“Do this, and you’ll get that.” It makes sense. This is how employment operates. We perform work for payment. Sometimes exceptional accomplishments reap exceptional rewards (say, a sales bonus or salary increase). This is how we expect our careers to function. When rewards are not given for accomplishments or wages not acquired for work done, then we become unsettled and perturbed. We then tend to perform less because rewards are no longer guaranteed. Again, this is a somewhat normal expectation within the working world. Unfortunately, it has become a standard expectation in many children’s and youth ministries as well.
Spiritual activities such as reading and memorizing Scripture, prayer, worship and evangelism are the duty (yes, duty) of all followers of Jesus Christ. These activities do not accumulate merit, but rather are the natural outflow of a heart raptured by the love of Christ (see John 15:8-11). When rewards for such activities are introduced into the equation then the matter of motivation becomes suspect. Does Scripture memorization stem from a heart to know God’s word, or to receive a reward for committing a series of words to memory? Is inviting friends to church based on a heart-felt desire to bring lost people to the Lord, or is it based on a determination to receive recognition? By rewarding youth with prizes for most friends invited to a youth event, we are communicating a message which says, “This is not important enough to implore you to bring friends because of a love for the gospel and the lost. Instead we will incite you with rewards and recognition for performing a task with a pragmatic outcome.” The same message is communicated in children’s ministry activities when prizes (or imitation money to be cashed in for prizes) is awarded to little ones who perform tasks otherwise caused by a love for God and a desire to know Him more.
There are (at least) three reasons why such motivation is lethal.
1) Rewards for Actions Can Lead to Entitlement
While exceptional work in a job is often (but not always) rewarded, the expectation to perform one’s job is no less diminished if special rewards are withheld. When I begin a job, my employer has certain minimal expectations for my position. They expect me to meet these and exceed them whenever possible. I am not rewarded simply for doing my job. I may be rewarded for surpassing expectations, but rarely (if ever) for solely meeting them. When rewards are given for primary expectations of believers in Christ, then a sense of entitlement is soon to follow. While not necessarily a slippery slope, the basic message conveyed in rewarding children and youth for meeting minimal expectations is a spiritually hazardous one.
2) Rewards for Actions Can Lead to Pharisaism
If one is rewarded for knowing one more bible verse than the child next to them, it is not long before a competition forms and a disposition of superiority begins to arise. Knowing one more thing than the next person becomes a marker of identity. Spiritual superiority can soon become a driving factor in activities in which rewards are dispensed. This was the defining mark of the majority of Pharisees witnessed in the New Testament. Jesus observed, “They [the scribes and Pharisees] do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:5–7 ESV). Their motivation was recognition and rewards. Spiritual activities were done because rewards were promised. By providing rewards for spiritual activities intended to deepen one’s love and dependance upon God, we risk raising little pharisees who in turn grow up (less the Lord’s grace intervenes) to be adult ones.
3) Rewards for Actions Can Lead to Blindness
When attention is focused on temporal rewards, we necessarily lose focus on eternal ones. The spiritual life is one directed towards hope and expectancy of a coming Kingdom. This Kingdom, already here in part through the initial work of Christ and the ongoing work of the church, is awaiting fulfillment when Christ returns. The apostle Peter says, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2Peter 3:13 ESV). Our reward is seeing Christ return and inaugurating a new heavens and new earth in which all things will be made right and we shall behold the beauty of God free from the dire straits of sin. Therefore, a Christian’s desire is not for the things of this world. We are to have a holy dissatisfaction with what this world offers, while remaining content with what God has provided. Jeremey Burroughs, a 17th-century English Puritan preacher, expresses this well saying, “And a truly contended man, though he is the most contended man in the world, is the most dissatisfied man in the world; that is, those things that will satisfy the world, will not satisfy him.” (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 44-5). We must not remove our focus from eternal things and place it upon temporal trifles. When we do, we risk spiritual blindness–neglecting to see past those things which should never satisfy us. Teaching children to expect temporal rewards for spiritual activities removes their attention from loving an eternal Savior and places it upon savoring momentary delights.
Does this mean that exceptional activities should go unrewarded? Absolutely not! A congregation should honor a pastor who has humbly and diligently served his congregation. Pastors and leaders should appropriately applaud a particular work of the church body, small group or individual. Children and youth ministers should encourage young ones who excel in loving Christ and demonstrating that love to others. Paul reminds believers to “[l]ove one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10 ESV). This attitude does not automatically reward others for basic spiritual tasks, but rather, is a holy disposition which desires to love and honor fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. This is not the “do this, and get that” approach. This is a spiritual love and honoring which comes in the form of encouraging words, prayerful support and occasional material blessing which comes forth from a heart full of joy and grace.
Should children be rewarded for basic spiritual activities? We must emphatically say no, and combat any ministry tendency which seeks to do so for pragmatic results. We should, however, earnestly preach the gospel of grace to our young ones and upon coming to faith in Christ, encourage them to seek after holiness based on a transformed heart and longing to know Him more. Paul encourages his young pupil with this advice: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11–14 ESV). Let us desire to grow spiritually based on an singular love for Christ, rather than a promise of prizes and temporal accolades.
[Editor's Note: Besides having a really cool name, Coleman Ford (Ph.D. candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as youth minister at Lakewood Baptist Church and as assistant to Timothy Paul Jones at Southern Seminary. He and his wife reside in Louisville, KY. Coleman blogs regularly at colemanford.wordpress.com.]