In some churches, Sabbath School is thriving. Members are growing spiritually, visitors are attending regularly, and consistent mission activity is springing from every class. But in many churches, Sabbath School attendance is languishing, with no sign of improvement in sight. Is there anything pastors can do to turn the tide?
A vital resource that will encourage and inspire every pastor regarding Sabbath School is Counsels on Sabbath School Work. In it, Ellen White states,“The influence growing out of Sabbath school work should improve and enlarge the church.”1 This should be music to the ears of pastors—Sabbath School can improve and enlarge your church! Now let’s consider how pastors can improve and enlarge their Sabbath Schools.
1. Model the ministry
Leadership 101: if you want any chance of increasing Sabbath School attendance, you need to attend yourself. Yet it seems more and more common for pastors to opt out of Sabbath School, even when in the building. While the superintendent is leading a program in the sanctuary or Sabbath School classes are meeting throughout the church, the pastor can often be found reviewing the sermon or engaging in a conversation in the foyer. Before long, members begin following the pastor’s example and congregate in back rooms and hallways of the church rather than joining in Sabbath School. An unspoken mes-sage is conveyed—Sabbath School is not that important.
Of course, pastors cannot always attend Sabbath School. But just as Jesus worshiped in the synagogue every Sabbath, “as His custom was” (Luke 4:16),2 so the custom of every pastor should be to attend Sabbath School whenever possible. Show by example that Sabbath School is a vital part of the Sabbath worship experience, not an optional preliminary.
In many churches, Sabbath School attendance pales in comparison to the worship service. Pastors should take advantage of this fact and communicate the importance of Sabbath School in the preaching service. Schedule sermons on subjects such as the history and purpose of Sabbath School, the value of fellowship in Sabbath School, and the role of mission in Sabbath School. Be sure to incorporate some of the many powerful prophetic insights from Ellen White regarding the value and importance of Sabbath School.
2. Clarify the ministry
Pastors should emphasize to their members the importance of attendance, not merely as a personal benefit but as a ministry. The apostle Paul admonished: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24, 25). Notice the purpose of attendance, or assembling together, is to consider and exhort “one another.” It is not merely for our own spiritual gain that we should attend Sabbath School but also to support one another, pray for one another, and stir up love and good works in others.
When few attend a meeting, it tends to discourage; when many attend, it gives strength and encouragement to everyone. Many people simply do not realize that the life and strength of the church depend, to a great degree, upon the consistent attendance of its members. This is why attending important church services and functions should be taught as a spiritual habit. We may not always feel like attending Sabbath School, but we can still choose to attend by faith. “With your heart softened by the love of Jesus, go to the meeting, feeling that you are personally responsible for its success. If but few attend, you should feel under double responsibility.”3
3. Improve the quality
This may be hard to swallow, but maybe the reason some people do not attend Sabbath School is that they think it’s boring. Not that this is a good excuse not to attend, but a boring class certainly does not help matters. “Our Sabbath schools should be made more interesting.”4
Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. When Sabbath School attendance begins to dwindle, we choose members with lesser gifts in communicating and teaching to serve as superintendents and teachers in Sabbath School. Then we take the most important and interesting elements out of Sabbath School and stuff them into the worship service. The logic is understandable. We want the most talented people and exciting features to be in the worship service when everyone is there to see and hear what happens. But if we always take the best for the worship service and leave the rest for Sabbath School, we give people no incentive to attend and only exacerbate the problem.
Do not wait until attendance increases to begin focusing on excellence in your program. Put your efforts toward making Sabbath School something members will not want to miss; then be patient as the positive reports travel around the church. As a general rule, you can shift stronger elements into Sabbath School and not see a decrease in worship service attendance.
