My wife attended Lutheran Catechism. My neighbor went to an Adventist Sabbath class. My college friend was enrolled in a Yeshiva. And I attended Sunday School. I suppose these are all different names for a similar religious rite of passage: The formalized instruction of the young.
Now, I don’t have very much experience with catechisms and yeshivas, but if college credit could be earned for hours spent in a Baptist Sunday School, I would have had a PhD before turning ten years of age. In the pre-hyper-technological age of flannel boards, chalk drawings, and colorful construction paper, I learned the stories and doctrines of the Bible (in King James English of course); and I learned to ferociously compete with my classmates.
On the wall of my childhood Sunday School class was a giant, gridline poster board that looked sort of like a giant Excel spreadsheet. There was a place for each child’s name, and then all of these vacant boxes running to the right, eager to be filled with gold stars. Did you bring an offering? Put a gilded check in the box! Are you staying for worship? A trophy is yours. Read your Bible every day this week? Another star blesses you from heaven.
I always had a shining wall full of stars, hungry as I was for God’s elusive approval, and I sometimes led the class. Besides, I could not let my twin sister get more celestial rewards than me. Then I would be shamed both at church and at home. And then there was Philip Johns, my most fierce competitor. He was a religious machine.
I could only beat him a few months out of each year, and in my daily prayers I had to often repent for wishing he would get struck with the flu, chickenpox, or leprosy – anything – so that he would be sidelined just long enough for me to squeak out the winning margin. Never mind the fact that he was the pastor’s son, something that I felt gave him an unfair advantage.
It was that simple and that publicly calculable: Complete a religious assignment and get a star. Those with more stars were more dedicated, more spiritual, more committed, and obviously more beloved by God. Those with fewer stars, well, their faithfulness was suspect at best.
When we engrain a competitive spirit into faith – a culture of public shame and reward – is it any wonder we end up with some really faith-damaged adults? Adults that give up on faith all together; adults that hold God responsible for the way religious systems treated them; adults that grow nauseous at even the prospect of darkening the door of a church.
There is plenty to compete for and against in this world. There are plenty of winners and losers. But Christianity is not one of those things. Spiritual formation is not a competition. Faith is not – or at least it should not be – an instrument to humiliate those who just “can’t measure up.”
And then there are those of us who “won” the religious game, we who earned our bounteous gold stars with pride. We are no different than those who have given up on faith altogether, for we aren’t living a very spiritual life either. We are committed – let there be no mistake about that – but committed to what, exactly? Obligation? Checklists? To the fawning cheers of the spectators? To seeing our name high and lifted up in heavenly constellations?
Our religious efforts and activities to please, praise, or placate God can become the very things that actually distract us from God. For if Christian faith becomes a work-based, blood-sweat-and-tears, incentive-driven, reward-acquisition staircase that compensates the winners and shames the losers, then the focus is placed on us and our rivals, not upon Christ.
I’m all for spiritual instruction; a well-ordered method toward Scripture, prayer, and generosity to others. But we would be better served by approaching said disciplines with a non-compete clause squarely in place. The stars shine brighter in the sky than on the Sunday School wall.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.