little potential to be faithful, productive Christians as adults? Do you assume they will spend their college years enmeshed in sin? Are you convinced they will reject God and leave Christianity at some point in the future? Your expectations – or in this case – lack thereof, may become a self fulfilling prophecy.

Children and teens tend to live up or down to our expectations. It encourages them to try a little harder when they know an adult believes in their ability to succeed. They often give up trying a little sooner when no one believes they can succeed. We need to project a faith in young people. A faith that they can grow up to be strong, productive Christians as adults. Faith that they can navigate the college years without becoming enmeshed in sin. Faith in them that their faith in God will not waver.

We need to communicate our belief in their potential as often as possible. A more recent study found that when students received encouraging, aspirational messages attached to critiques of their work, they were twice as likely to make the suggested revisions to it. We need to cover every Bible student in encouraging, aspirational messages from us – especially if they have come to you because they are struggling spiritually. Recognizing that every young person has the potential to build a strong spiritual foundation and grow to his or her full godly potential, may just make it more likely they will.

Categories Elementary, Encouragement, Faith Based Academic Program, Mentoring, Preschool, Special Needs, Teens
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