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Don’t give kids prizes for Bible memory

I really hate giving kids prizes for Bible memory.

I usually get puzzled looks from people when I say this. After all, prizes are a major motivator in school, at home, and in church. The argument for this usually goes like this, “Well, they won’t do it if we don’t give a prize.”

Why wouldn’t they?

If we don’t think kids will engage in Bible memory unless they are bribed with prizes, then what are we really saying about Bible memory? Are we saying that it’s unpleasant? Difficult? Not worth doing in it’s own right?

If they will only do something in exchange for a prize, do they truly want to do it?

Are we inadvertently teaching them works-based salvation? Do they think, “the more Bible verses I memorize, the more God will reward me. The more verses I know, the holier I am?” Hmmm. I hope not.

After all, we hold good intentions. We want children to learn God’s Word and hide it in their hearts. We know that Bible memory benefits believers in numerous ways and we want our children to enjoy these same benefits.

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Bible memory benefits believers. Are they truly believers?

I am going to say something a bit controversial here, so hear me out. Whenever someone tells me that their little child under age 8 professed faith in Jesus, I smile and congratulate them. But privately, I seriously doubt that the child truly gave his life to the Lord. Why? I mean, who am I to judge whether or not a small child’s profession of faith is real? Perhaps, it is real and I would definitely treat them as though their profession were real. (And, I would not stop teaching them about Jesus and the Bible, no matter what the child told me about their faith. Even Child Evangelism Fellowship, who spreads the Gospel to children, doesn’t assume salvation just because a child recited some words. They use the phrase, “Because you said….” Not, “Now that you’re saved…”) In terms of salvation, I would keep in mind what I know about child development and the cognitive ability of small children.

Yes, some small children love Bible stories and seem to have a genuine interest in the things of God. And, I definitely advocate reading the Bible to them at their own level. Who wouldn’t? But, they have never faced the level of temptation and sin that an older child or teen faces daily and many struggle to see themselves as sinners. After all, they are still learning what it means to share and wait their turn. Young children are still learning the rules of family life and society in general and also naturally engage in magical, illogical thinking. Therefore, most of them don’t have a true sense of what sin is, why Jesus had to die, and what the Christian life requires. (Remember, I’m talking about little children, not a child age 10 or 12.)

And, most importantly, they are eager to please their parents. I would argue that this is the real reason that many small children falsely profess faith. I don’t think they intentionally mean to lie about it, instead, it’s more like a recitation. Who wouldn’t say “I want Jesus to be my Lord and Savior” if they thought their parents would love them more? What small, imaginative, scared little 5-year-old child wouldn’t obediently repeat a phrase to avoid going to hell? If he could say some magic words and get a ticket to a beautiful golden castle in the clouds, why wouldn’t he say them? But, if these little children truly gave their lives to Christ, then why, as soon as they leave home, do so many young people leave the church?

Enjoying the benefits of Bible memory

To enjoy the benefits of Bible memory, we have to not only remember the verses, but know when and how to use them. First, the child must be a true believer. The Holy Spirit then quickens his desire to know God and his Word. This helps us teach him why he needs Bible memory. Once he acknowledges his need, then we can train him in what verses apply to what situations. Then, he will more eagerly memorize Bible verses and use them as the Spirit leads. No prizes are necessary. Triumph during times of peer pressure, temptation, discouragement, frustration, and more is the prize.

The Bible is foolishness to unbelievers (1 Corinth. 2:14). However, we are commanded to share God’s Word with our children and God promises that his Word won’t return empty. (Deut. 11:18-19 also Isaiah 55:11). Just don’t cheapen God’s Word by tying it to candy or whistles or some other bribe.

large golden trophy and part of a smaller trophy as prizes for Bible memory

What does God say about pursuing prizes for Bible memory instead of pursuing Him?

Let’s take a look at some verses that address performing religious good deeds in order to get prizes and praise from men.

The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Isaiah 29:13

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and, in your name, perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:22-23

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. Matthew 6:5, 16

When we motivate children to memorize Bible verses by offering prizes and praise, are we teaching them to perform “good works” for people?

So, if not prizes for Bible memory, then what?

As I mentioned, let’s obey God by teaching his Word. Definitely read and study the Bible with children. And, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging children to learn it by memory. Just don’t bribe them. Instead, try some of these ideas to help them.

  • Post a featured verse on the bathroom wall next to the sink, on the mirror, or opposite the toilet. Every time a child uses the bathroom, he will see it. Repeated exposure and casual reading will help sear it in his mind.
  • Use selected verses as decorative art. We have Joshua 24:15b posted over the entryway to our home. Other framed verses appear in the kitchen and bedrooms. I have seen some homes where curtains are printed with verses. Again, as with the bathroom idea, repeated exposure helps.
  • Bible coloring books. While not all coloring books include verses, children are very visual and coloring a related image helps cement information.
  • Teach Christian concepts and principles first. We usually relate verses to our faith, but sometimes Bible memory gets divorced from the “why.” This goes along with the principle I mentioned above about teaching our children the benefits of Bible memory.
  • Share your living testimony. Live out the wisdom of Deuteronomy by talking regularly about what God is doing in your life. This is the most powerful way to demonstrate the “why” and help your children understand their great need for Christ. He’s the God of the Bible, but he’s also the God of today, still living and active and transforming lives.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. What about products like CharacterBadges? I?ve been looking into that for my children, but after having read your book, I?m not sure if that?s something I should start. These would be used to build character and good habits, not necessarily scripture memorization or church attendance.

    1. Sorry it took me so long to reply. I would try to find a more natural consequence to reward good character. If a child is more helpful, chores are done faster and then there’s more free time to go to the park, to play a game together, etc. The idea is that getting the prize shouldn’t be the child’s goal, but rather time with friends and family, better relationships, and more joy. If I end up doing all the chores myself because no one helps, then my response when someone asks me to take them to a friend’s house is, “I’m tired now because I had to do all that cleaning up by myself” or, “It’s too late to go now. If someone had helped me, I would have been done faster and we could have gone.” It’s not manipulative because it’s true. Many hands do make lighter work for everyone.

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