Pastor, we've got to do something about Sabbath school. Attendance is down. The classes are struggling. Why, I remember a few years ago more people came to Sabbath school than came to church. Now you could shoot a gun off in Sabbath school and not hit anyone. What happened, anyway?"
"Sometimes I feel like a failure. I try to prepare for my class; I encourage people to study seven times. But when Sabbath comes I find no one has even opened the quarterly. I don't know. Once we called ourselves the people of the Book. It just doesn't seem that people care anymore. I get so discouraged that I feel like giving up."
"Every year it's gotten more difficult to find people to take Sabbath school offices. Not one person would accept the position of superintendent this year, and two of our division leaders quit before the year ended. I guess we'll have to hire teachers like we do the organist. I don't know what the future holds. Whatever happened to dedication and commitment?"
"I have tried using the denominational Sabbath school materials, but they're not suitable to the kids we have. They don't follow the church year: They have the Advent story in the summer and the Resurrection in the winter. I had to do so much adapting, I finally stopped using them. Is that wrong?"
These statements are real. They came from dedicated men and women who faithfully served the church but were frustrated. They were not happy with what had been taking place in the church, and they did not feel that they had been adequately trained for the positions they had been asked to fill. Nor did they see evidence that others had responded positively to what they had attempted to do, and they felt alone.
Most pastors are not involved with the Sabbath school to the same extent that they are with the worship hour. Yet in the Adventist system Sabbath school and the worship hour can no more be separated than the muscle can be taken from the bone and still leave a well-functioning body.
At one point in our history, Sabbath school was the most significant program in the local church. Today that is not necessarily so. From my observations, whether it be on the East Coast or the West, in large city churches or small country congregations, the message is the same: Sabbath school is hurting. Frequently, fewer attend Sabbath school than the worship service. It is hard to find qualified leaders. People do not study the lessons. And I have been told by the adult and' children's division leaders in every church I have pastored that the materials prepared for their divisions are not particularly helpful and so are not used. Teachers discard the lesson helps and quarterlies for their own programs, or, unfortunately, for no program at all.
We in the religious professions respond by wringing our hands and lamenting the lack of dedicated people who will work our plan. Or worse, we deny that the problem even exists. After all, don't we have the finest materials available? That may be, but people vote with their feet and in the churches I am familiar with, Sabbath school attendance has dropped, and the local church has suffered.
But take heart. We can initiate positive change. We do not have to be satisfied with mediocrity, nor need we accept failure as a fact of life. The Sabbath school program can be made excellent, and excellence attracts people. The only seriously limiting factor may be we professional religious leaders. We too often feel threatened by the prospect of changes that will affect our programs.
Sabbath schools must change
Yet, change will come. The question is Will it come by plan or by default? I propose that we plan the changes the Sabbath school needs. In fact, I suggest that we incorporate a provision for change into the program so that new concepts and ideas are continually introduced into the Sabbath school. As religious leaders, we must acknowledge that tradition is not in itself sacred. What attracted our parents and even what we find meaningful may not necessarily answer our children's needs.
Not only do needs change with the times but what is adequate for one congregation may not be adequate for another. After working with many church groups, I have concluded that churches vary as much as do people, and that each group has special needs that can best be met by a customized program.
Personnel and procedures already exist to develop customized programs for each congregation and for each subgroup within that congregation. It would certainly be appropriate to have a common theme around which each congregation could build its program, thus providing unity. But within that theme, churches should be free to develop individual programs.
Some might object: If the church were to allow such congregational individuality, what would become of world unity? What would happen to our oneness?
It comes down to the question of purpose. Do we intend to have a grand design, even if a significant number of the very ones for whom we have created the grand design ignore our effort? Or is it our purpose to attract as many people as possible to the study of God's Word, to make the Christian faith as appealing and practical as we can to the greatest number of people? If these last be our goals, then methodology as standardized programming should not be held sacred; and we ought to find the best program for an individual church and work it. This raises the next question: Who is going to be the finder, and who is going to work it? Basically, what we face is the need for specialization. But specialization has not yet come to Adventist Christian education. For many of us Christian education still means parochial school. We are not familiar with the world of Christian education and the Christian education learning centers, which offer a viable way to bring new life to Sabbath school.
When a local conference begins looking for a Sabbath school director, it is important that consideration is given to one who is a Christian education specialist. Such a person is familiar with available materials and programs and is trained to develop programs suited to congregational needs. An individual who is skilled in developing innovative curricula for adults and children and is able to provide hands-on guidance to local church leaders is worth a king's ransom. Remember, good programming attracts people. That is a law. And there is another like unto it: Poor programming repulses people.
