The membership in many of our churches is static. Year after year goes by with gains elsewhere, but the number of worshipers in these churches varies hardly at all. On a recent visit to a conference I was given a list of the membership of its churches over a ten-year period. Of its 58 churches, 16 had fewer members than a decade ago; two had exactly the same membership, and 13 had made a gain of less than 1 per cent. In other words, one quarter of the churches in that conference sustained a loss, while still another quarter made very little or no contribution to the membership gain of the field.
Large numbers of ministers serving as district superintendents have at least one church that has not recently experienced growth. Many realize, however, that there is an organization in each church which, if rightly used, will correct this by winning souls and adding members. It is an evangelizing agency that is built into each church, whether it be large or small. It is the Sabbath school. We are all acquainted with the way this organization is used in overseas divisions to build up membership and to develop new churches. We do not so frequently hear of the same thing being done in the homeland. The reason may be that we are not using its many potentialities here as we should.
However, in America, too, it has been abundantly proved that the Sabbath school can be used more effectively in multiplying baptisms, increasing membership in formerly static churches, and in founding new church organizations.
This has been most notably demonstrated in Sacramento, California. More than twenty years ago when its Sabbath school membership was only 268, the church, now called Sacramento Central, began to conduct branch Sabbath schools. Year after year it continued these schools and also started new ones. These branch Sabbath schools developed into strong churches with their own church edifices, and instead of one Sabbath school with 268 members, there are now ten with a membership of 2,500.
Other churches that have entered branch Sabbath school work much more recently than Sacramento have also had success either in greatly strengthening their own churches or in the organization of new ones.
A short time ago Elias Gomez became district superintendent in an area in Texas where there was but one church and a few scattered members within a 100-mile radius of the church. He led in the organization of two branch Sabbath schools, one 49 and the other 95 miles away. Within a year and a half both of these branch Sabbath schools became organized churches. Six new schools have since been organized in the expectation that they also will develop into churches.
One minister who really believes in branch Sabbath schools is A. C. Rawson, a Texas district superintendent. He had 100 of these schools operating in his district! The first one to be organized into a church had only 17 members, but these few converts immediately organized 15 new branch Sabbath schools! This leads me to wonder what the result would be if our older churches that have had but a small membership over the years would suddenly each organize 15 branch Sabbath schools.
The Sabbath school, however, has more than one method of winning souls. Probably the majority of our ministers make use of the pastor's Bible class as a means of evangelization. Usually this class is made up only of non-Adventists and of members who bring non-Adventist friends with them. The members of the class are frequently recruited from Bible correspondence school interests, colporteur contacts, and people with whom the pastor or some of his laymen are holding Bible studies. Usually the lesson is from the special Quarterly prepared for this purpose.
The object of the class is to acquaint its members with the doctrines of the church and, above all, to lead them to Christ. Though these people join with the full Sabbath school in all its other exercises, it is advantageous to have a separate room in which the pastor can meet with them to study the lesson. When this is impossible, the class should be held in an area where there will be the least possible disturbance.
The Sabbath school hour is a convenient time for many people not of our faith to come for the study of the Bible. It is especially convenient for parents with small children; they can be brought along to Sabbath school where they attend classes suitable to their age while the parents, with no baby-sitting problem, attend the pastor's Bible class. Sabbath morning is also convenient for older people -who do not care to drive at night. Pastors who regularly conduct this special Bible class for non-Adventists state that most of the people remain for the sermon and that from 75 to 90 per cent of those who attend the class regularly, become church members.
In an increasing number of our churches a great deal is made of the Sabbath School Visitors' Day when a special program is given. The important feature is for each member to bring along as many guests as possible. A Sabbath School Visitors' Day is often the occasion for the first visit to an Adventist church by people who later become members. In Memphis, Tennessee, one of our physicians invited 33 friends to attend Sabbath school on a recent Visitors' Day. Seventeen came and one of them, a woman who had never before been in an Adventist church, was so impressed with both the Sabbath school and church service that followed, that she asked for studies on Adventist doctrines. Her husband joined her in church attendance and in the Bible studies and both are now church members.
Many have become so accustomed to the Sabbath school that they regard it as more or less routine. True, a Sabbath school may be allowed to degenerate into mere routine, but the alert minister will join in putting new life into it, and by making use of it and its many activities will find it a great soul-winning opportunity.