How to Motivate People

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Dennis McCallum

Before considering how to motivate people, we have to settle two important questions:

  1. What is motivation in the Christian context? 
  2. What does a motivated person look like?

The answer we give to these questions will absolutely limit and channel our efforts to motivate others. My suggested definition of motivation is:

People are motivated when they are convinced of the correctness and the urgency of Christian goals to the extent that they are eager to act, and keep acting, to reach those goals regardless of what others do or think.

In the early stages of motivation, people may also need emotional support or arousal from others to promote action. But we cannot say people are motivated in the true sense unless they carry on for their own reasons, with, or without support from others. Likewise, those who act without understanding why they act may be motivated according to the world, but not according to the Bible. Unless we work through people's understanding and consent, we may be manipulating rather than motivating.

A. Convincing People our Goals are Right

  • Instruction
    • They must understand what our goals are, and why we hold them.
    • They should be able to articulate reasons for their direction.
    • They should understand and know Scripture that teaches specifically on goals they are pursuing.
    • Therefore, a good discipler understands the theory of Christian growth and ministry at a deep level.
    • A good motivator tells others what is right, but also shows them how to discover what is right for themselves through good hermeneutics and Bible study, as well as reasonable and prayerful analysis of situations.
    • Motivating others Includes wisdom in applying biblical principles to their lives:
      • Such wisdom requires Preparation - Motivating others requires time reflecting about the person's present state and needed change. In prayer, we ask God what the next steps should be in the person's life. 
      • A good analogy is building a fire. You don't strike the match until you have gathered all the things you need—kindling, small sticks, larger wood.
    • We often see people doing things they don't understand because of the personal magnetism of a leader. This is inadequate, and dangerous, because it depends on human inspiration rather than spiritual inspiration. While it might be alright for young Christians to live this way, try to move quickly toward a more mature motivational base. Always try to make sure people understand what they are doing and why.
  • Persuasion
    • Just because the Bible teaches something doesn't mean people will necessarily practice it.
    • The skillful discipler is a persuader who is able to convince others using
      • Good arguments
      • Good antitheses
      • Good illustrations
      • Good demeanor
    • Again, we don't want to see people doing things they would rather not do because of social pressure or magnetic personalities. They must become convinced in their own right that God's way is best.
  • The role of emotional arousal
    • When working with new Christians, leaders may, at times, have to use techniques of emotional arousal or at least powerful emotional support in order encourage action. However, I believe this should only be done the first time or two that our people try something new and (to them) scary. After that, leaders may use encouragement, which is a form of emotional support, but even this should gradually become unnecessary most of the time.
    • Be careful not to overuse emotional arousal and support techniques, because your people will have to eventually do without this support in large measure. Here we see a difference between duplication approaches to ministry and static, or linear growth approaches. If I assume my people will more or less always be in my group, I am more willing to depend on emotional arousal, because I know if they need it in the future I can supply it again. But if I assume my people are going to leave me and go into their own group, I have to hold out for a higher level of motivation where emotional arousal or support is not necessary in order to secure motivation. In other words, motivation becomes internally generated, not externally stimulated.

