Religion This Week

By Ronnie McBrayer —

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.