A church with more than 400 members might well consider adding a Christian education director to its staff. Take a day and talk to the men and women who pastor the most active and growing congregations in your community. I predict that each of them has a Christian education director.
To assume that adding an additional staff person will suddenly solve the problems is simplistic. And a poor situation cannot be improved with program changes alone. However, it is unrealistic to believe that sincerity can substitute adequately for quality and that good intentions will satisfy human need. Sabbath school leaders must accept the challenge of presenting quality programs, of meeting human needs. And the Sabbath school does offer exciting possibilities.
Innovative, up-to-date Sabbath schools
Today we are witnessing a revolution in how people develop relationships. Establishing specialized groups has become big business people are lonely and find help in sharing with others. In even the smallest city you can find small groups for divorced people, single parents, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) parents, gays/lesbians the list is endless. Each group is made up of people who share a similar interest, experience, or viewpoint. The Sabbath school is a natural for establishing special interest groups who meet together to study the Sabbath school lesson. I believe it would be helpful if one or two people in a congregation became specialists in establishing such groups.
The communication revolution is another area that has potential for invigorating the Sabbath school. Videos are part of that revolution, but the church has done almost nothing to use this technology. It is now possible for a local church to produce video programs for its own use or to be exchanged regularly with other churches. Present technology would allow hookups between churches across the nation or around the world.
Missions have long been part of the Adventist Church, yet statistical evidence suggests that we in North America have lost our interest in missions. It is time to initiate new methods for attracting people's attention. We are not unwilling to give. The astounding response to the Mexican earthquake and to Ethiopian famine relief is evidence.
If there is one thing we might learn from the emergency giving associated with these disasters, it is that people will give when they see the need vividly, know where their money will go, and know what it will do. Our mission stories only partially satisfy that need. Mission Spotlight does better, but other options "are available.
We might, for instance, try associating a congregation with a specific project. This approach poses problems, but it offers benefits, too. We would have" to establish an accountability among churches that does not now exist. Probably such a program should be limited to special projects and to serving as a supplement to the present mission offerings.
How about international sister churches?
Another successful idea Sabbath schools might adapt is the Sister City concept. If a Sister Church program was established, we could reasonably expect that each congregation would benefit. For example, we who live in cities populated by Asians would be interested to learn how a congregation in an Asian country presents Christ to those who come from non-Christian backgrounds. As part of the Sister Church program, congregations would exchange information and pictures, share common concerns, and even initiate member-to-member visits. Congregations might even share specialized ministry personnel. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.
Think what effect it would have on a congregation if the Sabbath school regularly presented reports of progress made possible by that church's support. Pictures, videotapes, recordings, letters, and phone hookups can bring the far comers of the world to any congregation.
I do not believe we Adventists have lost our vision or our purpose. Instead, we have directed our vision to areas other than the church. We who are the professional leaders in the church can help our people refocus their vision within the church context, or we can continue standing on the sidelines as they direct their vision elsewhere.
Of all the church's activities, the Sabbath school affords the greatest potential for congregational involvement. When programs are well prepared and well presented, when people are invited to participate in situations that provide real opportunity for decisionmaking and responsible stewardship, when people's needs are being met, attendance will increase and the spiritual life in a congregation will grow stronger. Such potential calls for sacrifice. Traditions, policies, approaches, mind-sets, and comfortable ways of doing things will be threatened. That is the price we will pay. Quality always costs. But I believe the returns will offset the expense.
Information and materials are available to teach people how to implement these types of programs. People are available who can train others to better reach the goals of the Sabbath school. We can benefit from the revolution that is passing us by. To use a sports metaphor, it is time to get off the bench and start playing the game.
Before you dismiss these ideas as unrealistic or impractical, reflect for a moment on the Sabbath school program in your own church or your own conference. What is exciting about the Sabbath schools you know? How many people are involved? How many really enjoy what they are doing in Sabbath school? And think for a moment of your own attitude. What do you really think about Sabbath school? Would you want to attend if it were not expected of you? Do you arrange things so you are otherwise occupied at Sabbath school time?
If the answers to these questions are less positive than you would like, and if you think your church or conference is the only one where things are not working well, think again. You are not alone. It is time we acknowledge that a problem exists. That is the first step. The next is to seek viable methods to restore Spirit-filled, enjoyable, productive Sabbath schools and to develop the potential that awaits our creative efforts.