B. Convincing People of the Urgency of our Goals

  • Modeling
    • Some models are followed and some are not. Why?
    • Why do some models create more excitement for their way of life than others?
    • One reason is how much integrity people perceive in a model. Models with more perceived integrity will be followed more than others.
    • People tend to follow models who have invested in them more than disengaged models. We should "fervently love one another from the heart," according to Peter, and if we do, we will be more powerful as models.
    • Another issue is whether people perceive that a model's way of life leads to reward or to punishment. Studies show that people will not usually follow models they perceive as being punished for their way of life. Remember, punishment is a matter of interpretation, and it is possible for a leader to suffer without feeling punished.
    • People follow models who are passionate more than those who are unemotional about their way of life. Learn to put passion into your life, and you will become a more influential leader.
    • People follow models for reasons other than immediate reward or personal advantage. Convincing research shows that followers of strong leaders don't care about remuneration or "what's in it for me." They are prepared to sacrifice to an extraordinary degree, partly because they perceive that their models, or leaders are prepared to sacrifice themselves. This high level of commitment to Christian goals, including personal sacrifice, is a key component in effective modeling.
    • Models are not followed when people lose confidence in them. Loss of confidence occurs when models are discredited, not necessarily when they fail. As Gallup says, "People admire leaders more for what they try to do than what the actually do." Dishonesty or self-aggrandizement (perceived seeking of personal advantage from being a leader) heavily discredit models.
  • Direct influence
    • Casting Vision - We spend time imagining with God how the other person could enjoy a better future—This involves thinking about the other when we are not with them and intercessory prayer.
    • Scripture teaches that we may have to call people to move out on what they know is right. We cannot always assume people will take hints, or draw the right conclusions. Scripture and experience show that leaders need to sometimes make specific requests of people before they will act.
    • Challenging people indirectly is evident in Christ and Paul's ministries. For instance, Paul would tell about his own life and values, or point out the good works of the churches in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8)
    • Modeling behaviors for the purpose of influence is great stimulus. Try to take your disciple out and let them see you witness, or let them see how you follow up with a new person in home church.
    • Reading response: When challenging or calling someone, the leader needs to be sensitive enough to read how they are responding. Based on that response, the leader either withdraws or advances.
      • Returning to our analogy of building a fire, we see a fair comparison. A small fire that is sputtering should not have more fuel added. Only when we sense the fire is advancing do we add more and larger sticks. Likewise, leaders learn to move toward responsiveness with more ideas for progressing, and to retreat from unresponsiveness. 
  • Exhorting Positive Movement
    • When we encourage those who are already moving along lines that will result in spiritual growth, it shows the importance we place on these goals, and adds to the person's emotional strength to continue
    • Encouragement is highly effective in sustaining action, but far less so at initiating action.
    • We should never miss an opportunity to encourage in the early stages of action in any desirable direction. However, within a fairly short period we should move to only periodic encouragement. This is because periodic encouragement is actually more effective than consistent encouragement (an intermittent, or variable interval reinforcement).
    • Devise different ways to encourage:
      • Indirectly by mobilizing others (someone comments that a person's comment at home church was helpful, and you urge them to tell the person)
      • Publicly. To express admiration in the presence of others has far more effect than doing so privately.
      • Mentioning specific details that were impressive leaves a stronger impression.
      • Reserving encouragement for actual progress, not for routine accomplishment
      • Encouragement in writing seems to have special impact at times. Sending a card of appreciation stands out as different.

C. Problem Resolution - Overcoming Hurdles to Motivation

  • Scripture teaches we may need to reprove or rebuke in addition to instructing and calling
  • Prepare for reproof by carefully thinking about each of the following:
    • Reasons why the person needs to have a change of heart
    • Measures the person can take to overcome a sin problem
    • Consequences that will result if the person fails to change
    • Benefits that will result if the person does change
    • Vision for what the person can be if they mature
  • Choose a place and time—not in public, not where interruptions will occur
  • Adjust for retiring or compliant vs. resistant personalities
    • Ironically, we may need to be more directive for retiring personalities, and less for resistant personalities
  • Whether we are calling or rebuking someone, we should always do it with respect for the person's individuality, never with pestering or browbeating

D. Nurturing Ongoing Motivation

  • When people continue to act but are no longer reinforced much, a crisis may result. The person begins to wonder why they are living this way if no one appreciates it. This crisis may be very acute if most of their motivation has been based on human emotional support, or if they have little understanding of why they do what they do, or if they have little personal conviction
  • At this point, we may need to enter into a counseling process to help the person understand his or her own feelings as they shift away from a wrong to a right motivational base. This period really involves a weaning process where people learn to live based on what God wants rather than for social reasons.

When our people are motivated in a thorough and biblical way, rather than a superficial way based on "monkey see, monkey do" or a fad mentality, true duplication and group replication become possible. But if we depend on sociological manipulation, people will lose their motivation the minute we let them out of our sight, and we will not dare to release them into their own ministries.