Growing in Grace: The Transforming Power of Sabbath School

Dynamic, growing Sabbath School classes provide instruction, inclusion, investment, and inspiration. Read how this can happen.

Ted Hamilton, MD, is vice president for medical mission, Adventist Health System, Altamonte Springs, Florida, United States.

When we think of the apostle Peter, the first occupation that comes to mind is not likely to be teacher, but in the closing words of his second epistle, Peter succinctly provides some of the best and most practical counsel in Scripture for teach­ers of God’s Word.

Peter writes, “[B]eloved, . . . be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:17, 18, NASB).

The fundamental purpose of these classes is to fulfill Peter’s admonition to avoid error and help people grow into spiritual maturity. And our privilege and responsibility as pastors, teachers, and leaders is to facilitate a process that affords compelling engagement with the living Word of God. How can we know if we are accomplishing our goal?

I asked those who attend my Bible study week after week to relate their stories and share what Bible study means to them. “Tell me a story,” I asked my Bible study class, “about an outstanding Sabbath School experience that made you want to keep coming back. Can you identify specific influ­ences that contributed to this special experience? What three wishes do you have for Sabbath School class?”

They told me their stories. Each story is real, although the names have been changed. Each story differs; each experience retains its own character and flavor. But when considered in the whole, the responses present a remarkable consistency. Four distinc­tive elements take definitive shape and rise to the top as major contributing fac­tors to a rich and meaningful Bible study experience. Dynamic, growing Sabbath School classes provide, in substantial measure, all four of these elements­ instruction, inclusion, investment, and inspiration.

Instruction

“Good teaching,” Lawton explained, “expanded my outlook on the times that Christ lived, the terrain, customs, and culture, and how it all plays a part in interpreting Christ’s parables and understanding the ‘Man’ Christ while continuing to worship the ‘God’ Christ.”1 Margaret agrees, “We seek to under­stand what was happening historically, including the cultures and lifestyles of the cities to which Paul wrote. This has helped me understand the stories more clearly.” Esther relates, “Beyond the very basic Bible stories, I really have no in-depth background. . . . I am soaking this up like a sponge . . . to feel so welcomed to come, listen, and learn is really wonderful.”

Sabbath School is school. It is about conveying information, transfer­ring knowledge, providing context, broadening experience, and deepening understanding. Sabbath School is about history and geography, culture and context, time lines and genealogies, personalities and politics. If we want to make sense of Scripture, we are com­pelled to convey the historical record, to teach the facts, to get the story straight.

But the primary goal of Sabbath School is not acquiring knowledge merely for the sake of knowledge. The Bible is God’s Word. Scripture turns mere history into a revelation story; bare geography into a landscape illuminated by the handiwork and fingerprints of the Creator; culture and context into a stage upon which the great controversy plays out through the lives of real people in all their faith and frailty. The goal of Sabbath School is to tell the basic story as clearly, reliably, and honestly as it can be told, and then—enabled, enlightened, and empowered by the Holy Spirit—to tell the revelation story of God’s sovereignty, providence, power, and grace. The Spirit-anointed task of the teacher of Scripture is to bring souls into a true and living encounter with spiritual reality through a vibrant, living faith.

This dual responsibility of reliable instruction and faithful revelation requires diligent preparation on the part of the Bible study leader. I have found the following processes helpful.

1. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit at the outset; pray for clear thinking, enlightened understand­ing, freedom of expression, and sensitivity and grace in preparation.

2. Study the Scripture. Read the assigned passage until it becomes familiar and conversant. Read the preceding and following verses. Read corresponding passages from other parts of Scripture. A valu­able and efficient resource is www .BibleGateway.com, a free, online concordance.

3. Access ancillary resources: Bible commentaries, dictionaries, atlases, and histories.

4. Organize your thoughts. Write them down. Begin with the scriptural passage, establish the framework and context, identify the moral and/or spiritual issue, follow with a compelling question, be prepared to guide the discussion, and finish with a practical spiritual application designed to engage hearts.

5. Pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit in presentation that the truth may be told about God, Jesus may be uplifted, and love and grace may be nurtured among the participants.

Inclusion

“I have appreciated the fellowship,” wrote Cynthia, a single person, “casual invitations to lunch, the potlucks, and the get-acquainted routines at the beginning of class; there is a welcoming tone of friendliness and appreciation for each person as individuals. I no longer envy others who seem to have a circle of friends for now, I, too, feel I have it all.” Jonathan agrees, “The Sabbath School group has been very friendly and invit­ing and made us feel welcome.” Lindsay added, “I didn’t feel I had roots in our church until attending Sabbath School.”

There is an undeniable social ele­ment to the attraction of the Bible study class. From its roots, Christianity was not a solitary pastime. Jesus said, “Follow Me” at least a dozen times in forming His closest group of followers. Way back at the very beginning of it all, He created us as social creatures, acknowledging, “ ‘It is not good for the man to be alone,’ ” and it was His creative initiative that remedied humanity’s lonely state (Gen. 2:18, NASB).

