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Reward system for youth group attendance

Recently this question showed up in my email Inbox from a Life in Student Ministry reader:

I need some ideas on a reward system to encourage my kids to come and to bring friends. Any ideas or help would be greatly appreciated.

This person gave me permission to post my response online to help others who might be looking for an answer to this question, too. Here’s my reply:

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Thanks for writing! If I can, I’d like to help you not make a big mistake here by thinking you should reward kids for coming to youth group. A reward/bribe system will never work because there’s no way you can compete with their alternatives (video games, movies, TV shows, going to the mall, concerts, etc.). In fact, a reward system will only encourage kids to come for selfish reasons, which is nothing close to what the body of Christ is supposed to be all about. Plus, it’s only a matter of time until your reward is no longer a big deal to anyone and you’ll have to make something bigger and greater in order to keep their attention. You can’t keep that up for long.

Let me suggest a better tactic:
1. Build personal relationships with the kids you’re in touch with.
2. Facilitate an environment where those kids can build relationships with each other.

People don’t go to church because they want to hear the music, listen to a sermon, or because of cool church events. People go to church primarily because of the relationships they have there with other people. Students are the same way. They want to be where their friends are, whether that’s at school, the mall, online or at church. So use that to your advantage by getting to know the kids personally and facilitating relationships between them. If your youth group kids enjoy each other and you, they’ll come.

Some practical ways to do this:
1. Rather than expecting kids to come to you, go to them instead. Hang out on their campus, their homes and have them over to your house. Be sure not just talk about youth group unless they ask. You’re not there to market your program, you’re there to love students.

2. Every relationship revolves around trust. The thing about trust is that it is not a right someone automatically gives you just because you’re a youth pastor. Trust is something you earn over time. So be patient and earn their respect.

3. With the kids that do come to youth group, even if it’s just two kids, take both of them out for ice cream and just talk. Let them get to know each other. If you have only one kid, take him out and just get to know him personally. (If the student is a girl, take a female adult with you so you’re not alone with the student. Being alone with any female who isn’t your wife is a recipe for disaster, even if you stay in sight of the public.)


Posted on October 24, 2007

  • I totally agree… and … disagree.

    NO, you cannot compete with what the students can get on their own or through their parents. NO, you shouldn’t “bribe” them to come to church.

    On the other hand, rewards for a major push would not be so bad. A very cool prize for bringing the most new students in a 3 month period. Or really any kind of prize. For some it is just the idea of winning rather than the prize. I did a powerpoint game and the prize was a rubber chicken key chain I got free at Youth Specialties NYWC. You’d of thought I game them some major $$$.

    Jesus healed a bunch of people and then spoke truth to them. He rewarded them come coming, then preached the Word to them. I think you find a balance. YES, you want to build relationships, you want them to come because they want to and feel they need to come. BUT, some healthy bribes along the way won’t hurt. Treat the baby believers like baby believers sometimes. We bribed our children to “use the potty” until they grew up and just use it because it is the right thing to do.

    There is no cut-n-dry answer to this one. I say do it if it fits the situation and students, but don’t over due. Help them grow, but recoginize they are still children and many are probably babies in the faith. That is ok. Don’t expect them to grow up overnight. We enjoyed our children as babies but they didn’t stay babies. Same with students… mostly.

    “ding” I’m am finished. Love to know what you think.

  • Pingback: Kidology Network Forum: Reward system for attendance()

  • I think it’s just a difference in methodology.

    This year we will be doing some pretty cool prizes for some different contest we will be doing. Giving away things like iPods, 360’s and a few other things.

  • Jeff-

    Cool Name! Also, I’m not above shaving my head if the students bring 60 of their friends.

    Tim-

    I agree on the points you made and think they are very appropriate for people who are members of your youth group. I think there is a distinction between them and first time guests, who I give a candy bar to as a way to say ‘Thanks for coming’. I also think you’re right on with the way to really impact students, because once the prizes dry up the ones with relationships will stay, the ones without will be gone. Relationships are the MOST important thing in ministry, and what I learned the least about in school, go figure.

    -Jeff-

  • Hi Tim,
    Just wanted to say great reply to the question on rewards. I agree 100% its a big mistake offering rewards to kids coming to youth group. Our emphasis should be on building friendships and relationships with our young people, so they want to come and be part of the youth community – not bribing them with rewards. I read in a forum recently about a youth guy who was considering giving financial rewards to his kids if they read their Bible every day. Come on, lets focus here! The biggest reward we can give to our young people is our time, our friendship, our care and concern. Tim, you’re absolutly right, relatioships are essential if we’re serious about discipling young people to a greater maturity in the faith.
    Jeff, I’m sorry to disagree with you. Is there such a thing a ‘healthy bribe?’ I’m not sure. Should we give a prize to someone who brings the most students? Or should we teach our young people more about the priviledge of sharing God’s love and the Good News of Jesus with our school friends? Also, I’m really not sure about your analysis that when Jesus healed people he was rewarding them for coming and listening to his words. I’ve always thought he healed them beacuse he loved them, whether they listened to what he said or not. Sorry, to be a bit contentious Jeff and Tim. Perhaps I’m just a cranky old youth worker from the UK.

