Category Archives: Theology & Culture

Why Advent is sucking less this year

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Read the whole passage)

*This sermon was based on this blog post

Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God

Advent just isn’t doing it for me this year. Maybe you feel the same way too.

Advent is normally my favourite season of the church year. I don’t think that is uncommon for pastors.

Christmas is of course the Super Bowl (or Grey Cup) of the church year. Christmas is like the most popular chain restaurant in town, everyone goes there and it is a big party. But Advent is more like that hole-in-the-wall family run restaurant with the most delicious food you can find, that most people seem to pass by without much notice.

The rich flavour of Advent is found in the images that we hear – the way of Lord, valleys filled up, mountains made low, crooked paths made straight that we heard about last week. This week it is the spicy brood of vipers, the firey winnowing fork burning the chaff. Next week it will be angels and virgins, and promises and hints of Messiah. Advent’s beauty is in the blending of hints and promises of Messiah together with real life. With the messiness of people looking for something better.

Real people like the crowds in the desert going to John the Baptist, looking and hoping for something different than what they know. Real people like the hypocritical religious and political leaders that we know as well as 1st century Israel did. Real people like a girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reality of impossible life choices.

Advent speaks to the real circumstances that people – everyday, average people – deal with all the time.

And Advent weaves the coming of Messiah through it all. Christmas tells us of the extraordinary. Advent brings God close to the ordinary.

But this year, Advent has not felt so hopeful.

Normally, the light of the coming Messiah shines brightly through the cracks of our Advent images. We cannot help but see Messiah bursting into our world. This year, the light feels dull.

Instead, all the messy and broken stories of God’s people that we hear in Advent are hitting too close to home.

Stories and images of burning chaff speak less to farm hands separating wheat on the threshing room floor and more to a warming planet that world leaders cannot seem to get a handle on.

Stories about King Herod’s willingness to kill infant boys to protect his own power and the violent world of occupied Israel of Jesus’ day reminds us all too much of the terrorism, shootings, and bombing that we hear about in the news.

Stories about the innkeepers who turned away the holy family remind us too much of political leaders like Donald Trump who are vowing to prevent any muslims or refugees to cross their boarders.

Stories like the possible stoning that Mary could have endured had Joseph chosen to dismiss her sound too much like violence against women simply because they are women, against indigenous people because they are indigenous as the murderer of Tina Fontaine was arrested this week. Tina Fontaine whose death just up the river from here sparked the call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.

Advent stories are coming at us in the news as often as they are coming from the bible this year.

Not to mention that here at Good Shepherd our community and family is struggling with suffering, with illness and with death. We are grieving as a church family this week as we said goodbye to beloved wife and mother on Monday. And still there are those of us that are sick, lonely, and tired, even with Christmas approaching.

Advent is our reality. Waiting for Messiah is what we are doing this year.

As John the Baptist declares, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” We are living out Advent in real-time.

We are the ones standing on the riverbanks hoping that this wild hermit preacher named John can give us some hope. And all he seems to be talking about is wrath. Axes waiting to cut down trees. Warnings to start living better lives. Threats of burning with the chaff unless we get it together.

At least that is what John seems to be talking about.

John describes the Messiah standing on a threshing room floor, the place where grain is brought in once it is harvested from the land. And the Messiah has his mighty winnowing fork in hand. A winnowing fork is used to separate a wheat stock from the grain itself. As the fork lifts the grain from the pile, the heavy grain falls to the floor, and the lighter useless chaff is blown into the fire to be burned away.

John’s message today sounds harsh but fitting for our world. Somewhere between racist political campaigns in Canada, ISIS, Paris, US Gun Violence, Climate Change realities and all the other stuff our world is suffering from… the illusory veneer of the “Christmas season” has been stripped from us.

As Advent isn’t doing it for us this year, and its light seems to be dull, because the world is full of depressing stuff… maybe throwing us all into the chaff isn’t what John is getting at.

