Enlarge your church through Sabbath school

The pastor who begins to view Sabbath school as an important part of his church's ministry will have discovered a powerful soul-winning and spirit-building tool Discover how to vitalize your church through the Sabbath school

Charles Betz is officially retired but continues to produce Sabbath school curriculum materials for the Far Eastern Division of Seventh-day Adventists. He spent thirteen years as director of the Sabbath school department of the Northern California Conference prior to his retirement.

One Sabbath afternoon two weeks after we moved to Dallas, Texas, our doorbell rang and a well-dressed couple about our age greeted us with a warm smile. "Hello. I'm Tom, and this is my wife, Sue. Were from the First Baptist church of Dallas. We've come to welcome you to our city." They continued: "We're from a young adult Sunday school class and we would like to invite you to our class. We enjoy interesting Bible study and have good Christian fellowship. Do you have a church home yet?" I explained our church connection, but thanked them profusely for calling.

I was very interested in their approach. They said nothing about "visiting our church" or "hearing our pastor"--who, by the way, was a nationally known preacher. They didn't talk about their beautiful sanctuary, their fine music, or their splendid facilities. The purpose of their call was to welcome newcomers to a large metropo lis, and to invite them to a small group Bible study with the promise of friend ship and Christian fellowship. If we had not been committed members of a Sabbathkeeping denomination, I believe we would have been at the First Baptist church of Dallas the following Sunday. Enrollment of that church's Sunday school was about eight thou sand.

What prompted this warm, friendly visit by this fine Christian couple? What organizational structure was back of the call? How did they get our name? I will deal with these points later. My purpose in this article is to help you lead the members of your Sabbath school into this kind of missionary outreach.

Inward or outward focus

There are two kinds of Sabbath schools: inward-focused and outward focused. Arn, McGavran, and Am make the following comment about inwardfocused Sunday schools: "What happens when the priority of Christian education focuses exclusively on nurture of existing Christians? People are urged to participate in the Sunday school because it will help them. The church is thought of as a refuge for intimate fellowship with other believers; a personal and spiritual center where believers are nurtured to spiritual maturity. Programs, activities, and curricula are focused almost exclusively on the personal concerns of the existing Christians."1

Indeed, Sabbath school must major on nurturing members and helping them to grow in the Lord. Our Sabbath schools were organized, for Bible study and nurture. But when inward focus is the whole story we have a problem. Preoccupation with ourselves leads to introversion. Concern for self, even in religion, leads to lethargy and exclusiveness. The person who eats but never exercises loses the ability to exercise. As the human body needs nourishment and exercise, so church members must study the Word of God and share it.

Note the words of Ellen White: "Many professed Christians, in seeking church relationship, think only of themselves. They wish to enjoy church fellowship and pastoral care. They become members of large and prosperous churches, and are content to do little for others. In this way they are robbing themselves of the most precious blessings." "As a result, [they] go crippling their way to heaven." 2

Some people believe that if members are spiritually fed in the "church at study," they will automatically become missionaries, but this is not the case. As Arn, McGavran, and Arn say: "Such self-centered education does not motivate people toward involvement in the church's mission of growth and out reach. Education that concerns itself with only the spiritual nourishment of its own members contributes significantly to a 'self-service mentality' that effectively seals off the Sunday school from the outside world." 3

An outward-focused Sabbath school will see Bible study and fellowship not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. The Sabbath school must obey Christ's great imperative to go and make disciples. "The more [a person] seeks to impart light, the more light he will receive. The more one tries to explain the word of God to others, with a love for souls, the plainer it becomes to himself. The more we use our knowledge and exercise our powers, the more knowledge and power we shall have." 4

The question every Sabbath school teacher should ask is "This coming week how can we share this glorious truth we have discovered--on the job, in our neighborhoods, and with our unbelieving relatives?" This kind of discussion should follow every Sabbath school lesson study. But Bible study should never be downgraded or pushed aside for a "missionary emphasis." Bible study and sharing are like the two arms of the body--we need both to be truly whole.

