Motivation 3.0 in Youth Ministry

Motivation 3.0 Motivating Teenagers in Youth Ministry
Years ago I was working in a larger church as a part-time youth pastor underneath a full time staff person over youth. This person, whom I love dearly, had retired from the school system to take over as the youth director. She had no prior experience as a staff person in a church, or as the responsible party for the success and failures of the youth ministry. Up until that time she was a volunteer like so many.

One night after some youth gatherings and events that had not turned out as well as we might have hoped she said something that has bothered me for the last eight some years. She said, in a moment of exhaustion “I just donʼt know what to hold over them.”

And she went on saying, at the schools there were elements to the job that you can put before the youth to get them to do what you needed them to do. The only response I had to her that day was “It isnʼt about holding anything over them”.

If I were really smart and pastoral there might have been a few sentences in there about grace and that we offer grace in our ministry. Just as Christ offered grace without condition we need to be the same. But, instead I gave her a hug. I hope that was enough.

Since then this is an ongoing ʻthingʼ to youth ministry. What techniques and ways can we get youth to show up, participate in ministry, and become disciples of Christ? Translation: how can we bring in the teenagers and still control the processes & outcomes of our youth ministries? That is the question we ask when we are tired and maybe not our best self. But it is how we are wired in our culture and ways of doing anything.

Maybe the better question how is a youth ministry a conduit for growth that the youth are motivated to do?

For this time before us, I am not able to give you some magic formula that makes the teenagers show up in a pied piper fashion and then you can all of a sudden create little Jesusʼ that roam the schools, scare the crap out of the folks in the church because Jesus actually showed up, and/or commit themselves to life of mission in war torn third world countries. Thus making their parents insanely mad at you for screwing with their heads.

What I am hoping to do is to help you imagine a new possibility in youth ministry, as well as life.

The Problem?

Not only do we have a problem with our youth NOT showing up, but even the apathy with which some come to the ministry with is detrimental to ministry. It makes you tired, the volunteer leadership tired, it makes the youth tired.

Next thing you know we have research studies, such as the National Study on Youth and Religion. You get the host of resources that come with it such at Sticky Faith. You have a host of youth ministry models, from Jesus Centered, Purpose Driven, Contemplative, Worship Centered, that list goes on. You might be overwhelmed with what is out there and what we are supposed to work with.

I am here to say, youth ministry does not have to be complicated. But it does take a paradigm shift.

Where Does This Come From?

What I share with you comes from a host of sources. However, I am taking much of my language from the work of Dan Pink. Dan is not a pastor or theologian. I donʼt think Dan cares that much for youth ministry. Dan is a best selling author of a few business books that analyze the changing work world. Specifically I am pulling his language from his book Drive. I will also be referencing some slimmed down version of adolescent development, youth culture for today, the Endeavor Movement, and some early Wesleyan/Methodist movement history. I might even throw in some 80ʼs music as well.


I do have some key points that I bring with me to the table that laces everything I see in ministry.

So let me state those up front.

  1. Youth Ministry is an adult controlled environment. You will hear me reference this in some various fashioned language. Think about it, most any, youth ministry as it is practiced out today is governed and controlled by adults. Youth participation in the ministry is many times just levels of tokenism and charity. The Endeavor Movement, which I will detail more later, is a fully run youth led ministry that operates all over the globe. Endeavor has also been around for over a hundred years. So doing ministry that is not adult “controlled” is not some pipe dream.
  2. Ministryʼs key issue is consumption. We live in a culture of consumption. We operate our lives consuming. Our relationships, many times, reflect cycles of consumption. Teenagers, reflect this in the hyper-consumer sense. If you ever hear my informal/formal sex talk with girls (for guys this argument is totally ineffective) it sounds something like “Donʼt get consumed. Boys are conditioned to shop, buy, use and discard everything in their lives. Donʼt be something they consume.” If you are curious I have tried this argument with guys and they are generally “Iʼm okay with being consumed”.

Andrew Thompson is his book Generation Rising states it this way:

“Consumerism infects the church itself that we are tempted to start to think of faith itself as a commodity.”

Which I totally believe has happened. Why is it that when you talk about your church you lead off with the programming? Those are consumptive goods.

What is Motivation 3.0?

First, let us look at what Motivation 1.0 & 2.0 were and are.

Motivation 1.0 is the motivation we find in agricultural eras to early turn of the century. These you would see in the Greatest generation type motivations. You go to church because it is the right thing to do. It is something you do as a family. It is a duty to go to church. This is what I have always done.

