People are lonely. Have you noticed their faces? Though masked by poise or bravado, they are sad and forlorn. The problem, say social scientists, often is the inward pain of isolation. A recent survey reports that 4 out of 10 Americans acknowledge frequent or occasional feelings of intense loneliness.
In his book A Nation of Strangers, Vance Packard analyzes the uprooting and fragmentation of American lives, observing: "Personal isolation is becoming a major social factor of our time. A great many people are disturbed by the feeling that they are rootless or increasingly anonymous, that they are living in a continually changing environment where there is little sense of community."1
Many factors bring on loneliness, among them the mobility of society. Some 49 million American citizens will pull up roots and move this year. But, as one observer said, "they lose more than family and friends, they lose themselves." One recently moved executive said, "To avoid the pain of saying goodbye we no longer say hello." M. Scott Peck describes the condition: "Trapped in our tradition of rugged individualism, we [Americans] are an extraordinarily lonely people. So lonely, in fact, that many cannot even acknowledge their loneliness to themselves, much less to others."2
Created for fellowship
God has recognized from Eden on ward humanity's need for companionship. Declaring that "it is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18, NIV), He graciously provided marriage, children, extended families, and the church to meet our need for community. Note the experience of the New Testament church: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . .All the believers were together and had everything in common. .. . Every day they continued to meet together . . . They ... ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (Acts 2:42-46, NIV).
God calls us first into fellowship with His Son (see 1 Cor. 1:9), and this leads to the horizontal dimension of Christian fellowship. The unique New Testament word koinonia means sharing together Christ and His benefits. We are called fellow workers, fellow citizens, fellow soldiers, and elect together. We are invited to partake with, suffer with, and rejoice with one another. These are known as "syn" compounds, a Greek prefix meaning "with, along with, or together." These compounds in the New Testament indicate the newness and uniqueness of our life together in Christ, which is far deeper than any camaraderie known to the world.
A built-in solution Why, then, are there so many lonely, isolated church members including Seventh-day Adventists? Larry Richards describes the condition often seen in Bible classes: "How tragic the sterility of classes where strangers sit together each week in well-dressed rows, masking the hurts and clutching close the private joys while a 'teacher' whom few know intimately mouths the words of truth."3
Seventh-day Adventists usually do quite well at the door in making people feel welcome. Unfortunately, that's often the end of our "community." We nod and smile, give casual greetings, and even pass the time of day. Then what? Many visitors and fellow church members return home to four walls and a lonely existence.
My thesis is that we have a built-in answer: Sabbath school classes. Unfortunately, we are not taking advantage of the opportunity. We gather around the Word of God and are blessed, but where is genuine community? Our problem is too formal a context for learning, too much attention given to lesson content, and too little listening and sharing. So many teachers dominate the class by lecturing 80 percent of the time. "But," you ask, "how can we enjoy fellowship when we have only 20 or 30 minutes together?"
Well, church policy stipulates 70 minutes for Sabbath school. In our congregation the superintendents streamline the program (large group time) to about 20 minutes time enough for the scripture reading, prayer, and the mission feature. This leaves 50 minutes for the classes (small group time). In our class we have about 15 minutes of sharing, caring, and intercessory prayer. This provides 35 minutes for discussing the lesson (anything less, in my opinion, is inadequate).
Community takes time to build
I have discovered that a closely knit Sabbath school class can truly embody community---a genuine therapeutic experience. But there is no such thing as instant community. It takes many months to really get acquainted and develop a sharing atmosphere---warm, open, and caring. The teacher must have a vision of what he or she wants to do and follow some carefully designed steps:
1. Teaching must be person-centered, open, and nonthreatening, with emphasis on relational Bible study. In preparing to teach I look for scriptures that can help individual members: "What is there in this lesson that will encourage John, who is out of work?" I have tried to develop a "shockproof" attitude toward negative comments and "far-out" ideas. One learner said, "The whole idea of blood atonement turns me off." There were no shocked expressions, only mutual support followed by sharing some appropriate scriptures. A non-Adventist husband said recently, "Why is it so hard to surrender?" Although he used a slang word in expressing his frustration, again there were supportive thoughts and helpful scriptures. Another remarked, "I wonder if I'll ever make it?" Still another said, "Pray for my son; he has run away." After one year we are learning to "share our mutual woes."
2. Use the discussion method of teaching.4 I talk less than half of the time and usually refer questions back to the class. This facilitates exciting interaction. I keep the discussion moving forward, make it Christ-centered, and focus attention on the Bible.
3. Many find listening difficult, especially teachers and preachers since their training encourages them to talk. I try to listen with my eyes and my heart and develop a "tolerance for silence." This creates an atmosphere of openness and encourages discussion.
4. Getting acquainted with class members by personal visitation has helped immensely. When you get to know people's needs and show unconditional love, they respond in like manner.
The spirit of sharing has enriched our class experience. M. Scott Peck says: "We cannot be truly ourselves until we are able to share freely the things we most have in common: our weakness, our incompleteness, our imperfection, our inadequacy, our sins, our lack of wholeness and self-sufficiency." 5 Our class has an outreach project of visiting missing Sabbath school members. We have had the joy of seeing some of these return to Sabbath school.
The results of this sharing approach have been gratifying. In one year attendance has nearly doubled, and every week we have nonmembers at tending husbands and friends of our members. One lady, away for some time, upon returning said, "I'm so glad to be back in our class. I feel like I'm at home." Another testified, "I feel safe in this class. I can be myself and express my frustrations, my doubts, my joys, and my sorrows."
Ellen White counsels regarding classes: "They should be family schools, where every student will receive special help from his teachers as the members of the family should receive help in the home. Tenderness, sympathy, unity, and love are to be cherished." 6 "You must win their affection, if you would impress religious truth upon their heart." 7
A unique feature of our class is the season of intercessory prayer. This is when we get closest to one another, joining hearts in earnest prayer expressing needs, sorrows, wants, and thanksgiving.
I recognize that from a pastor's point of view, there are many factors and methods available to a congregation in achieving koinonia. But small groups experiencing genuine Christian community can enhance any method. I wish I had discovered the potential and power in a Sabbath school class before I retired!
Your greatest challenge in achieving community is changing traditional thinking and establishing new methods of teaching. It takes time to reeducate Sabbath school teachers and leaders. But remember Ellen White's classical formula for change: "Educate, educate, educate."8 In addition to her Counsels on Sabbath School Work two books that have helped me are The Different Drum by M. Scott Peck, and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.9
With vision, hard work, and much prayer your Sabbath school classes can become centers of rewarding and productive excitement. Your church can become a spiritual home and a place of genuine community.
1 Vance Packard, A Nation of Strangers (New York: David McKay Co., Inc., 1972), p. ix.
2. M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1987), p. 58.
3. Larry Richards,"Church Teaching: Content Without Context," Christianity Today, Apr. 15, 1977.
4. See Ellen G. White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1938), p. 166.
6. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 152.
7. ____, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1923), p. 68.
8. These words appear in a number of her books. For example, see Medical Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1963), pp. 78, 79, 262.
9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper and Row Pubs., 1976).