Tag Archives: sunday school

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

Want to kill your church? Start a program!

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What do programs do anyways?

Every Church I know wants to teach faith to their members, and often struggle to figure out what that looks like. But I am sure that most of us would agree that these things probably don’t work:

  • preventing people from attending worship
  • dumbing down faith into perverse moralisms
  • having ill-equipped leaders lead
  • providing an experience that doesn’t reflect the vast majority of life in the community of the church
  • segregating  members until they are deemed worthy of being a part of the rest of the community

But this is exactly how the most widespread program in churches operates – Sunday School. We just don’t think about what Sunday School is actually doing, and how it is often doing the exact opposite of what we think it is doing. Sunday School is just one of many dreaded “programs” that we use as churches and it is killing us.

Church as Corporation

Churches and Church institutions have been adopting the structures and behaviours of secular organizations for a long time… maybe since the 4th century when Constantine put Christianity in charge of his empire.

In the 20th century and into the 21st century, churches are looking more and more like corporations than ever. Pastors and Bishops are being treated like CEOs. CEOs of companies that don’t pay well and expect a lot. Council meetings are more and more business oriented than community and vision oriented. And it is not surprising. Our North American world is becoming more “corporatized” everywhere we turn.

Besides constitutions, bylaws, policies, budgets, goal-achievment-strategies… the “program” is probably the most pervasive corporate strategy to infect churches. Programs have become the most important thing that many churches think they are doing. We have programs for everything: Sunday School programs, youth programs, young adult programs, young families programs, women’s programs, men’s programs, seniors programs, worship programs, bible study programs, soup kitchen programs, confirmation programs, evangelism programs, volunteer programs, stewardship programs, maintenance programs, VBS programs, music programs, singles, programs, couples programs, AA/NA programs, seeker/new christian programs, and so on…

So here is the thing about programs. They don’t work.

Programs Don’t Work – Communities Do

Programs are for communities that have forgotten how to be communities. Programs satisfy our deep fears about being sufficient on our own to “attract” people to church. I have heard the question so often, “What can we do to (fill in the blank, get the youth back, have a worship band, build a Sunday School, reach out to young families, work with seniors, serve the homeless etc…)?” And the real question being asked is, “What can do we do to avoid the real issue of why we have forgotten how to be a diverse community of real relationships?

Programs seem like silver bullets or magic wands that will solve our problems. But really programs are the best at helping us to avoid being a real community. Programs, literally, give us words to say instead of our own. The map out our activity, our time, or goals and objectives. Only communities that have forgotten how to be real communities need that kind of help.

Programs need to be viewed as what they really are. Crutches for community. Communities that can’t walk on their own use crutches… but only until they are walking again. If we keep using the crutches, we will never walk.

Churches and church leaders should be deciding on their own what the vision, value and goals for community are. We should map out our own activities, time and objectives. We should speak our own words, the words passed on in faith through scripture and the timeless Body of Christ to each other. We need to speak with words specific to our context, our time and place. Programs are killing our community much more often than they are helping us to be a community. So let’s give them up.

Do I mean that churches need to stop doing all those things I listed above? No. But programs don’t teach our faith or serve the poor or “attract” youth to church or help different generations integrate or deepen our relationship with God and others.

Let’s Be a Community

Instead, let’s be churches or communities that teach each other faith and learn together. Let’s serve our neighbour together. Let’s help our young find their place among us together. Let’s grow in faith as we worship and share in fellowship together. Oddly enough doing these things as community might look a lot like a program. And if we do these things well as a community together, other communities might look at us and say, “hey, you guys are doing that well, tell us how” and that is how programs are often started.

Yet, doing these things together as a community means that we are figuring out how it will work – and work here. It means thinking about our people, not any people. It means planning what things will look like here. And we will start looking more and more like a real community that doesn’t need crutches. Because here is the thing about crutches… Jesus didn’t like them. Jesus just created a community that did stuff together… no program required.

One last thing.

Why programs need to die

A word about programs and generations, this blog is called “The Millennial Pastor”, after all.

Programs are a very post-WWII phenomenon. The G.I. generation started all kinds of programs for their kids. Sunday Schools, youth groups, choirs, service clubs, couples groups, singles groups, mom groups, ladies’ groups, etc… And many congregations have a hard time giving up these programs. Soup kitchens, women’s groups, Sunday Schools often have elderly people driving them and doing the work. As often as I am asked the question, “How do we get the young people back?” it is followed by, “They need to come and do their part around here”. Churches and long time members expect their kids and grandkids to come and carry on with the church. Not just carry-on in faith, or gathering for worship, but carry-on the Sunday School, the ladies’ group, the property care, the volunteer programs, the choirs (and their music), the committees and the the financial burden.

But the G.I.’s and the Boomers forget that they had the privilege of founding churches, starting programs from the ground and enshrining their passions in the bylaws of the congregation. These pet projects might have to die for the church to survive. Disbanding Sunday School isn’t a failure, it the realization that something needs to die for something new to start to grow.

So want to kill your church? Start a program or, even better, keep with the ones that aren’t working. Want to see new life in unexpected places? Start killing programs.

What do you think? Are programs bad for churches? Or do we need them? Share in the comments.