Authority figures have used rewards and punishments to modify or coerce behavior for thousands of years. Youth ministers are in the difficult position of managing people known for their tendency to challenge authority. Youth pastors can't employ physical coercion and it is unseemly for them to use verbal threats. A reward system may help motivate teens toward proper behavior.
Most youth minsters are in the business of serving teens because they want to see genuine spiritual transformation in their students. This includes the development of self-discipline and Christlike character. It's important to make sure rewards don't become bribes. Students should want to attend service, worship and give because they desire to honor God -- not because they want a new video game for a prize. Rewards can also become costly and over time the rewards may become mundane and you will find yourself having to outdo the last incentive.
Teens are in the awkward transition period between childhood and adulthood. Though their behavior is often marked by silliness and immaturity, they want to be treated as adults. Consider rewarding good behavior with added responsibility. Teens that are consistent in their attendance or whose behavior is positive can be given special tasks to perform, such as running the sound board, or positions of authority and titles of importance. Their peers will notice this and begin to change their behavior toward the desired and communicated norms.
Graduations and Ceremonies
A graduation ceremony or other public acknowledgment can serve as a significant reward for teens. A youth minister might do a teaching series, for example, and track attendance and make homework assignments. Students who perform well can be honored during a church-wide worship service. These students can be called to the platform and presented with certificates and bragged about in front of the congregation. This public praise will motivate them and serve as an example for their peers.
You can award token prizes for anything from winning a table tennis tournament to memorizing a set of Scripture verses. A token prize might range from a toy dinosaur painted gold to serve as a "trophy," to a cheap plastic crown, to a "wall of honor" where photos and placards about their accomplishments are displayed. Sometimes a silly prize can be the most fun.
Charts and Certificates
It's a Sunday school icon -- the star chart. Younger teens may still be motivated by having their progress tracked on a wall chart. The leader can create a display highlighting tasks or desired behaviors and place a star or sticker in the box when the item is accomplished. This can be made into a joke with older teens, and still may motivate them because it is fun and is familiar to them from their childhood.
Separate the group into teams and let them compete. Give them outlandish amounts of points for performing desired tasks or exhibiting desired behaviors. A leader may award a team 10,000 points for every student who brought their Bible to class. The teens can be allowed to choose their own team names and designate a mascot. Set a specific time frame, such as six weeks, and provide special prizes for the wining team. Prizes can range from the simple and inexpensive to the pricey and elaborate.
Mark Quick began writing professionally in 1998. His experience includes six years as a reporter and editor-in-chief for Houston Community Newspapers. He has been a credentialed minister since 1993 and currently serves as senior pastor of Cornerstone Assembly of God.
Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images