The Sabbath school has done more to influence the beliefs, values, and unity of our worldwide church than any other organization. Someone has said, ((Only a wise and omnipotent God could utilize untrained volunteers and such meager facilities and materials to change the course of so many lives." Ellen White wrote, "Its importance in its influence upon our youth cannot be estimated."1
On an average Sabbath morning about 350,000 people gather in Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath schools to study, sing, pray, and bring offerings. About 60 percent of our church membership attend Sabbath school, and one study revealed that 90 percent of the people present for church at 11:00 A.M. were present at 10:00 A.M. for Sabbath school. 2 While percentages may vary from church to church, there are seldom significantly more people in church than in Sabbath school. So Sabbath school attendance is an important vital sign of the health of a church. In evangelical churches Sunday school attendance is considered the most accurate barometer of spiritual vitality and church growth.
As a pastor I took an accurate count of Sabbath school attendance. My records told me much about my church. For instance, if the attendance in the youth division was significantly down for a period of time I saw this as a danger signal. My goal was to have as many people in Sabbath school as we had on the church membership list. This is not an unrealistic goal since the members of the cradle roll, kindergarten, primary, and about half the junior division are Sabbath school members but not church members. You probably have noticed that the fastest-growing divisions of our world field have more Sabbath school members than church members. When every class and division in the Sabbath school is involved in reaching nonattending members and prospects, you will have a steadily growing Sabbath school and church.
What happens at Sabbath school in your church? Is it a vital, learning, growing experience that will attract new members? Or is it perhaps just a dull habit that the "faithful few" have not yet abandoned? And what can you, a busy pastor, do to make it more of the former than the latter?
Constant evaluation is an indispensable element in corporate leadership. Why not invest one hour of your time on four consecutive Sabbath mornings carefully observing your Sabbath school divisions? This will do several things for you. It will make you more aware of the strengths and weaknesses in your school and will identify problems before they reach major proportions. Moreover, it will demonstrate your interest and concern for Sabbath school and allow your leaders and teachers to share their feelings. Finally, you will gain new insights into the teaching-learning process, which will enhance your own teaching ministry. Here are a few things to look for:
Emotional climate: Do the leaders wear smiles or frowns? Are the children happy, contented, and enjoying them selves? Do you see warmth and caring? Is there good eye contact, focused attention, and lots of appropriate touching? (This is especially important in your cradle roll and kindergarten divisions.) These are the things that create an atmosphere for learning.
Teaching-learning: Is there sustained attention and interest? Are the children involved in the learning process? Are their hands and minds busy with learning activities? Is there plenty of interaction and discussion? Do the teachers ask many questions? Do their questions challenge thought? Do the teachers actively listen to the children's responses? Application techniques: Do the teachers tend to moralize, or do they use application techniques and simulation exercises such as "What would you do in this situation?" or "How would your life be different this week if you put this text into practice?" "What would Jesus do?"
Classroom control: Is control achieved by interest and involvement, or by police techniques?
Room decor and equipment: Are the room appointments interesting to children, or geared to adult tastes? Is the equipment adequate? Are the chairs and tables the right size? Are chalkboards or marking boards available, and if so, are they being used? Are there adequate visual aids for use as theme devices and teaching devices? Are the leaders and teachers prepared? How about music—are the children singing? Do the teachers sit among the children during large group time? Is there concern for missions, offerings, missing members, and outreach?
Youth: Before visiting the youth division, count the number of young people in the parking lot and in the halls. Compare this with the number seated in the youth room to learn how things are going in the youth division. In the room, look for lively discussion and Bible study during classtime. Does the teacher teach to felt needs, or simply preach religious theory? Take careful note of the time the teacher spends talking compared to the time the youth spend responding. In the discussion method the teacher should not talk more than 50 percent of the time. Are the youth leaders using the new Cornerstone Connections? Are they planning regular outreach programs and social activities?
Adult division: Is the program (large group time) related to the central truth of the Sabbath school lesson, or are the superintendent's remarks a hodgepodge of unrelated poems, travelogues, and stories? Is missions a regular part of the program? Do your Sabbath school classes have a full forty minutes for small group study?
Do you have one or two large Sabbath school classes and several small ones, or is your class membership rather evenly divided? Do you have special classes for college-age members and young marrieds? Do your teachers use the discussion method or mostly lecture? Do teachers ask questions that challenge higher thought processes? Are classes grappling with the "big ideas" of the Bible? Do the teachers actively listen to the learners' responses? Is there participation and involvement, such as writing, reporting, classifying, et cetera? As you mingle among the Sabbath school personnel, affirm those who are doing well. "I like the way you . . . Keep up the good work!" Make tactful suggestions to those who need help. Meet with your Sabbath school council. This is especially important when the council is choosing teachers for the new year.
How closely is your Sabbath school graded? Grading is based on a Bible principle. Jesus recognized the importance of adapting instruction to the developmental level of the learner. "In His teaching He [Jesus] came down to their level. He ... [simplified] His important lessons to meet their childish understanding." 3 It is this philosophy that undergirds the grading principle used in our Sabbath schools. Jesus adapted His instruction to meet human needs. He knew age-level characteristics.