Because a pitchfork is not what Messiah is holding, for a fork would be a useless tool to clear a threshing room floor. And nor is the word fork used in the original greek of this text. No, the tool that the messiah is holding is more of a winnowing spoon… or more precisely a shovel. The winnowing shovel is not a tool of separating but a tool for gathering.

Maybe just maybe, Messiah is gathering us up. Gathering us all up. Gathering up our broken and suffering and dying world so that we can finally begin to see the light.

Maybe that is how God is reminding us that the Good News isn’t just reserved for Christmas.

As bad as the world seems to be, Messiah is already a work around us. Messiah has his winnowing shovel and is gathering. Messiah’s is bringing light to our Advent world.

Messiah is gathering us up in Paris as world leaders realize the climate must be preserved for future generations and reach 11th hour agreements to heal the planet.

Messiah is taking us in as Prime Ministers and Premiers greet lowly refugees with smiles, hugs, jackets. With love, compassion and welcome.

Messiah is scooping us up off the floor with an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women so that we can know what happened to the most vulnerable among us.

And Messiah is gathering us here at Good Shepherd while we grieve the death of  a member of our community this week, we are also finding new ways to care for each other.

And Messiah is taking us in as we collect hampers for those in need, and as we support the work of the Soup Kitchen, Food Bank and Homeless Shelter with year-end donations from our congregation.

And Messiah is scooping us up off the threshing room floor with children who reminded us this morning of the Christmas story and how God is coming into our world.

Messiah is gathering us up, all the mess and dullness of our real-time Advent so that we can see that a real God is coming to us in a real incarnation, and this real broken and suffering flesh that we bear is also born by Messiah.

Messiah is coming. Really coming to this real and dark world. Not into the world of sweet idealistic Christmases that sound more like fantasy that reality. Messiah is really coming to us.

Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.

Why Advent Sucks this Year – Why We Need Advent

Advent is normally my favourite season of the church year. I don’t think that is uncommon for pastors.

Christmas and Easter are of course the big celebrations, but Advent and Lent have a certain depth and richness, that allow Christmas and Easter to be what they are. Advent and Lent add the flavour to the meal.

For me, the richness of Advent is found in the images – the way of Lord, valleys filled up, mountains made low, crooked made straight, broods of vipers, winnowing forks and chaff, angels and virgins, and promises and hints of Messiah.

Advent’s beauty is in the blending of hints and promises of Messiah together with real life. With the messiness of people looking for something better. The people in the desert going to John the Baptist, looking for something different than what they knew. The hypocrisy of religious and political leaders, which is a true as death and taxes. A  teen girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reality of impossible life choices.

Advent speaks to the real circumstances that people – everyday, average people – deal with all the time.

And Advent weaves the coming of Messiah through it all. Christmas tells us of the extraordinary. Advent brings God close to the ordinary.

But this year, Advent has not felt so hopeful.

This year I feel like I am being dragged into Advent, and the hope and anticipation just isn’t there.

Instead, all the messy, crappy, broken stories of God’s people that we hear in Advent are hitting too close to home.

Terrorism, shootings, bombs, political leaders vowing revenge feels all to close to world of the seeking crowds, the oppressive world of tyrant kings, the violent world of occupied Israel.

Violence being condoned towards women and their bodies simply because they bear the child of a man, sounds too much like the possible stoning that Mary could have endured had Joseph chosen to dismiss her. A pregnant and unmarried woman was basically worthless and damage good… a sentiment that too many entitled white men  still feel about women.

Syrian refugees fleeing the exact part of the world that the holy family was forced to flee because of violent rulers being fearful of young boys growing into terrorists just feels eerie. Somehow this year, we became all the innkeepers who turned the holy family away because they were too different and unsafe.

The callous brutality of Herod and the Romans feels like the unwillingness of American politicians to consider the smallest modicum of gun control. Royal death squads sent to murder infant boys are the price Herod paid for power and money. Daily mass shootings are the price to pay for an unregulated gun industry.