  • Wonderful insight! I love the fact how relationally driven your methodology is. Students need to feel invested in before they invest in your program.

    For instance, I am a youth pastor of a small church. Our church is not big into programs, but really big into connecting with other people. It is about the people and not about the program. I would argue focus on the strengths within your YM and hone in on those aspects.

    Take a student survey and investigate what your students are listening, watching, and reading. Think like the students so you can program according to the student. Meet them where they are at; and numbers will be the overflow. The number growth needs to be a secondary focus and not the primary focus.

    These are my thoughts!

    in his grip,
    jeremy

  • Tim

    I have no problem with offering prizes to winners after game or even giving gifts to first-time visitors, but I feel very concerned about getting kids to youth group by feeding consumerism and materialism. What kind of tithers will that grow our kids to be?

  • Hi Tim,
    I agree with you. I also offer small prizes to young people in a games evening or youth club. I don’t regard that as an incentive or bribe, just part of a fun evening. I share your concern about the dangers of a developing a ‘consumer’ mentality among our youth groups. Should’nt we be advocating a ‘service’ or ‘sacrificial’ or ‘missional’ mind-set? Seems a bit more biblical to me. Easier said than done, I know, perhaps you should write a bit on that in the future :-)
    Jeremy I loved your comment. ‘Students need to feel invested in before they invest in your program.’ I think that says it all. Blessings

  • Thanks for the post. I would agree with Tim on this incentives for showing up. Showing up should be a choice. We don’t reward families for showing up at church do we? So why would we have a desire to alter that for someone showing up for a youth group? The main purpose for showing up is for their own personal desire to grow deeper in Christ.

    I think rewarding people for games and activities is a good way to let them see that this is a fun environment but doing it in moderation. The flip side is that if you reward kids for showing up would they not come to expect that every time? We want kids to come for the right reasons not for some “prize.”

    I think the prize should focus more on the connection at a real level to someone and not on some treasure that can gather moss and be destroyed.

    Thanks

  • Thanks to Grahame for jogging this thought in my mind, but weren’t all of the early church services centered around food?

    -Jeff-

  • Tim

    @ Jeff Graham: Yes, but food is something that’s used to promote fellowship. People go out to eat together to talk and be with each other. It’s something to do while we spend time together. Offering food at youth group, or even in the early church, helps people relax, feel comfortable and promotes interaction together while we eat. It’s helps set an atmosphere of fellowship. That’s much different than rewarding kids with candy bars for bringing the most number of friends to youth group or something.

  • Tim- I started to write a reply to your post and have come to realize that I’m not sure where I stand on this whole thing. My last comment was made sarcastically. I’ve been in youth groups who use different incentives to invite people to church. I don’t see that as a bad thing, considering you are drawing people to church. HOWEVER, it is our responsibility to then use that time to build relationships with them and talk through things. I read one time on Earl Creps’ blog that he thinks non-Christians need a translator when coming into church and I agree with that statement. I don’t agree with changing everything you do to appease visitors.

    I hope this has come across in the right way, sometimes I need to talk things through to process them. If it seems like I contradicted myself half-way through, I probably changed my mind. Let me sum up what I’m thinking by saying this: I think that candy, give-a-ways and games are good things in their right context, but at the end of the day it’s going to be about a students relationship with Christ and other students that keeps him in church.

    -Jeff-

  • Tim

    I went to a youth group to sit in one time
    and they had a corner in the back of the room with
    black lights and a raised table with 2 tall chairs that
    was the ‘vip’ section for a first timer and the teen that
    brought them. they were given free can drinks and
    like a candy bar and were recognized.
    at the time i thought it was kind of neat but now
    looking back at it… it doesnt really promote anything
    of God, just glorifying themselves. i mean, it sounds neat
    to get them recognized, but other than that ehh.