The tendency in some churches is to consolidate divisions such as the cradle roll and the kindergarten, or the juniors and earliteens. This may eliminate the need for rooms and staff, but your children will be deprived. It is very difficult to teach a 1-year-old and a 6-year-old in the same division, or a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old. It is extremely difficult to hold children's attention when they are far apart in their development. It may be difficult to find division leaders and teachers, and floor space is expensive, but aren't our children worth it? When it comes to staffing Sabbath school divisions, I believe that God has already placed the people with gifts in the church and that it is up to me to find and develop them.
Your youth division is especially critical. Even if you have only a few teens, form a division. I was a new pastor in a metropolitan church. The Sabbath school superintendent came to my office greatly concerned about the youth class, which met in the balcony. "They provide their own entertainment by sailing paper airplanes over the heads of their elders in the main sanctuary," she complained.
"Is there a place where they could have their own division?" I asked. "No," she said, "unless you use the old shed at the back of the lot where the Dorcas used to meet." I poked around in the old building. Musty clothes covered with cobwebs were hanging here and there. It will do, I told myself, but it will take some hard work.
Next Sabbath I talked to the youth class. "Would you like to have your own division?" "Yes!" they chorused. "Meet me tomorrow morning ready for work," I said. They were all there. After eight hours of cleaning and painting we could see a big difference, and in a couple of weeks they moved in.
I told the division leader to let the youth choose their officers, and then to sit on the back row and give them plenty of guidance and encouragement. Within three months the attendance had greatly increased as nonattending youth started coming back and bringing their friends. In six months the room was crowded to the doors. Attendance had nearly doubled. The secret: provide the space, train the leaders, involve the youth, and go after the prospects.
Individual classrooms for adult Sabbath school classes are important too, and can enhance learning. Sabbath school members seated in pews in a sanctuary have a difficult time inter acting with one another. Utilize every available room in your church plant for individual classes. The best seating arrangement for learning is single chairs placed in a semicircle. Eye contact between students is a very important element in learning. If you are planning a new church plant, provide individual classrooms at any cost.
Trained, Spirit-filled leaders and teachers are the key to Sabbath school growth. I found that a two-hour training session held on Sabbath afternoon after a potluck dinner worked well. One week I would invite the leaders and teachers from the cradle roll through the junior division. The next Sabbath I would offer training for the earliteen, youth, and adult leaders and teachers. Do not try to cover too much theory at one time. If you do not feel comfortable training leaders and teachers in the preschool divisions, ask a kindergarten or elementary schoolteacher to help. Suggest subjects such as "How to Involve Children Using Bible-learning Activities" and "Age-level Characteristics of Primaries and Juniors." For the older learners select vital topics such as "The Discussion Method." Spend the first hour on learning theory, then during the last hour involve your learners in lesson plans for the next Sabbath. Theory that is learned and applied the next Sabbath becomes more permanent. Ask your teachers to prepare six to eight discussion questions for next Sabbath's lesson. After they have written their discussion questions, form small groups to critique their work, using a criterion that you have placed on the chalkboard. Sabbath school teachers enjoy this approach.
There are many excellent training films available. (See the resource list at the end of this article.) Filmstrips are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased for your church training library. Keep books on religious education circulating among leaders and teachers. Talk about spiritual and professional growth as a standard for all to reach. Of course, Counsels on Sabbath School Work and the Sabbath School Manual are indispensable. Your Adventist Book Center and gospel bookstores have a good supply of religious education mate rials. Provide the Worker, journal of Sabbath School Action for all teachers and division leaders. Encourage attendance at your conference-sponsored workshops. Be sure that your teachers and leaders have adequate tools for the task. A chalkboard is indispensable for every teacher and division leader. Maps and Bible atlases are important too.
What can you do to transform your Sabbath school into a place of vital learning and growing? Help the teachers in all divisions to be more person-centered, more caring and sensitive to the hurts and felt needs of learners. "I am passing around a get-well card for Sue." "Does anyone know where the Browns are? They have been gone for two Sabbaths," et cetera. Teachers need more of a shepherd's heart. Show your teachers how to be discussion leaders. Help them plan things for the learners to do: agree-disagree quizzes, buzz groups, et cetera. Get the pages of the Bibles turning. Help students to discover, to see implications. Use educational strategies that help the learner apply the truth to his daily life. Finally, meet with your Sabbath school leaders and teachers often. They are part of your staff. Most important, teach them how to lift up Jesus in every class and division. Let's make our Sabbath schools so stimulating that members will be caught up in the exciting quest for Bible truth.
What goes on at nine-thirty in your church has enormous implications for your church and its growth. Families tend to look for Sabbath schools where their children will be happy, interested in the Bible, and growing spiritually. As pastors we are, like it or not, the overseers of the Sabbath school. Our role is to guide, enable, and train our lay teachers—to help them to be true educators and to use the best educational methods. If we do, "the influence growing out of Sabbath school work [will] improve and enlarge the church." 4 Then Sabbath school will be not a dull habit but a place of vital learning and growing.
1 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Sabbath School
Work (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1938), p. 10.
2 This study was done by the Pacific Union
Conference Sabbath school department some years
ago. I believe the results are still valid.
3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p.
4 White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 9.