Advent stories are coming at us in the news as often as they are coming from the bible this year.

Advent has always beautifully shown us the interweaving of incarnation and reality. But this year, the stories we read, preach and hear in the church are reality in the world. We have become a people waiting for and in need of a Messiah.

Advent is our reality.

We are living out Advent in real time.

And maybe that is why we need Advent more than ever.

Without Advent, our current troubles would make celebrating Christmas a farce.

Without Advent, our current troubles would be all there is in the world.

Without Advent, our current troubles would eclipse any glimpse God at work among us.

Advent is sucking this year because the world is sucking this year. Somewhere between racist political campaigns in Canada, ISIS, Paris, US Gun Violence, Climate Change realities and all the other stuff our world is suffering from… the illusory veneer of the “Christmas season” was stripped from us.

And maybe that is the point.

Maybe the real the world has to be held out in front of us, maybe we need to see the unvarnished, un-white-washed, naked world to really get it.

Maybe Advent needs to be real so that we can get that the incarnation is real too.

To get that Messiah is coming into this Advent world.

Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.


Are you in the Advent spirit this year? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Religious Radical or Christ the King?

John 18:33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (Read the rest here)

Sermon

Father Angelo’s tour of the Cathedrals of Northern Europe was cut short by the events of last week’s bombing. Over the past few days, he had been helping the group of St. David’s find return flights home. However, his plan had been to stay after the tour and spend some holiday time in the UK. So, Father Angelo made his way from Germany to France and crossed the chunnel, in order to stay with a priest friend, Rev. Kate, in the British countryside.

The heightened security made his trip slow, and even across the pond off the European continent, tensions were still high. He was grateful to finally arrive at his friend’s doorstep in the hopes of finding some calm and peace.

(Pause)

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. Christ the King serves as doorway from one stage in the story to the next. We wrap up the story of Jesus having spent the year telling it from birth, to ministry, to passion and death, to Easter and resurrection, to parables and teachings, to predictions about his return again. Christ the King sums it all up by pointing us to the coming Kingdom of God. And then next week, we start all over again with Advent and waiting for the birth of Messiah.

And oddly enough, the story we use to tell of Christ the King this year, is the story of Jesus on trial before pilate, the roman governor over Judea. Seeing a supposedly king-like Jesus on trial is meant to turn our view of kings and kingdoms upside down.

But it is the Revelation reading that should really make us uncomfortable. Often Christians read the book of Revelation like some mystical book of prophecy. It isn’t that.  Revelation was written to be a book of hope and encouragement to the early Christian community facing persecution under the Roman Empire.

In the decades following Jesus ascension, the early church developed into a small band of believers whose beliefs put them in opposition to Roman military religion. And because of this, Christians were often persecuted. They were excluded from proper society, unable to access the normal benefits of citizenship, marginalized economically and socially for being different. Sometimes they were even arrested and thrown into the gladiator arenas to meet their death fighting fierce warriors or wild animals like lions.

The early church lived under the thumb of Empire. Becoming a Christian meant a difficult life on the edges of society and potentially the danger of being executed for your radical and non-approved beliefs. The Romans saw Christianity as a threat to their Empire, to normal and acceptable ways of life. Rome saw the Christian view of God and the afterlife as opposed the Empire’s official religion, and they saw Christians as religious radicals sowing dissent and sedition, unwilling to integrate into society, instead radicalizing people into their movement.

Sound familiar? It should.

The early church of the 2nd century that lived under Roman persecution would by the 4th century be handed the keys to the Empire by Emperor Constantine and Christianity would become Christendom for the next 1600 years. Emperors became Holy Roman Emperors, Christianity became the official religion and western societies became Christian societies even today.

