On the walls of the church sanctuaries of my youth were these consecrated tote boards. I don’t know the official name of these accessories, but these placards recorded every jot and tittle of faithful Christian service for all the world to see.
The boards recorded the numbers in attendance; the amount of the offering; those who had brought their Bibles with them to church. A second attendance board covered the basics of Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Choir Rehearsal, and the like. Someone had to change the figures every Sunday like the old-school changing of the numbers on a gas station sign, this weekly clamor of adding, subtracting, counting, and reporting.
Each individual Bible Study class was intensely more testing. In the 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 another accounting board: A giant, grid-lined poster that looked like a giant 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 prepare your lesson? Put a twinkle-twinkle in the box. Are you staying for worship? The teacher granted another star. Read your Bible every day this week? That’s another jewel in your crown.
I always had a shining wall full of stars, hungry as I was for God’s elusive approval, and I sometimes led the class. Only Philip Johns, my most fierce competitor, could rival me. In my daily prayers I often prayed that God would smite him with chickenpox or leprosy – anything – so long as he would be sidelined just time enough for me to get ahead. Never mind the fact that he was the pastor’s son, something that I felt gave him an unfair advantage.
The message could not have been communicated more clearly: Those with more stars were more dedicated, more spiritual, and obviously more beloved by God; those with fewer stars were suffering from a lack of commitment or were spiritual cowards. But spiritual formation is not a competition. It shouldn’t be an instrument to humiliate or marginalize those who just “can’t measure up.”
And what about we overachievers who “win” the religious game? 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 names high and lifted up on a church wall or in starry constellations? This is how our religious efforts to please, praise, or placate God can become the very things that actually distract us from God.
When faith becomes a work-based, blood-sweat-and-tears, incentive-driven, reward-acquisition staircase that compensates the winners and shames the losers, it can’t be called anything remotely resembling Christianity. It is only a counting-cult that has hit the wall.