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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 Monster.com? 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?