by Rick Chromey
Some of you won’t like what I’m about to write, but I need to point out something that’s bugged me for decades.
Perhaps it’s the reason the Millennial generation has walked away from church and even Christianity. Despite enjoying the best in resources, facilities, events, pastors, and opportunity since the 1980s, the Millennials continue to leave church in droves.
Everyone wonders why.
Well, here’s my take.
I think it’s because we bribed them to follow Jesus. Of course, you might prefer more sanitized terms like incentive, reward, or prize, but I still think it’s bribery:
“Say your memory verse (perfectly) and I’ll give you candy.”
“Bring your Bible, get a Bible Buck to buy toys at our store.”
“Invite friends and receive a Christian concert ticket.”
“Be good today and we’ll have a pizza party next week.”
“Perfect attendance and the church pays for your mission trip.”
Do this and get that. I’ve been watching these incentive “church” games for over three decades. I used to play them myself until I recognized they don’t work. Not for long, anyway.
I’ve also witnessed some extreme abuses of incentives:
- A youth pastor awards a car to whoever brings the most friends to an event.
- A children’s minister fuels child baptisms with extra trips to the prize chest.
- On Easter Sunday, advertised free televisions are given to first-time visitors.
- A youth ministry doles out $5 to everyone who attends meetings, plus awards bonus bills to teens who pray, serve, lead, or teach.
Its no wonder the Millennial generation is cynical of “churchianity.” They’re a smart bunch and clearly have tired of the bribery. Furthermore, countless managerial studies and educational research confirms incentive-based strategies fail to produce long-term results. Consequently, many businesses and schools have ditched incentives, but in the church, many still believe spiritual growth can be manipulated and microwaved.
So is there a better way? Actually, yes, there’s a much better way.
When I’m hungry, my stomach “growls” for food. Similarly, every human has six inner needs that rumble for attention. When leaders, teachers, and parents feed these needs, it sparks natural motivation to learn, behave, and produce:
GRACE: Forgiveness. Freedom.
RELATIONSHIP: Connection. Community. Collaboration.
OWNERSHIP: Control. Contribution. Choice.
WORTH: Value. Voice. Vision.
LAUGHTER: Enjoyable. Entertaining.
SECURITY: Emotional. Physical. Mental. Spiritual.
When churches and ministries create environments of grace soaked in relationship, powered by ownership, and focused on worth, they naturally g-r-o-w attention and affection, loyalty and liberty, duty and discipline. When children, teens, and adults also feel safe and enjoy the process, motivation really sparks.
Abraham Maslow and William Glasser, among other psychologists, have long recognized these inner needs, but few practiced them better than Jesus. He discipled entirely by feeding the GROWLS and never resorted to manipulation with incentives to motivate spiritual growth.
That’s why some won’t like this post.
Many in the Millennial Generation weren’t won to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Instead, they were bribed to view Christianity through the lens of consumerism (“what do I get?”), narcissism (“what’s in it for me?”), and perfectionism (“did I do it flawlessly?”). In our incentives, even if practiced innocently or ignorantly, we actually taught works righteousness, churchianity, and moral therapeutic deism.
Essentially, we persuaded a generation to focus on prizes rather than a Person, to value stuff rather than spiritual awakening, and to view Christianity as destination rather than journey.
We also created winners and losers. And perhaps that’s the biggest barb in these bribes. The Millennial Generation learned at church that if they can’t win—because only winners get the prize—then it’s not a place for them.
And so they left.
And now you know why.