4. Visit the children
One of the most important factors in Sabbath School attendance is the quality of the program for children and youth. Adults can be hard to figure out. Even when they fail to see the need for their own spiritual growth, many parents still want their kids to have the very best Sabbath School experience available. But this gives pastors a double motivation for investing in children and youth. First, they can make a lasting impression and guide young minds to a life of committed service to Jesus. Second, by ensuring that there is a strong pro-gram for the children, they can connect with parents and often discover higher attendance in the adult classes too.
Pastors should periodically visit the children’s and youth Sabbath School divisions to show appreciation and support for the young people and teachers. Be warm and friendly. Get to know the children and youth as much as possible, starting with their names. Showing an interest in what is happening in these Sabbath School divisions will not be lost on anyone—children, youth, parents, or teachers.
5. Revive the mission
Either before or after the Sabbath School class study, most churches hold a short service for the whole church that is often called the “preliminary program” or “superintendent remarks.” Neither of those sounds very exciting. A “preliminary” program sounds like optional, unimportant stuff that happens before the real program. “Superintendent remarks” sounds like a mini sermon before the real sermon. In place of these not-so-inspiring programs, pastors should promote a vibrant “mission program.”
For many churches, a short study of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide is all that is left of Sabbath School. But though the foundation of Sabbath School is Bible study and prayer, the focus of thriving Sabbath Schools has always been mission—both world mission and local community outreach. The mission program can incorporate inspiring testimonies and mission reports, top-quality training, Bible school graduations, or even an occasional baptism. No need to bog down the program with preliminary features or commentary. The key is to streamline the program and stay focused on mission. Consider the following sample order of service:
- Welcome, opening song, and prayer (5 min.)
- World mission report (5 min.)
- Local testimony or ministry high-lights (5 min.)
- Personal ministries training (5 min.)
After opening with a song and prayer, the focus turns to global mission and what the church is doing around the world. Adventist Mission produces weekly videos that fit perfectly into this slot if no live testimony is available.5 The second segment is for local ministry testimonies or reports. The final segment is for personal ministries training.6 The program moves from their work (global mission) to our work (local church mission)— and, finally, to my work (individual mission). You may not have all three segments every week, but keeping this schedule for most Sabbaths will ensure a well-rounded mission focus.
“Every church should be a training school for Christian workers.”7 Within the structure of our churches, we already have a school we can utilize for training Christian workers—the Sabbath School! Do not make the mistake of thinking our members are turned off by mission education and training. Perhaps that would be true if we were scolding them for what they have failed to do. But that’s not the spirit or purpose of the mission program. This program is based on the premise that “many would be willing to work if they were taught how to begin.”8 If the world mission reports are inspiring, the local testimonies and reports short and interesting, and the individual training practical and encouraging, it will be a blessing to all who attend.
6. Warm the church
If attendance is struggling, it could be because the vital element of fellowship is not receiving the attention it needs. Many pastors looking for church growth and discipleship ideas have been taught that small groups can nurture their members, provide spiritual guidance, meet social needs, and create lasting bonds of friendship. But what many fail to capitalize on is the small group structure that already exists in Sabbath School.
Pastors should ensure that a format of fellowship is truly in place. If possible, organize Sabbath School classes into small groups where members can easily interact with one another rather than maintaining a large, lecture-style class in the sanctuary. While some may initially prefer the anonymous nature of a large class with little to no participation, such a format rarely brings them back. Deep down, most people appreciate it when others take an interest in them and exhibit genuine love and care. Pastors should preach and train on the importance of warmth and hospitality toward those who attend Sabbath School and church.
In addition, pastors should encourage church members to join one Sabbath School class rather than bouncing around from week to week. Sabbath School is the best place for members to share together, pray together, ask questions, get clarification on difficult subjects, and grow spiritually. Ensure that a system is in place to contact and encourage those who are unexpectedly or consistently missing. Many people will never attend Sabbath School consistently if they feel no one would really care or miss them if they stayed home.
