We can’t do Gold Star Christianity anymore – Clinging to the Wrong Trappings

This spring, I attended a continuing education event featuring Craig Van Gelder, a professor of missiology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. He told a story about his experience growing up in the 50s and 60s and going to Sunday School. Each year, gold stars were handed out for students with perfect attendance records. Craig recalled receiving several such stars over the years. My first thought was that surely even faithful every Sunday church attenders at least took holidays or travelled on occasion?

Craig continued his story talking about how the gold stars were not just a quirk of the church he grew up in. When his family travelled, they made sure to attend church of the same denomination as his home church. He would attend Sunday School, get a signed form proving his attendance, take it back home and hand it in to make sure he could receive a gold star.

The Sunday School programs across the denomination were set up to promote the Gold Stars. Gold Stars were a denominational industry! Craig said that these gold stars really meant something at the time.

I have been thinking about the Gold Stars for months… The Gold Stars are symbolic of the intangible gap in my experience in church land as I serve as a pastor. The Sunday School that I attended growing up was full of regular, nearly every Sunday attending children and families. But I doubt there would even be one student who would achieve Gold Star status. I don’t understand what the Gold Star means, I never will.

These days regular attenders are measured by those who attend monthly, not weekly, because most churches would not have a statistically relevant group of Gold Star members. That means most kids attending Sunday School these days attending once month during the program year (September thru November, January thru May) might go to Sunday school around 8 times a year.

A Gold Star means 52 times. A regular active Sunday School attendee today is attending 8 times. 52 down to 8.

And while most churches are probably not handing out gold stars, we so often try to keep “doing” church as if the gold star criteria is the ideal.

Another way of putting it, we are holding on to the trappings of church while forgetting what they were created for in the first place.

When Gold Stars were used, it was understood that Sunday School was an effective tool for faith formation. Achieving Gold Stars was a good tool to promote people accessing Sunday School, and thereby being formed in faith.

But is Sunday School an effective tool to form children in faith when it is only accessed 8 times a year?

Last weekend I participated in a panel discussion at a church event with 3 other young leaders in the church. We challenged our older colleagues, parishioners and church members to consider the struggles and opportunities facing the church in North America as we enter deeper and deeper into the 21st Century.

We didn’t plan it, but we all talked about dropping the trappings of the 50s and 60s, so that we can proclaim the Gospel today. We talked about inclusive and transcendent images for God. We talked about how judgemental attitudes have stood in the way of young people connecting with their faith at church. We talked about re-evaluating and putting to bed out of date church programs and structures. We talked about changing modes of communication and how people now access community differently through technology.

And it was a welcome message. People of our generation and people of that 50s and 60s generation, those before and those in between all embraced the need for change that churches face today.

Yet, I could sense that letting go of the trappings was not so easy.

And it is the trappings that are killing the us. Churches are aging, shrinking, and closing because we so often refuse to let go of the trappings of the past.

So what are the trappings?

During the panel I suggested that learning to ask good questions, questions that cannot be answered with yes or no, questions that we don’t already have the answer to are good questions.

Good questions show us where we are clinging to the trappings.

Questions like:

How do we best do faith formation for children?

If Gold Stars and Sunday School for students who only come 8 times a year is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best carry out the various ministries of the church?

If the answer is committees and councils full of vacancies or who don’t meet at all and who don’t know why they exist is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best express images for God in a diverse and inclusive way?

If your answer is male only language rooted in the bible and hymns published in the 50s is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best communicate the activities of our church in our community?

If your answer is phonebook ads, newspaper buys and posters mail outs, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best proclaim God’s forgiveness and mercy for sinners? If your answer is condemning people for not having the right gender, skin colour, age, religion, vocation, etc… you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best reach our friends and neighbours? If your answer is to wait for the young people to come back and to do their share, you are clinging to a trapping.

The trappings are killing us. The trappings are often why churches are shrinking and closing. Gold Stars have nothing to do with Jesus. At least not in 2015.