Here is the part where we should be getting uncomfortable. When we hear this scene between Jesus and the Roman Governor Pilate we should not identify with Jesus. What we should see is an official of the Empire overseeing far away middle-eastern lands holding a trial for a religious radical who has been preaching revolution and overthrow of the empire to his small group or “cell” of young male followers. We should see an Empire worrying about the threat of foreign religious zealots riling up backwards people against the approved and acceptable values and religion of the day.  We should see proper and upstanding people fearing violent acts from a small and oppressed religious group suffering under the thumb of Empire… and we should not identify with the one on trial, but the one sitting in judgement.

And yet, the one on trial is not only our King, but our God come to us in flesh…

(Pause)

Father Angelo’s friend Rev. Kate was the vicar of a small church of about 35-40 members. Yet, when the two arrived at the church for morning prayer, the church was hopping with activity. Dozens and dozens of people were streaming into the church. A few were the typical church sort, older grey-haired folks wearing formal church appropriate clothes. But most were younger people, often with kids. Dark skinned people, men with black hair, women with head scarves.

Father Angelo turned to Rev. Kate as they walked into the church.

“What is all this about?” he asked. “Have you been invaded? Have you switched teams or something? Why are these people here? Why are all these… muslims here?”

“Come and see” Rev. Kate said.

(Pause)

As the Early Church suffered under Roman persecution, the words of Revelation would NOT have been heard as mysterious prophecy about the end of the world. They would have been words of promise to a suffering community. They would have spoken about a new reality, one that trumped suffering and marginalization. Revelation was a promise that Empires didn’t hold all the power, because God was going to overturn that power. God was about to usher in a new reality, and the One who would rule this new world was one who knew suffering himself. One who had lived under the thumb of oppressors himself. One who had been tried, beaten, and killed by Empire, yet who had overcome the most powerful tool of Empire – death. The hope they heard was in the firstborn of dead, the resurrected Christ for whom death was nothing to be feared.

Yet for us, standing on the other side of that equation, as the ones who have been the empire for over 16 centuries, this radical religious political prisoner King is our hope too.

Because empire will not save us, just as persecution and marginalization did not save the early church.

Instead, Jesus shows us a new way. Jesus shows us, that even now as Christianity is in the power position, we have still not saved ourselves. In fact our relationship to power and empire is just as much something we need to be saved from as persecution was.

Jesus shows us that the old ways of empire, where the privileged rule, are over. Jesus comes to call us to a Kingdom where all nations are welcome, where all people are equal, where death is no more, because the first born of the dead has shown new life, even to us empire people. Jesus pushes our old ways, our dead ways, our empire ways to the margins and declares that God is the new beginning and end, the new first and last, that God transcends power and empire, that God rules from a place of weakness, that God is be found in the One whom our empires would see as a threat and would fear.

In Christ the King, God shows us a new Kingdom. Not a Kingdom of power, but a kingdom of service. Priestly service. A kingdom based in proclaiming the good news, washing sinners, feeding the hungry, welcoming all.

Jesus shows us that God’s Kingdom begins from the bottom up,

Begins with weakness yet welcome.

Begins with vulnerability yet mercy.

Begins with uncertainty yet compassion.

Begins with risk yet openness to the other.

Christ the King reminds us that God is saving those who are persecuted and marginalized, those who suffer at the hands of empire. Christ the King also reminds us those of us in Empire need that same salvation. That we too are marginalized and persecuted by our own fears and efforts to retain control.

Christ the King reminds us that God’s salvation for us comes in completely unexpected ways, from the margins and from the underside

Today, Christ the empire threatening, religiously radical, political prisoner King declares a new order where no one is left to the margins and no one holds the power. Jesus declares a new Kingdom that is our salvation from persecution and from empire.

(Pause)

Inside Rev. Kate’s church, all the pews and alter furnishings had been pushed to one corner. The rest of the space was filled with tables and chairs. People chatting in various languages over coffee, doing art-work or crafts, in small groups practicing reading or filling in resumes. There were kids running around and playing.