The visit by the Baptist couple to our home was an expression of the Southern Baptist philosophy of evangelism through Sunday school. Their outward focus is a result of consistent education over the past fifty years. Every Sunday school teacher and class officer is expected to visit. "Every prospect becomes some teacher's personal responsibility." 5 The organization undergirding their program is simple: Know who the prospects are, secure the workers, provide the space, train the workers, and maintain regular visitations. 6

The names of prospects for Southern Baptist Sunday schools come from every available source. They may have secured our names from neighbors or from a utility company. The class president of a young adult Sunday school class probably held up a handful of name cards and asked for visitation volunteers. The young couple who visited us responded by taking our name. Southern Baptists try to match the age level of the visitors and the prospects. The First Baptist church of Dallas through its Sunday school organization motivates members to make more than one thousand visits weekly. 7

Dr. C. E. Autrey, a Southern Baptist leader, says: "The most effective method in evangelism in the twentieth century is the Sunday school. ... It should be the contact agency of the church. All ages and types of people are visited and enrolled in the Bible school. Here their hearts are warmed with Bible teaching. They are then led to remain for worship. They are brought into the Bible school, worship service, Christ, and church membership." 8 It is this philosophy that is largely responsible for Southern Baptists growth to be the largest Protestant denomination in America.

Soul winning is the heartbeat of our Sabbath schools in Central America, South America, and in the Far Eastern Division. I had the privilege of participating in six Sabbath school congresses that were attended by about forty thou sand Sabbath school leaders and teachers in the Far East in 1983. More than 450 were baptized at these congresses most as the result of branch Sabbath schools conducted by Sabbath school members.

Sabbath school outreach is the most exciting aspect of evangelism in many parts of the world field. I have seen young people, fired with enthusiasm, out on Sabbath afternoon holding branch Sabbath schools. We attended three such schools on a Sabbath afternoon on the outskirts of Manila. One of these was held in an alley by an 18-year-old girl and her friends. Children seemed to appear from everywhere. Soon about forty children and teenagers were lustily singing gospel choruses. There were mothers with babes in arms listening intently to the Bible stories illustrated by felt figures. The earnest faces of these children and their parents witnessed to their response to the Holy Spirit.

Many conferences and unions in the Far Eastern Division have directors of child evangelism. Their job is to train members and encourage Sabbath school outreach. The familiar scenario is "First the children, then their parents, then a branch Sabbath school, and then the evangelistic meeting." Ellen White said: "We may bring hundreds and thousands of children to Christ if we will work for them." 9 "Parents who can be approached in no other way are frequently reached through their children." 10

At this point you may be saying, "It sounds good, but will such a plan work in my church here in North America?" My answer is Yes. Let me share with you what the Lord did for me. The story began, strangely enough, in a seminary classroom. I was not excited about a required course in religious education. But I found the subject matter of this class to be very different from the usual rarefied atmosphere of academia. The professor, a quiet, dignified scholar, shared with us what God was doing in bringing revival and growth to hundreds of Baptist churches. He told story after story of how God was awakening dead churches and reaching thousands of lost people through Sunday school outreach evangelism. As I listened and did my research I said to myself, "Here is a man filled with love for souls and sharing a methodology that makes sense."

I began to read Counsels on Sabbath School Work, by Ellen G. White again. All through this priceless little volume the same message leaped out at me: Bible study and soul winning should go hand in hand. "The Sabbath school, if rightly conducted, is one of God's great instrumentalities to bring souls to a knowledge of the truth." "The Sabbath school should be one of the greatest instrumentalities, and the most effectual, in bringing souls to Christ." 11

After receiving my degree from South western Baptist Theological Seminary I accepted a call to a suburban church in a metropolitan area, I came to this church with a great truth burning in my soul: Spiritual life prospers only when Christians are actively involved in sharing their faith. And I had a profound belief that the Sabbath school can improve and enlarge the church. The message was repeated in sermon after sermon and shared with church leaders at every opportunity. My strategy was simple:

First, I conducted a series of discussions with church officers and Sabbath school leaders, sharing the philosophy and methodology. I kept repeating the idea, "We are a team. God wants us to grow as persons and as a Sabbath school. The Sabbath school can provide the organizational framework for this objective. "

The next step was to enlarge the Sabbath school organization. Each adult Sabbath school class organized for ser vice by electing a class president, secre tary, and group leaders for every six members. The class president assists the teacher in planning for and enlisting members in outreach. The class secretary cares for attendance and visitation records, telephoning, and social occasions. The group leaders account for missing members and assist in visitation.

When coming to a new pastorate, I always prepared an up-to-date master prospect card file. Names from the master file were transferred to "Sabbath School Visitation Assignment and Report" cards. The names of nonactive church members were placed on assignment cards along with the names of prospects. We then began sending visitation assignment cards to all adult Sabbath school classes and children's divisions.

We determined from the beginning that Sabbath school would receive its full time. To provide time for discussion of missionary projects and visitation assignments, we took the ten-minute home missionary period plus another five minutes and added it to the thirty-five minute lesson study time. We encouraged regular class fellowship gatherings on Sabbath afternoons and during the week.

