“Mr. Tony, my other church gave me a five dollar bill for coming on the bus last Sunday.” These were the words from one of my third graders last week. When does rewarding kids go too far? When do our incentives begin to distract or even compromise our message? At their best, incentives can be a powerful tool for good. At their worst, they become an unwritten curriculum that contradicts everything else we say.
Definition: Incentives are any positive means used to motivate a child. Incentives come in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic incentives appeal to benefits inherent in the action desired. For example, focusing on the value of memorizing scripture for its own sake. “I am so excited about today’s memory verse. These are special words because they are from God’s Word. This verse is strong. This verse can fight against sin, protect you from the devil, make you strong in your faith. This verse will show you that Jesus is the treasure and give you joy in God.”
Extrinsic incentives appeal to external benefits typically supplied by the teacher. For example, using candy to reward a child for bringing their Bible to church. The classic Sunday school incentive is the ‘perfect attendance’ award.
Some people reject extrinsic incentives as idolatrous. I recently heard of a family that was leaving their church because their kids were too excited about the gymnasium. Other groups oppose installing a playground on church property.
Certainly, this is a topic much larger than a single post. My intent here is to raise the question and share some preliminary thoughts. As always, comments are greatly appreciated.So, what principles should inform our use of incentives in Christian Education?
- Intrinsic incentives should be emphasized over external incentives.
- Extrinsic incentives should be limited and used with caution. Watch for signs that your incentive is becoming an idol for the kids. What messages are the constant rewards sending? Are we saying that your Bible is not worth bringing unless you get a high-sugar bribe?
- Don’t be afraid of having fun. The best incentive I’ve found for our kids is my own attitude. If I am enjoying the ministry - most of the kids will enjoy it too. Having fun being with the kids will cover up many shortcomings.