Rev. Kate looked at her friend, “No, we haven’t switched teams. Jesus just reminded us what the Kingdom of God really looks like.”

Father Angelo smiled at Rev. Kate,

“I can only think of one thing to to say to that…

Amen.


 

The character of Rev. Kate in my illustration was inspired by a story I heard about Rev. Sally Smith, which you can see here:

 

 

 

The Temple has Been Thrown Down – Paris, Beirut, Baghdad

Mark 13:1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”… For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Read the Whole Passage here)

12227205_983847591654638_5852447112899142260_nSermon

Some weeks as a preacher, you plan one thing, and the breaking news comes. The hourly news on the radio, twitter and Facebook alerts, news articles

19 in Bagdad

43 in Beirut

127 in Paris

Explosions and bullets.

Chaos. Fear. Death.

The world prays for Paris and beyond.

The veneer of business as usual is once again shattered.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families today as the long slow process of rebuilding life begins.

But as we sit here, tucked away from the danger, yet still with heavy hearts, we know that there are explosions and shootings everyday. Paris feels closer to home, than Beirut or Baghdad, but the violence happens everyday.

(Pause)

Father Angelo has led a number of tours of holy sites in his ministry at St. David’s. Every few years, he offers a chance for a group from the congregation to travel for a couple weeks and to see historical parts of the world. He has taken groups to the Holy Land a number of times, to Rome, and to England. This year, the group was touring the Cathedrals of central Europe. They were headed to the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, the Cologne Cathedral.

As the tour bus approached, the group could see the cathedral towering above the city. With the twin towering spires looking like they were reaching for heaven above, Father Angelo led the group into the church. The Cathedral was bustling with life. There were hundreds of people mingling about. There were a dozen tour guides were lecturing groups in different languages.

And then all of a sudden a loud crash could be heard outside, followed by the whole cathedral shaking, dust scattering everywhere.

And then another explosion… all the people inside the church froze for a moment. And then as if on cue, people began running, screaming and shouting. Father Angelo called for his group to stay calm and stay put.

(Pause)

Next Sunday will be Christ the King, the New Year’s Eve of the church year. And then we will reset the story of Jesus, and begin again with pregnancy as we wait for the birth of Messiah.

But we are not quite there yet… Instead first we must hear the last portion of Mark’s gospel for this year. And in true Markan fashion, it is yet another conversation between Jesus and the disciples, where they miss the point and Jesus gets annoyed.

Paris is exactly what Jesus is talking about with the disciples. As they marvel at grandness of the temple, Jesus points out how they cling to the illusion of security, safety, comfort, and enduringness. They see the temple as a sign of God’s power. Jesus’ words about the temple are not judgement or condemnation. He isn’t hoping for the temple to fall. He is simply warning of the inevitable. He is telling the disciples that if the stones of the temple are where they place their faith… They will not just be disappointed, but one day they will be fleeing the falling stones as they threaten to come down.

On Friday, we bore witness as Paris was another destruction of the temple. A temple built to our own power, our own security, to faith in our own god-likeness. Because unlike Beirut or Bagdad, Paris is the same stadiums and restaurants and concert halls that we believe are safe for us. We are shaken because Paris could be here. We could be the ones out for dinner, watching the game, at a concert when the bullets start flying, or the suicide bombers decide to press the button.

If our faith is in the large stones and tall buildings and in the idea that violence couldn’t happen here, we will be disappointed.

And at the same time, if our fear is that every refugee is a terrorist and that we can close our doors and boarders to be safe while not also closing off some part of our hearts, we have again put our faith in the wrong thing.

Jesus warns us not to be surprised when the stones begin to fall and when the wars begin. But as we try to understand even more senseless violence and death, it is hard to understand what God is up to.

Jesus does give us a clue. The birth pangs.

As we are about to begin Advent, the church’s season of pregnancy, we know that the birth pangs mean that something new is about to happen. We know that the pain and suffering, the aches and stiffness, the loss of control and uncertainty about what is coming might be signs of impending death and destruction. But with God, we know that these are also the signs of something new, something being born into our world.

