This is another search term that I see popping up regularly: how to motivate youth. I’m picturing a very frustrated youth leader here, struggling with unmotivated young people in his or her small group or youth group. They don’t want to listen, they don’t want to answer question, they don’t want to pay attention or help out. What do you do when your students are completely unmotivated?

I have one advice for you: raise the bar for teens. It may seem very counter intuitive, but in order to motivate young people, you have to raise the bar.

Young people nowadays live in a world of contradictions. They’re often overprotected by their parents and quite often spoiled. They live in a youth culture where having fun and doing it your way has been raised to an art. Nobody expects much of them in terms of making a difference. Except in school that is (and sometimes in sports if they’re good at that), where they are expected to excel so they can go to college. If their parents can still afford it that is, and with little chance of a meaningful job when they graduate.

Young people nowadays lack purpose, a meaning for their life. And you can bet that deep down inside, they’re looking for one. Adolescence may be a lot longer than it was a 100 years ago, but the questions that need answers are still the same: Who am I? What makes me unique? Where do I belong?


Nothing will motivate your students like raising the bar. Expect something from them (and please note that there’s a difference between positively expecting and negatively demanding) and help them find the answers to these questions. Here’s a few ways in which you could raise the bar for teens:

1. Paint the bigger picture

Do you want you young people to get involved, to help and serve? Paint the bigger picture for them, how is what they would be doing helping? What difference are they making? If you want them to see how much difference they can make, take them on a serving project. Cook a meal in a homeless shelter, make gift packages for kids in shelters, help in a soup kitchen or food giveaway. Help your young people see that they can make a difference.

2. Give them responsibility

Too often we fall into the trap of treating students like children, especially when they’re unmotivated. Well, they may be unmotivated but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the skills to do something. Giving your students responsibility could make a big difference to them. Nothing feels as good as someone trusting you to do a good job. Obviously, don’t go overboard at first and make sure it’s still safe in terms of risks and financial consequences.

3. Less fun, more content

Youth leaders often think that students are mostly interested in fun and games, but actually I have seen a lot of evidence to the contrary. I’ve seen students become motivated when the bar was raised in terms of content, when we started to dig deeper, were asking tough questions. You may think that offering more fun may motivate your students, but it won’t. It’s just like a salary raise for an employee, it’s a motivating factor for about two, three months and then the effect is gone. You students need to be intrinsically motivated to come and to participate, so give them a reason to. Challenge them, teach them, disciple them, help them ask the tough questions and dig for answers.

4. Change your expectations

Are you familiar with the term ‘Pygmalion effect’? It’s a term dubbed in 1968 when a study showed the importance of expectations. Teachers in a elementary school were told that certain students had scored very well on an IQ test, when in fact their scores were no better than those of other kids. But a year later, the kids thought to be more intelligent by the teachers, were actually doing better in terms of grades than the other kids. The teachers had expected them to perform better and as a result, had unconsciously changed their behavior towards these kids, with better grades as a result. How high are your expectations of your students? Do you need to change these and expect more of them?

What other ways can you think of to raise the bar in order to motivate youth?