Fear was a big obstacle to visitation, so I held an ongoing soul-winning clinic each Sabbath one hour before sundown. We talked about how to visit, how to relate to nonattending members and former members, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, skeptics, agnostics, human ists, et cetera. We used simulation exercises to increase interest and involve the people in the learning process. Attendance was excellent from the start. Many people would visit on Sabbath afternoons and then come to the clinic and vesper service.

On Wednesday evenings we con ducted meetings for Sabbath school teachers and division leaders. Forty-five minutes was dedicated to teacher training, and the last forty-five minutes was devoted to singing, prayers, testimonies, and a brief Bible study.

I worked hard to develop a friendly, supportive relationship with Sabbath school leaders. We kept careful records of the visits and Sabbath school atten dance. These statistics were published weekly in the church bulletin.

Yes, we had some opposition and considerable foot-dragging on the part of some Sabbath school teachers. But, thank the Lord, the core of the Sabbath school and church leadership faithfully supported the program. Interest deepened as we shared visitation experiences and answered prayers at our Sabbath afternoon clinic.

In three months the Sabbath school attendance showed a slight increase. By six months there was a noticeable increase in both Sabbath school and church attendance. After a year Sabbath school membership had zoomed past our church membership. By a year and a half Sabbath school attendance was regularly exceeding church membership. During this period the conference evangelist conducted a crusade, and the Lord gave us an excellent harvest of souls.

In looking back on my experience in this church, I can rejoice and thank the Lord for several things: The program brought new life and enthusiasm to the Sabbath school and helped to create a new interest in Bible study. Scores of people who had been only spectators became involved in visitation and out reach activities. The adult Sabbath school classes developed a genuine identity. Individuals developed strong loyalty to "my class." We witnessed the power of small groups joining together in Christian service. Best of all, we experienced a perennial program of evangelism and a healthy growth in church member ship. The steps are simple: Find the prospects, enlarge the organization, provide training, make assignments, and keep visiting.

One never knows how the Spirit will direct in the accomplishment of a divine purpose. Through a seminary professor the Lord opened my eyes and inspired me to turn to my Sabbath school as a method of evangelism. The Spirit encouraged me when things were down and helped me to persist, and He motivated the mem bers to cooperate. I am not trying to promote a "new method." You probably already have a file stuffed with methods. I am simply sharing what I believe and what God did for me. Ellen White was right on track when she said: "The influence growing out of Sabbath school work should improve and enlarge the church." 12 I have adapted this same approach and used it in other churches with good success.

I have tried organizing my church into small groups around tasks. But somehow after a few months the groups and the tasks became like the feet and toes of Nebuchadnezzar's image: They would "not cleave one to another." The Sabbath school organization is already intact; it provides a small group with a
leader who is responsible for the accomplishment of specific missionary tasks. Remember that "the formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err." 13

So take another look at your Sabbath school. Enlist the people with gifts for child evangelism in Vacation Bible Schools and branch Sabbath schools. Give your Sabbath school classes time to discuss missionary projects and visitation. Groups tend to "own" projects they talk about. Why not work with the Lord to enlarge your church through your Sabbath school?

1 Charles Am, Donald McOavran, Win Arn,
Growth: A New Vision for the Sunday School
(Pasadena, Calif.: Church Growth Press, 1980), p.
40.

2 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washing
ton, D.C.: General Conference of Seventh-day
Adventists, 1947), p. 179.

3 Arn, McGavran, and Arn, op. cit., p. 41.

4 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1941), p. 354.

5 Elmer L. Towns, The Ten Largest Sunday
Schools and What Makes Them Grow (Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), p. 40.

6 J. N. Bamette, A Church Using Its Sunday
School (Nashville: Convention Press, 1937), p. 17.

7 Towns, op. cit., p. 41.

8 C. E. Autrey, Basic Evangelism (Grand
Rapids: ZondervanPub. House, 1959), p. 93.

9 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents and
Teachers (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press
Pub. Assn., 1943), p. 172.

10 , Counsels on Sabbath School Work
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1938), p. 114.

11 Ibid., pp. 10, 115.

12 Ibid., p. 9.

13 Christian Service, p. 72.

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Charles Betz is officially retired but continues to produce Sabbath school curriculum materials for the Far Eastern Division of Seventh-day Adventists. He spent thirteen years as director of the Sabbath school department of the Northern California Conference prior to his retirement.

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