(Pause)

In just few minutes, the cathedral was nearly emptied out. Father Angelo and his group found an alcove to take shelter in with a few other tourists. There were sirens and the sound of gun fire coming outside. The world seemed to have flipped from wonderful European holiday to surreal chaos in the blink of an eye.

As the group huddled together, the doors to the cathedral burst open. 3 young, dark skinned men with beards and backpacks came pouring in. The St. David’s tour group looked at each other in abject fear. A few started sobbing, one person cried, “This is the end.”

Father Angelo stood up and left the alcove. He waved the three men over to alcove. They came running, and as he ushered them into the alcove, breathing heavily, they sat down next to the others against the wall.

One looked up to Father Anglo and said, “Thank you, Father.”

Father Angelo nodded.

As the St. David’s group slowly began to relax, the three men checked their phones and caught their breath.

As the noises of chaos and sirens continued outside the church, the group settled in. One of the men, looking as scared and worried as anyone in the St. David’s group, looked again towards Father Angelo and said, “Father, will you lead us in prayer.”

“Yes… we should pray, shouldn’t we.” said Father Angelo.

And together, the 3 young dark skinned men, cathedral stragglers and the group of St. David’s began to pray, “Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy.”

(Pause)

In the midst to crashing stones, Jesus could have said that these things mean the end. Instead he says they are the birth pangs. That these things mean something beginning, not something ending. We so often see the struggle and pain, the chaos and uncertainty as symptoms of dying. Yet, these are also symptoms of pregnancy.

And with God, the birth pangs points us to a pregnant teen and her carpenter husband travelling the harsh country side in the midst of foreign occupation and population control. The birth pangs herald a baby born in the most inconspicuous of stables in the back corner of the world far away from large temple and large stones.

God’s work happens in the quiet corners. God’s work happens with normal people, like us.

It is like Mr Rogers who reminds us to “look for the helpers”.

It is the Porte Ouverte, Open Door message that Parisians used to let those who were stuck outside know that there was safety to be found.

It is a musician who drags his grand piano on his bike, to play John Lennon’s imagine outside of the bombed out concert hall.

It is hearts that refuse to be closed off even though every instinct tells us it is not safe to be open to the “other”.

But most of all the birth pangs are signs of God’s promise that death does not have the final say. That tall buildings and large stones, nor explosions and the bullets, are the powers that define us.

Instead in the places where we least expect,

God stands where tall buildings and stones have fallen.

God is thwarting the bullets and explosions.

God is birthing new life.

God has already begun the work of reconciliation and resurrection.

Because reconciliation and resurrection always begin in the broken and tragic places.

Because new life must first begin in death.

Because God works with mangers and crosses, with open doors and prayers prayed by helpless and far away neighbours and friends.

God’s life giving work happens in the small places, because that is all God needs. Because that is where death and darkness are defeated. In mangers, on crosses, in empty tombs, on open doors/ Portes Ouvertes, with prayer vigils reminding us to forgive and to hope. The birth pangs are are not the destruction… The birth pangs are the realization that neither our large stones nor our bullets have real power.

The birth pangs are the sign that God is about transform the world with virgins and shepherds, with fishermen, tax collectors and sinners, with words of faith, water, bread and wine. With a praying Body, a praying community spread all over the world, God is making us the Portes Ouvertes / Open Doors of the Kingdom. God is transforming the world in the Body of the One who was laid in the manger but walked out of the tomb. In the One who is there wherever two or three gather to pray, even when the bombs and bullets are falling.

And so today, as the stones fall, as the news breaks, as the fear of the other threatens… we prepare for the birth pangs. God is about to birth something… someone new into the world. Messiah, the One who will truly save us, the One who is greater than any temple, any bomb, any fear. Messiah is on the way.

Amen.

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