At my church growing up I was one of five kids that went through the ranks of Sunday school together. The five of us are less than six months apart in age, and have known each other since we were around two years old. Our parents are good friends, and we have spent thousands of hours together over the past 28-ish years. I’m still close with the other four, in fact I’ve talked to each of them in the past couple of months. We were the kids in Sunday school that were there every Sunday, every Sunday night, and probably every Wednesday night as well.
This was a good thing, because back in third grade we participated in the time honored tradition of handing out gold stars for attendance and bringing your Bible to church. I remember the joy of getting a new sticker to put next to my name every week. I was excited because when you filled up a whole column you got an awesome prize. Weeks would pass by quickly, gold stars would start to crowd the hand drawn chart, prizes were soon to be given and life was great.
Except for Stanley.
Stanley didn’t really have a lot of gold stars by his name. He wasn’t there all the time, and if he was, he didn’t always have his Bible with him. So while the five of us were doubling up every week, Stanley was the anomaly at the end of the chart. His was the name written in a different color pen than all the others. I remember very vividly about halfway throughout the school year a bunch of us getting these awesome prizes (candy) for filling up our charts with gold stars. I also remember being about halfway through my candy bar and looking across at Stanley sitting there coloring, with no candy bar. I didn’t completely understand the situation, but I knew something wasn’t right. Why didn’t Stanley have any candy?
Stanley had a single mom. I can imagine it was tough for her to make it every Sunday morning. My experience working with single-parent families has taught me to treat them with the utmost respect, because that parent is often pulling double duty, and is stretched well beyond their limits. I didn’t realize all of this in third grade, but something clicked in that moment and I knew gold stars weren’t fair. Stanley couldn’t drive himself to church, it really wasn’t up to him wether or not he got a gold star every week. I can only imagine what he was thinking sitting across the room from us while we ate our candy. I wish I could say I did something altruistic at that moment, that I gave him my candy bar, asked the teacher to include him, or even tried to convince dantheman to give up his. The fact that I can’t remember means I was probably in a sugar coma which points towards me keeping my candy bar.
I see the good intentions behind gold stars but I wonder if we ever stop and ask, ‘is this doing more harm than good?’
On my first day of being a full time youth minister I asked a student to read a scripture aloud in class. He declined, so I moved on around the room asking for volunteers. Every single guy declined. We finally found one outgoing young lady who stood up to read in a proud voice.
I asked the guys later why they didn’t feel comfortable reading in class, and they responded that they weren’t ‘good Bible readers’. I explained that God wasn’t concerned with how well they read, that He was more concerned with their heart. They went on to explain to me that they had ‘proof’ they weren’t good readers. I was told about the participation awards they received in a competition where one of the events was scripture reading. I was devastated for these young men. They were given ‘also-ran’ awards proving to them that people thought they didn’t read scripture well. I encouraged these young men that I would rather have one ‘also-ran’ with a great heart stuttering through scripture than a whole class of ‘first place’ readers.
I have a friend who is a foreign missionary that is constantly struggling with a crisis of conscience. Different groups will come to his part of the world on mission trips over the course of the year. Every time the group comes with great zeal and energy and an excited spirit for reaching out to the lost. They stay for a week or two and put together great events and baptize a lot of people. Then several weeks later another group will come to visit put on great events and baptize a lot of the same people. My friend doesn’t have the heart to tell these groups that it is often the same people getting baptized whenever foreigners visit. He feels it is more important for them to be able to go back home and say they had a successful mission trip than to tell them the frequency with which these conversions occur. If these groups aren’t able to go home and put gold stars on their missionary charts it might dissuade future missionaries from making a long-term impact, and might cause the governing boards to reconsider how much support mission works in general receive.
I’d hate to imagine what it would be like if Jesus gave out gold stars.
Can you imagine our savior saying, “You need 4,800 gold stars to enter my kingdom” or “because you have enough gold stars, you will be healed”?
I pray for the Stanley’s of the world that feel like they don’t have what it takes to belong.
I pray for the kids who stutter through scripture.
I pray for the kids that are taught that knowing the Bible is a competition, and then come in last.
I pray for the kids that are taught that knowing the Bible is a competition, and come in first.
I pray for all of us that are more concerned with results than souls, wether we know it or not.
I pray we leave the gold stars behind.
One love, one heart.