Yet, the struggle that churches have giving up the trappings, giving up all those things that we think are so central to being church and to having faith, but are not… The struggle is so often rooted in guilt and a sense of failure. We think if we stop doing Sunday School or having an Evangelism committee, or saying the old version of the Lord’s Prayer or putting an ad in the phonebook or if we welcome people different than us or if we aren’t full of young people like churches were in the 50s… we think we have failed.

Here is the thing about trappings. They worked for a time. Gold Stars worked for a time. And the trapping that replace Gold Stars for Sunday School students that come 8 times a year will eventually be out of date and unhelpful too. But we need to figure out the trappings that are right for today. Just as those other trappings we refuse to let go of, were right in their day too.

We can’t do Gold Star christianity anymore because its day has passed. Just like being an iPhone pastor will sound old fashioned some day in the future… probably in about 6 months.

Because in the end, it isn’t about Gold Stars or iPhones…

It is about Jesus, and grace for sinners and mercy for the marginalized and bread and wine for the hungry, and being God’s church doing God’s work.


What are the trappings that are holding you back? How do we let go of the trappings?Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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16 thoughts on “We can’t do Gold Star Christianity anymore – Clinging to the Wrong Trappings”

  1. The church today is three/four generations from the church of the 50’s, yet the “trappings” of the 50’s is still being blamed for today’s failure! Blows my mind! Somebody take responsibility for the church of today! There aren’t many of us eighty year olds left to blame! We have been out of the control of the church for at least thirty-five years. If the new methods are better, prove it by growing some responsible “50 Times a year” Christians. Hey, Friends still? I like staying up with the current church theories I’ve lived both “systems” and after thirty/forty years, I find something lacking besides Gold Stars.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m doing my own reply here to give you my apologies. I certainly got “testy” above, didn’t I? I was dealt a much better hand under the 40/50’s than you and others have been dealt under 70-90’s, largely because of the compromising that began with my generation. Sorry for my back talk. You might consider whether there is any truth in it, however. If there is pass it on to your sphere of influence. May God help you and other men of your generation to deal with the hand you have been given that the Good news of Jesus will be spread and accepted by a very needy generation. My offspring need Truth. Go Give It!.

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    2. In some ways we are saying the same thing. We need to look and understand where we are at now… but all too often our answer is to try and make things like they were. But no one has figured out how to go back in time have they?

      The trappings of the 50s are not what brought us to where we are today, but nor are they the answer to today’s problems.

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      1. Thank you for allowing me to get into your discussion. I rue the day that churches began separating the generations making the gap wider year by year. Many of us have wonderful testimonies of what a Christian life is; it takes eighty years to have eighty years of experience with Jesus. . This morning I was reading in Duet. where God reminded Moses that the children had not seen the miracles that Moses had seen. Definitely the implied message was to tell them, but there is no opportunity in today’s congregations. He also said to put reminders over the doors, wear them on your heads (all that kind of stuff); yet many churches now lack a picture or even the word Jesus in their halls or auditoriums. Most promotion for many is a promotion of church not Jesus. I’ve even heard young minister trainees talk about how they learned to witness without saying the name Jesus! I was/am aghast! Young people are hungry for the supernatural, resulting in their going through all kinds of weird and dangerous methods to find it, when it was modeled by Jesus Christ the man while He was on earth. Yet it is not “cool” to mention him. I like what I see in some teachings that are returning to “know each other” visitation and family type churches. My son and his wife are seriously considering a ministry of that type. Sounds good to me. Again I remind you my loved ones are in your hands. Thanks for caring.

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        1. What a refreshing conversation this is. I was born in 1946 and raised Catholic. I couldn’t stand the church but believed in God. I always think that I was born into a chastened world. Those who came immediately before us suffered through two world wars and a depression. We were born into peace and plenty and threw it back in the faces of those who had suffered so much. I once read that the founders of the Massachsetts Bay Colony were appalled that their second generation were not nearly as devout as the first settlers had been. The MBC got rich so quickly. Who needs God when we think we are so clever? I often think that when he said, “Where two or three are gathered together,” he really meant two or three only. I am on the verge of going back to church again AGAIN but dread it as I am so upset to find God’s house full of bullies, politics, sex pests, etc. How can I take church seriously? Jesus Christ was poor. I live in low-income senior housing. I read online the other day that I live in Extreme Poverty. I love my apartment, but I don’t need it to be this big. If I had a smaller flat, I wouldn’t have dragged so much in here. I would have saved the money instead. (20 years ago, in my poverty, I lived in a room the size of a walk-in closet, so I had no place to put anything I might buy. So the money grew up to be $3000 and I bought a car.) I eat well and buy only real food which I afford by looking for the deals. My electric bill is low for an apartment this size. I pay my student loan every month. Maybe we should make tithing 90% instead of 10%?