Sabbath School is a place to become acquainted, appreciate differences, and practice community. Lindsay wrote, “I absolutely love the racial, cultural, spiritual, and political diversity of our class . . . it offers so much perspective outside my own.” Varying viewpoints and opinions provide a healthy balanc­ing element to Bible study. Testing one’s biases in the forum of a kind and vigorous debate has a way of smoothing rough ideological edges, and generating mutual respect and appreciation.

Participation is the Sabbath School “coin of the realm.” Discussion, dialogue, and debate stimulate new insights and spiritual growth. Knowledge can be acquired passively, by reading and lis­tening, but wisdom and insight require active engagement with others, getting acquainted, respecting others, and observing boundaries. “At our class,” Sheila said, “you are accepted just as you are; people are allowed to speak freely and express opinions without being crushed. You are welcomed and loved.”

As we assemble in the presence of Jesus and come to know the Father through the power of the Spirit, we become friends with each other. Just before walking out of the upper room toward the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told the 11 remaining disciples, “ ‘I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s busi­ness. Instead I have called you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father, I have made known to you’ ” (John 15:15, NIV).

Investment

If our Sabbath School class went away, if we just closed the doors, and we all went our separate ways, would anyone care? What difference are we making in the lives of those around us? Are we investing our time, money, talents, and resources in a manner that contributes to the good of others, our friends, our communities, our world?

Mary Beth has experienced this kind of investment in her own life. She was unemployed and struggling. She says that “prayer and support from my Sabbath School class enabled me to keep my faith.” Just when her financial well went completely dry, the class collected an offering “that meant more than anyone could imagine. God truly uses angels among us,” she said. “It is a blessing to be able to be part of a small group in such a large church that gives a sense of belonging and family.”

Following a heartbreaking family tragedy, Frank said, “We found a class that quietly, compassionately, and lov­ingly drew us into their friendship and fellowship as we healed. We’ve never left that class.”

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review reports on research, concluding that “Strong social support correlates with an astonishing number of desirable outcomes.” One study found that “social support was the greatest predictor of happiness during periods of high stress.” The author con­tinues that the benefits of social support derive not only from support received, but “even more important to sustained happiness and engagement was the amount of social support provided.”2

“Our class is open, dynamic, and practical, but what really sets it apart is the Harley Hat.” Mike explains, “It started one Sabbath when one of our group suggested we take up an offering to assist someone in need. A guy who rides his Harley to class literally passed the hat and the Harley Hat idea was born. It’s been amazing! Over the years, clothing has been purchased, medical bills paid, appliances installed, and at least one automobile purchased. Overall it’s the best Sabbath School experience I’ve ever had.”

One of Lindsay’s “three wishes” is that “our class takes on a quarterly mission in our community.” She has agreed to lead that initiative and has offered a variety of suggestions, such as the Second Harvest Food Bank, Operation Christmas Child, and Salvation Army.

So Sabbath School is an effective vehicle for teaching and learning, socialization, and service, for both each other and our community. But more than that, Sabbath School, at its best, is life changing. 

Inspiration

In addition to learning and fellowship, Connie’s three wishes for Sabbath School include “personal spiritual growth.” Mary Beth acknowledges “the willingness of the class to reach out and trust God’s prompting to help change my life and be a part of a renewed faith to depend totally on God.”

Change and growth do not happen overnight. The process may seem almost imperceptibly slow. There are often growing pains, as new insights call us to new challenges in life, and new obstacles emerge. The apostle Paul calls us to “[a]lways be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (Eph. 4:2, NLT). Our job does not include changing each other, but to love, forgive, and encourage each other. God’s Holy Spirit is the all-powerful and totally reliable Agent for growth and change in our lives.

Sabbath School affords opportunities for sharing stories of God’s providence, mercy, and love. Brenda was particularly touched by one teacher’s willingness to
be open and transparent. “She told her story,” Brenda recalls. “She was honest, insightful, and vulnerable. She wept as she shared her story; so did many of us. It was hopeful to know her struggle, and to see God’s hand at work. I loved to get a glimpse into her heart, and hear how God’s grace had gotten through.”

Sometimes a grace-filled moment takes us by surprise. For Emily, it came at the end of class, with only a few people remaining. “As we closed,” Emily said, “we stood for prayer. We gathered in close, with arms around each other, each of us prayed, one after the other. Each of us was quite open in our thoughts with God and expressed our desires to be the hands, the feet, the eyes, the vessel, to bring others to Him. Such a secure, connected feeling in those few moments!”

Conclusion

Things happen in the safety of a small group of trusting friends that are unlikely to happen when sitting alone in a pew, engaged in the one-way conversation of a formal sermon. When we learn together, share together, work together, and pray together, things—relational, life-changing things—happen that are not as likely to in other settings. Instruction is invigorating, enlightening headwork; inclusion is open, embracing arms; investment is hands gifted in service; inspiration is lives changed into the likeness of our Creator and hearts growing in loving friendship with God.

We bring our heads, arms, hands, and hearts—ourselves—to the sanctuary of Sabbath School week after week that we might together “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and in the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Pet. 3:18, NASB).

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Ted Hamilton, MD, is vice president for medical mission, Adventist Health System, Altamonte Springs, Florida, United States.

December 2013

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