These were extrinsic motivators placed on the person through the culture. The benefits were such that you had a community of people around you that supported your family (many probably were you extended family). This was the central point of connection, the social network hub as well.

These really were some great times. You have some extraordinary stories of townships, groups of women, men, and individuals who displayed some great Motivation 2.0 is what we see with some of the incentive based motivations. We know many of these to not work in todays person. If you give money for chores you will get the chore done, but to get the task done for the sake of the house will never happen again, unless you pay them. And sometimes you need to raise the incentive. We own a pest control company in my family. We have done some incentive programs to boost sales, get referrals, even generate more Facebook fans. What always seems to be the result is that those who would be our average performers for that type of task get a little infusion of activity (think downing an energy drink) for that nugget of extra money or a paid day off. Then it quickly goes away and they return back to their normal motivated self, or sometimes regress. Those who were already performing well, continue to perform well, with a little boost and then go back to being who they were before hand.

Our education system tries to motivate in version 2.0 as well. We give pizzas, ball game tickets, new cars, permission to skip tests, all in efforts to motivate children and teenagers to do the work in school. What you get though, is the youth that are motivated to do good in school, do good, and benefit from the rewards. Those who fell behind, give up and stop trying. We need a new framework and practice for motivating our young people.

Enter Motivation 3.0

Motivation 3.0 is based around three embedded human conditions.

  1. Autonomy which we will say is the need to direct our own lives. Back when my father started his career there was this idea that you started with a company and you would work hard for them. In turn they would take care of you, promotions, bonuses, eventually pensions. You would end your career with that same company. Individuals gave some of the control of their lives willingly for this idea, because, in part, it worked. For my dad it was a really rough realization when 38 years with the company they were going to lay him off. 2 years short of a pension. He took a job demotion to get that pension in four years time and then has been doing freelance work on his own since. He does not have the steady pay check, but he does not seem to care. He still loves to do his work. And he now controls his own contributions to society. They are not dictated through someone elseʼs vision. Teenagers are growing up in this reality. It is not a taboo thing to be fired or laid off now. It is almost expected at some point.
  2. Mastery that passion to get better and better at something. I watch my 3 year old son get into mastering some of his skill sets now. At two years old he could write his name. Not because he is some type of genius and we are super parents. He had a passion to know his letters and read that in his free play he would write letters. Eventually he strung together the letters that make up his first name. Which does happen to have six letters, so it is no small feat. He also likes to dance, so we will see how that manifests itself in his mastery. I spent many summers working for Mountain T.O.P. as a staff person in the 90ʼs. Anyone here ever in my camps? No. Good, that way I canʼt be questioned if I am making this up or not. But seriously, one of the great things & not so great things I observed over my time there were teenagers taking on new roles and mastery of tasks. Maybe it was as simple as hammering a nail, which isnʼt always so simple when you deal with heavy wood products native to Tennessee. Maybe it was that kid who all of a sudden had an environment where he was comfortable praying in and for a group. We had a lot of adults who were great at fostering that. And we had a lot of adults who were not so great at fostering that.
  3. Purpose the need to feel that what we do is much larger than just ourselves and that one action. Everyone, I believe, has a need to feel like they have a purpose to their life. That what they do carries meaning. Ask Rick Warren about it, he has a few million in book sales that prove that there is some deep desire to find purpose.

Dan Pink highlights these principles through a myriad of business scenarios, but through my lens of youth worker, they work just the same. The business scenarios debunk traditional working environments where someone who has a job shows up and does the 9 to 5 and feels satisfied with their work and fulfilled in life. Creative work environments often give freedoms to have results based work ethic. They often would give regular work days in the month where they were not allowed to work, on their work, but to dream and tinker on projects that evoked passion and interest for them. Google has days like this, Gmail and a host of their products are results created out of these non-work days.

One more stop before we get this journey to youth ministry

As an early childhood trained educator I became a big fan of Erik Erikson and his developmental stages. The two that key on regularly are his Industry vs Inferiority and Identity vs Role Confusion. When Erikson wrote these he would say that between the ages of 6 and 12 a young person is trying to figure out what they are good. They are also developing their inadequacies and feelings of inferiority. This age limit might end early, in Eriksonʼs defining, for youth ministry ages. However with seeing trends of ʻextended adolescenceʼ and ʻhelicopter parentingʼ I think you can see youth showing up to youth group still unable to define what their Industry is. If they have a successful Industry realization then they are more prone to have a successful Identity realization.

And if you ask young people to share with you some of their deepest fears of their future and current situation their responses will have connections to a need for Identity and Industry.