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  2. I would be interested to hear what you are doing in your congregation to help them rid themselves of these “trappings”. What things are you now doing differently? How have you engaged your people in “new trappings”.

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    1. We are trying to ask good questions. We have been doing visioning for a year, and are looking for revamp they way we organize our volunteers, we are probably going to do away with our committee structure and rebuild council. We are also asking questions around faith formation and generations, looking for ways to connect with each other across generations. It is difficult at times and slow, but I hopeful it will yield from fruit.

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  3. Yes, we have some trappings. Some trappings, i.e. weekly Sunday school have been ripped out of our hands because children rarely come to one of our congregations. The other congregation makes lemonade by having SS once a month. We have to go with what we’ve got.
    Due to demand we will be having a VBS for the first time in one of our congregations since there are several young families in the area that want it. The other VBS does well in making our presence known in the community. Most of our conventional ministry is to seniors. The unconventional part has unmeasurable impact, but I’m sure, impact nevertheless.

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  4. This a worthwhile discussion. Our rural church in MN does have many older people leading the church, many in their mid to late seventies and older. Most of them are retired from other communities, have moved to our area, and have knowledge and valuable experiences to guide them. Some of the “trappings” still work for us because the younger parents are working very hard to give their children the positive church experiences the parents had. That is not all unproductive. Still, the recognition of “trappings” may help as we deal with today’s changes, a decrease in choir members, fewer members who can play the piano or the organ, fewer Sunday School teachers, and increased competition for everyone’s time and attention. We are making changes, but it’s challenging because we never know what works until we try something new.

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  5. I think you nailed it with your reference to guilt. Guilt, alas, has been an extremely successful motivator in the past, and churches have a hard time of letting go of it, even while our wiser younger folk won’t have any of it. We just can’t guilt people to the gospel. Thanks for the reminder!

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  6. When I retired, it was an opportunity to leave ALL the trappings behind and start a house church. Of course we didn’t leave everything behind, we still had the gospel and the liturgy (adapted) and the sacraments (well, except for baptism, because we weren’t, you know, really a REAL church) And guess what the young women who are the backbone of this new, tiny congregation were talking about last week? Starting a sewing circle! I felt like I was in a time loop or something…

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  7. But we need to figuring out the trappings are that are right for today. Just as those other trappings we refuse to let go of, were right in their day too.

    Please re-write this section to have a more clear thought. I copied it from your writing above and I have re-read it, but I find it difficult to accept as a smooth flowing grammatical sentence. I am by far not a English Professor but as I was reading your post today; your word formation stopped being fluid in conveying your idea about trappings. Thank you for taking the time to even read my rant and I apologize if this offends you in any way but in my reading your words I ran into a few bumps in understanding your thoughts..

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  8. I was raised Catholic by a devout Catholic mother and indifferent Protestant father; I was consequently an indifferent Catholic.

    I turned away from the church in 2008, when I started reading up on Islam. It seemed better organized, more logical, less political and less judgmental than my mother’s church, that was overtaken by an overzealous choir that sounds like they’re auditioning for Choir Idols. The priest is horrendously out of touch, brow beats, judges and condemns the congregation,”maybe you fight with your spouses. Maybe you fight with your parents. Maybe you argue with your children and don’t give tithes”-maybe we just want to be told the world is hard, but take heart, faith and grace will guide and protect you. Maybe we want to sing some old hymns to remind us of a more innocent childhood, where we knew the words before their meaning.

    I hope you are guided to some positive answers. -also, thanks for the vent space.

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