  • Hi Jeff and Tim,
    I was just writing a few thoughts only to realise the comments have moved on. Guess that’s the problem with living several time zones from you guys! Thanks for your comments Jeff. I hope my earlier posts didn’t sound too, well, heavy. That was not my intention. We’re all learning and thinking about these issues because we care about young people.
    I guess my concern is about what I’ll call ‘consumer-orientated’ youth ministry. Should we be encouraging kids to think, What can I get if? or What can I win if? Isn’t the Christian life more about serving? Isn’t it more about giving than receiving? OK, that’s easy to say but what could we do.
    I’ve been thinking about this today and perhaps rather than ‘reward’, I wonder if we should think CHALLENGE. Young people want to change the world but what opportunity do we give in our youth programme to express that youthful passion?
    Planned youth programmes are really important and that includes games, fun, bible study and the stuff we all do. But perhaps we also need to think about how we can provide a CHALLENGE? Would young people still come if we replaced reward with challenge?. Would young people be attracted if they heard your youth group wanted to change the world, starting where they live! Starting in their community. Starting in their church. Starting with them. Environmental. Humanitarian. Evangelistic. Mission. Serving God and making a difference. And man, think of the relationship building! A whole bunch of ideas have just popped into my head, but this is going seriously off topic so I’ll stop before Tim bans me from his comment section :-)
    Thanks for your comments and discussion guys. Appreciate it. It’s really helping me to think afresh.

  • Jon

    I think it’s great to want to give teenagers some sort of ‘reason’ to come out, I agree with Tim however that this shouldn’t necessarily manifest itself in a ‘Have a chance of winning a bike just for coming out!’ It really does push the whole consumerism aspect. PLUS, once it’s done, you have to find another way to top that system to keep people attending anyways!

    I run a lot of stuff in my youth group (still in it’s developing phases) that is enhanced by, or downright accessibly only through, bringing other people. We have a youth hockey league, for example – it encourages people coming back and having exposure repeatedly to our leaders, doesn’t push our ‘church agenda’, and requires people to bring out at least 3 of their friends to play! We also do misc games where anybody can just come and play, no matter how many.

    The way I see it, having ‘bring people!’ as your primary goal makes numbers your primary objective. If you have ‘get to know people and have fun’ as one of your primary goals, then your youth will develop ‘bring people!’ as one of their goals, because they’re enjoying the program! And if you’ve motivated the youth to do it, it’ll get done a lot better than if you’re trying to push your own motivation on them.

    I hope that makes sense! I’m still trying out this whole thing on my group too – hard to start a youth group with a youth population of 0 in the church. lol

    jonE

  • Helpful comments Jon. Your right, of course, building relationships is key to having young people want to come to the youth group – and bring their friends. Positive relationships with leaders, helpers and the other young people are a much more powerful and lasting incentive than rewards.

    Perhaps we also need to teach and encourage our Christian young people to be more mission focused and bring their friends because they want them to hear about Jesus! At it’s simplest, isn’t that what ‘missional’ youth ministry is really all about?

  • Nate

    There are two things I want to mention in this article/post. The first is with the reward system. Rewards do not have to be objects like ipods and money. I think one of the best ways is to allow the youth as they get more involved to have more say on what activities and events the group does. When allowing them more freedom and ownership then they want to make sure it succeeds. This way you teach them about evangelism through giving more leadership without having to bribe them. I have used this with Middle school students to see participation triple in events that the leadership team planned.

    Second thing I would like to say is a concern over encouraging leaders to spend so much one on one time with youth. In the post you encouraged going to their houses and schools before even talking about youth group. First off this is lacking accountability and leaves ministers in a very vulnerable position. Parents should always be included and made aware of all that ministers are doing with their children. We need to remember that with many youth if the parents are not on board then neither will the parents be. Also we as ministers are in youth’s lives for only 3-6 years where family will be there for years and decades to come. If your goal is really to help youth become completely committed Christians then you MUST include families in the process.

  • Evan

    no the bribes may not be promoting God but they invite the youth to come back and push him to come back where they will later grow in their relationship with god

    • Maybe, and only as a result of God's grace, but the idea that we win kids with "stuff" and then tell them it's not about "stuff" and is about sacrifice feels like bait and switch to me. How we win kids to Christ will set the tone and a foundational understanding of what we're winning them to. We communicate our faith in more ways than just what is taught from a stage. In fact, they're watching what we do much closer than listening to what we say.

  • Joe Bigliogo

    I’m an atheist who once attended a youth group only because I walked by and noticed the pizza they ordered smelled incredible. They subsequently invited me in and I returned one more time. They were also quite curious when I told them I was an atheist which prompted me to refer them to certain online atheist sites writings and resources. Two of them, a girl who I’m now dating and another guy have left their faith and are now atheists but remain in the atheist closet because they fear reprisals from family and friends. They reported that several in the group also confided in them that they are also having doubts.

  • Joe Bigliogo

    If you have a hard time with getting kids to attend your Christian youth group, start an atheist youth group, that’ll perk up their interest.

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