So Letʼs Bring this All Together

We are working a broken system. We tailor programming to invite and attract youth with a motivation 2.0 system, but it does not work for them. They came once, and we entertained them with all our bells and whistles. What then? We had to continue to feed the beast. Well we created more programming based ministry. We created more events.

The mega-churches created youth specific worship services, so that teenagers did not have to get bored with adult church. All these things and research tells us that teens still leave the faith after they get their graduation freedom card. Huge percentages of teenagers still do not participate in ministry programs (not targeting mega-churches only, we all fall into this trap).

My idea here is that we need to stop doing youth “ministry”. We need start doing youth movements. Youth will get motivated, passionate about a movement (which can be a ministry). Kindness Campaign, is a movement started by two college girls who were impacted by female mean-ness. Not always bullying. Each month there is a social media justice campaign that teens jump on. I get upset that clicking “like” is all they do, but then I have to realize, they might not have that Industry to know what else to do.

When we came back from our mission trip this summer we talked about it during the next Sunday School meet up. Listening to the kids I felt compelled to say “Letʼs get in the car tomorrow and we will just go places and see what we can do.” The next day we found ourselves at Project Transformation and at homeless park downtown. We were reading to the kids and talking to the homeless. Coming back they said they wanted to do it again. So every week for the rest of the summer we helped at Project Transformation, hand out water or buy Contributor papers, and even one week cleaned up an apartment for a homeless couple to move into. We also did neat lunch spots which was the fun part for me. I like a good meal. Our church saw this stuff happening and is on such a high for our youth right now. All I did was, know where to go & drive the van. They did everything else. We plan on keeping this movement into the new year.

We need to give this movement to the youth. Give control of this thing we call youth ministry back to God and the people it is intended for and let them have it. If you want some youth to show up to an event. Go ahead and let the youth take a major lead on the event. You will notice they harass the other youth group members to be there and they invite friends from outside the church. What a novel concept.

Endeavor Movement which I think is the old standard of youth ministry that we forgot about and need to re-discover. Has two premises that drive them.

1. Young people can make the same commitment to Jesus Christ as adults do
2. Never do anything for young people they can lean to do themselves.

I love that!

There is a book out called Teen 2.0 which says it will save us from adolescence. Basically that adolescence does not need to be a life stage. The research that Robert Epstein puts together here says one thing that I feel is rather compelling. His research says that teenagers have the same ʻcapacityʼ to perform as adults do. They might not all be concentrated in the same ʻcapacityʼ as adults across the whole spectrum, translation not all teenagers have the same capacity, but most do. He also says that we “infantalize” our young people. Iʼm not sure why he just doesnʼt say we baby our teenagers. Maybe he wants credit for some new academic terminology or condition.

Still, if he is right, and I believe he has something right there. Our teenagers have the capacity to build movements and do ministry. We only need to tap into those things that are part of this Motivation 3.0 to get things going.

So How Can We Get There?

  1. Change & Motivation come from within (God & Holy Spirit), you cannot externally make that happen
  2. Get Commitment. You need to commit to this yourselves and you need a core to commit to the process of change. You can try on the Endeavor Movementʼs process if you like. It has worked for over 100 years.
  3. Change the language to change the culture. Look at the words around your ministry. Do they need to change to help change the culture?
  4. Give youth the keys to the kingdom. Let them be the driving force for doing things. Start small, start big. You will probably have to totally re-do how you do ministry then.
  5. Place adults who can mentor. Find mentors who do project management for the youth who want to do a large event. Find those with deep theology for the youth who wants to lead a bible study. Set them up to succeed, but do not do the work for them.
  6. Think apprenticeship. We are teaching that Industry and Identity over a period of years with the goal of finding some Mastery
  7. New measures for success. Value processes over results. If the youth put together a fall event, they have planned it, put together worship, learned new skills, read the bible a whole lot more but then had a poor turnout. We know that the process was the place where success happened. Not the result.
  8. Constantly ask the youth ʻwho they areʼ ʻwhat they are good atʼ ʻwhat breaks their heartʼ ʻwhat are their dreamsʼ (Look into Motivational Interviewing). Listen to what they have to say and help nudge along. Keep their passions in front of them. This reflects that you are learning from them and care for them.
  9. Encounter the God. I am quite confident that if you work with this then God is going to take care making himself/herself readily present to you.

Philippians Benediction 1: 9-11
My Prayer for You: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth
of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and
blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through
Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

About Gavin Richardson

guy, husband, dad, church communicator, youth pastor, youth ministry trainer, dog owner, social media participant anthropologist, writer, speaker, internet community builder, bill payer, bit monastic, co-creator of youthworkercircuit.com but not necessarily in that order

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