I’ve seen several recent posts in various online youth ministry discussion forums about how we can get kids and tweens to read Scripture.
Several people have suggested instituting a “Bible Bucks” program. The idea is that when young people read Scripture, invite friends to events, show up, dress appropriately, etc. we’ll give them “Bible bucks”. At the end of X number of days, weeks, or months, young people can then cash in their Bible bucks for prizes.
I get the heart behind this. When we want to encourage people to do something, we offer them rewards for doing what we want.
It sounds good… At least on paper.
Up until a few years ago, I might have even considered implementing such a program myself.
But then I had kids and I learned about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is what happens when WE do something that motivates OTHERS to do what we want them to do. Example: We give young people Bible bucks for doing good, Christian things.
Intrinsic motivation is what motivates young people to do something for themselves.
So often, we mistakenly think that extrinsic motivation reinforces behaviors until intrinsic motivation is formed.
But that’s usually not the case.
When extrinsic motivation stops, more often than not, so do the behaviors we’re trying to cultivate.
Take away the Bible bucks and most young people will simply STOP reading the Bible.
Because they never wanted to read the Bible in the first place. They only read it to get the thing (the prize) they actually wanted.
So, of course the million-dollar question then becomes how do we encourage young people to cultivate the behaviors that will help them learn to follow Jesus?
The answer, I think, is to cultivate curiosity.
Instead of answering young people’s questions, leave them searching for more. When they have a question they’re genuinely curious about, with a little guidance from you about how, they just might start reading the Bible in order to find out the answer.
Here’s a recent example from my own family: As part of our family's exploration of the Easter story, we’ve been opening Resurrection Eggs (each egg holds a symbol related to the events of Holy Week). After opening the first egg, Hope decided we should make a list of things we thought might be in the Resurrection Eggs. She asked me, “What do you think should be on our list, Mama?”
Instead of answering, I turned the question around and said, “What do YOU think should be on our list, Hope?”
She mentioned a few things and then when she ran out of ideas, rather than asking me to generate more, she suggested that we look through our story Bibles to see what other ideas we could come up with. So, we did.
That exercise generated a list of 20 or so symbols Hope thinks we might find in the Resurrection Eggs. (We’re checking them off each night as we open them.)
Now, you might be wondering, “That’s great, Jen. But that’s with a 5-year-old who lives with you. What about the 13-year old in my middle school ministry?”
The same thing works for them.
When young people ask you a question, turn that question around on them. Then walk with them through the process of searching out an answer – on the internet, sure, but also in Scripture.
After turning questions around on young people for the last twenty years, what I’ve found is that once they get used to asking questions and searching out their answers, the cycle pretty naturally continues. As teens explore Scripture in search of the answer to their last question, they inevitably stumble upon something else that raises another question. That leads them to continue searching… And questioning.
Sure, they might not be rewarded with Bible bucks for the hours they've spent reading Scripture.
But they just might get something even better: A faith of their own.
For more ideas on how to develop their own Jesus-centered faith, check out my book The Jesus Gap.
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