youth ministry

5 Ways to Build Intrinsic Motivation in Students

Fear is a short-term motivator
Photo by marysia via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Fear is a short term motivator.” That was the first lesson in my first class on managing people. As a 21 year old manager of a staff at a health insurance company in Chicago, this was a valuable lesson for me. Most of my subordinates had either been with the company 25+ years or were right off the street, having never held a job more significant than McDonald’s or making license plates in the state pen.

That lesson stuck with me as I entered into vocational youth ministry. One youth ministry professor drilled into me that big things happen in students lives when we shift the focus from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. In other words, as faith develops from a childhood faith where rewards motivate students to learn and begin to grow into an adult-like faith, we need to shift motivational strategies so that they will continue to grow because of something inside of them spurring them to learn and grow.

Question: If fear doesn’t work long-term and external rewards (pizza parties, badges, trips) are decreasingly effective as adolescence progresses, what are intrinsic motivators that work with students in youth group?

Here’s 5.

  1. Ambition – Remember this Super Bowl commercial from Every student is full of ambition. One way to motivate students is to tie their personal ambitions, self-talk & delusions of grandeur, into Gospel-oriented purposes. When you connect the dots that a life with Jesus could be a fast-track to what they dream of doing with their life, that creates fusion.
  2. Disdain for past failures, family patterns – Disdain is different from fear in that disdain towards your current condition has a repelling reaction. I’ll never forget when I figured out that living a life focused on my relationship with Jesus would help me navigate away from the shame of my personal failures and the gravity family failure. Deep inside I knew I didn’t want that to happen to me. Together that made living as a sacrifice to God more attractive. No sacrifice was too great if it meant I could avoid repeating the things I was most ashamed of and potentially have a more steady family in the future.
  3. Self-improvement – This is similar to ambition but even more internal. I’ve had many students over the years who have a strong, innate desire, to better themselves. They want to learn. And they want to maximize their impact on others. Tapping into that desire to self-improve by laying out how x will make them better at y has acted as an easy way to motivate students. They already want to grow! You are just giving them an avenue for growth to occur.
  4. Serving the greater good of society – So this isn’t exclusively a Christian motivational technique. Yet clearly, there is something in adolescent culture today that seeks to live out lives of justice, mercy, and compassion. In recent years I’ve learned that service projects are easier for students to invite their friends to than fun outings. Why? Because for lots of people public service has been ingrained in them as valuable and they like how serving makes them feel. It becomes your job, as their leader, to clearly make the tie between acts of service and the Gospel being good news to the less fortunate among us.
  5. Joy of doing what is right – We are all born with a conscience. It is shaped by culture with an innate desire to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. Helping students navigate those waters, in a practical and guilt-free way, is a powerful motivation for sticking around. Just like our conscience happens on the sub-conscious level… when you can connect the dots between the right they desire to do and Biblical truth for why they should do that, mountains move in students lives.

What are intrinsic motivators you are finding work with your students?

youth ministry

You aren’t going to change

On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan

Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism, and spend at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.

That leaves what the authors call “the cautious 60 percent,” who avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor its unscientific alternatives. In various ways, they compromise.

Read the rest

Here’s the kicker to the article: (read carefully)

But Dr. Moore is doubtful that more education is the answer. “These courses aren’t reaching the creationists,” he said. “They already know what evolution is. They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them.

No doubt this article will make a lot of Christians chuckle. As a whole we aren’t big fans of evolution, nor are we fans of the compulsory indoctrination of children to the theory.

In truth– we should cringe at what this reveals about our condition in youth ministry. We do the same thing.

Just like schools can’t get biology teachers to teach evolution the way the government requires, we often refuse to change the ways we minister to students. Just like America’s biology teachers, we can read study after study or attend seminar after seminar… but we are ultimately going to teach the way we want to teach using methods we want to use. To quote the article, “They just reject what we told them.

If it was good enough to reach us, it must be good enough to reach today’s teenagers. Right? Wrong.

Truth + human behavior = no change

  • I could overwhelm you with evidence that your communication methods are ineffective. And you wouldn’t change.
  • I could show you longitudinal research proving that your programs don’t deepen a students walk with Jesus. And you wouldn’t change.
  • I could prove, from your own experience, that other methods of teaching Biblical truth could deeply impact your students. And you would not change.
  • I could show you study after study that shows that the way you do youth ministry reaches a decreasing percentage of students in your population. And you wouldn’t change.
  • I could point you to studies which show how certain types of strategies affect long-term change while others seem like they affect long-term change but ultimately don’t. And you wouldn’t change.

That’s not how change works. You and I don’t change for rational reasons. We say we do. But we don’t.

You can’t expect change from people who won’t acknowledge their failure.

Some of you will read that list above and say… “But if you showed me that evidence, I’d change.” No– you probably wouldn’t. You might say you will. But if I come back to you in six months you’d fill my time with excuses.

  • This is a big organization, it takes time to turn the Titanic. (True, but it sank in just a few hours.)
  • I couldn’t convince leadership to make any of those changes. (Um, and they call you a leader?)
  • We already had a plan when we learned those things, but we are planning on implementing them this summer. (Really? I bet if the internet broke in your building you’d get it fixed today.)
  • I want to do things differently but we run this ministry as a team. (Consensus is the way to go. Just ask the federal government how that’s working for them.)

Change is intrinsic. That’s why extrinsic evidence is often a waste of brain cells.

You won’t change who you minister to until something changes in your heart. You won’t change how your programs work until something changes inside of you. Your behavior won’t change until you take the time to internalize who you are, what you believe, why you do this, and count the cost of change.

Take a moment to read this from Alcoholics Anonymous. They deal with the same problem every day. Change starts inside of you!

Each of us in youth ministry is faced with the same challenge. We are called by God to help adults form meaningful connections with adolescents. And we are called to go and reach students with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Will we continue to do things the way we have always done them and watch the church reach 8% of the population. 7%, 5%, 2%… 1%. Or will we snap out of our trance, look in the mirror, and make the changes in ourselves needed to reverse that trend?

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Ephesians 5:14