Have you ever been concerned that your Bible students don’t appear motivated to learn about God and what He wants from them and for them, much less do the things required to live a productive Christian life? It’s a valid concern, as even children and teens reject Christianity in increasing numbers. There are a lot of things we need to change quickly in order to save the current generation of young people. One of the areas we need to address is motivation.
When Bible class teachers and ministry leaders try to motivate young people to learn more about what is in the Bible or participate in spiritual disciplines, they generally turn to methods they believe worked with them when they were younger. Unfortunately, studies have found many common methods of motivating young people actually backfire long term. They may increase the desired behavior temporarily, but fail to have much impact on continuing the behavior once the motivator is removed. In some cases, motivators give the desired behavior a negative connotation as young people believe something must be awful if they have to be bribed to do it. With adolescents, external motivators aren’t even effective in the short term for most teens.
So what are some motivational techniques often used by Bible class teachers that can backfire?
- Candy or other little treats. Not only does the desired behavior disappear quickly when candy is no longer offered, but it tends to annoy parents who are trying to teach their children healthy eating habits.
- Prizes. Prizes can have limited value if only awarded for major achievements. They also work better if they are given sporadically and are unexpected. Little trinkets or stickers given every time for certain behaviors aren’t any different than candy.
- Red, yellow and green cards or other methods of giving additional chances for poor behavior. Studies have found the additional chances only encourage the child to continue to misbehave until it actually ”counts”.
- Fear. Whether it is a threat of a consequence or the idea of spending eternity in Hell, fear as a motivator has mixed results. Erasing Hell from Christianity also removes not only the motivation some people need to want to obey God (particularly in the beginning), but also removes the passion many Christians have for spreading the Gospel. If there is no Hell, why does it matter if the people we meet become Christians or not? On the other hand, if fear is the only motivation a person has for obeying God, it won’t last. Fear is exhausting and people can become immune to it over time. It can even cause a reflexive anger in some people. A healthy ”fear” or respect of God and the desire to spend eternity in Heaven versus Hell can be helpful, but continually trying to stoke the fears of young people will backfire. Either the students or their parents will grow tired of the anxiety and stress the fear causes.
- Fun and entertainment. Don’t get me wrong. Bible lessons should absolutely engage students, but in meaningful ways using educational best practices. Content should never be sacrificed for fun or entertainment. Too many young people leave Bible classes emotionally amped up, but having received no information that will help them grow spiritually. What’s even more disturbing is when scheduled Bible class time is used to play ping pong or to let students socialize. You can set up opportunities for those things outside of class time. We have so little time to teach young people what God wants them to know, we can’t afford to waste a second of it. (I understand it is the parents’ responsibility, but if they aren’t living up to it, then our classes may be the only exposure to God and scripture these young people will get. A doctor wouldn’t refuse to treat a patient, because the parent hadn’t fed the child healthy foods and we shouldn’t deny them spiritual food if they aren’t being fed it at home.)
- Criticism and mocking. I’m not talking about constructive criticism, particularly in a private mentoring relationship. Some people think young people are motivated by the ”tough coach” persona. Unfortunately, for most this means open, loud, embarrassing criticism in front of a young person’s peers, scorn and mocking. They believe it works on teams and so it should work in Bible class. Not only does this type of motivation not work well, it can quickly cross the line into cruelty, which breaks all of the commandments about loving others in the Bible. Many young people have stopped attending Bible classes because what the teacher considered teasing or motivation actually mortified or crushed the spirit of the young person.
Motivators that work encourage young people to find ways to internally motivate themselves to live the life God has planned for them. We will look at some ways that can work in the next post.