7. Invite the people
It should go without saying, but to increase attendance, pastors should encourage both teachers and members to be intentional about inviting people to Sabbath School. When a quarter is coming to an end, every teacher should begin by inviting the class back next quarter. Then, both the teacher and members should serve as Sabbath School evangelists inviting others to their class.
Go to the foyer just prior to the worship service. When church members come in who do not normally attend Sabbath School, give them a printed flyer or a copy of the next quarter’s Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide and invite them to your class. Be warm and personal, showing a genuine interest in having them attend.
Classes can do this as an ongoing mission project. Ask each member to find at least one person to pray for daily and to invite to Sabbath School leading up to the start of the next quarter. Invite former church members, current but nonattending members, or friends in the community.
8. Train the teachers
Churches with great preachers generally have great attendance. It may not be the noblest reason to attend, but it’s a reality, nonetheless. People love good preaching and teaching. So, one reason people do not attend Sabbath School—if we are honest—is that they are dissatisfied with the quality of teaching. Pastors can help by conducting a training class for teachers.
Train teachers to (1) maintain a living connection with God in prayer; (2) never teach without preparation—study the Bible for fresh understandings; (3) be a teacher, not a preacher, by encouraging discussion and interaction; (4) know where you are going and stay on track; (5) draw insights from the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide but read and teach primarily from the Bible; (6) be sure the main points and practical lessons are clear; (7) pray for and with class members; (8) be warm, kind, and thoughtful—never rude or condescending; (9) visit and personally labor for those attending; (10) encourage class members to be soul winners and share what they learn.
The goal is not to transform all our teachers into crowd-pleasing attractions but to help them develop their gifts and potential and to eliminate common mistakes. By ensuring that every teacher receives simple training in key areas, pastors can significantly improve the quality of Sabbath School and may also see an increase in attendance.
9. Organize for service
In addition to the mission program, in which the entire church joins together for inspiration and training, the classes themselves should engage in mission. The small-group format is perfectly suited for effective outreach: “The formation of small companies as a basis of Christian effort has been presented to me by One who cannot err.” “Let there be in every church, well-organized companies of workers to labor in the vicinity of that church.”9
Pastors should work with the Sabbath School leaders to ask every class to adopt a quarterly mission project. Keep it simple. Choose a tract or piece of literature and set a distribution goal as a class. Identify struggling families and plan intentional acts of kindness by class members. Develop a list of those unable to leave home due to age or health concerns and have a few class members visit each one. The possibilities are endless. Then, have each class share a report during one of the weekly local testimony segments of the Sabbath School mission program.
It is important to remember that people attend more faithfully when they are invested—when they feel a part of something. By not only meeting together weekly but also engaging in other opportunities for mission and fellowship, members will attend more consistently, and the purpose of Sabbath School will be more fully realized: “The object of Sabbath school work should be the ingathering of souls.”10
Robert H. Pierson, former General Conference president, wrote: “From children we as Seventh-day Adventists have been told that the Sabbath School is the heart of the church, and so it is.”11 Just as the heart gives life to the body, so a vibrant Sabbath School gives life to the church. If Sabbath School attendance has been a weakness in your church, go to the Life-Giver. Pray and ask God to increase your Sabbath School attendance. Then, with Jesus by your side, go to work using the ideas in this article and others that the Lord will give you. May the Lord bless your efforts and may the influence of your Sabbath School improve and enlarge your church.
1 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1938), 9.
2 Scripture quotations in this article are from the New King James Version.
3 Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 184.
4 White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work, 114.
5 For Adventist Mission videos, visit the Adventist Mission Videos page at am.adventistmission.org /videos.
6 For videos that can be used in personal ministries training segment, visit the GROW Videos page of the GC Personal Ministries website at GROW.adventist.org/videos.
7 Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1947), 59.
8 White, Christian Service, 59.
9 White, Christian Service, 72.
10 White, Counsels on Sabbath School Work, 61.
11 Robert H. Pierson, “The Heart of the Church,” British West Indies Visitor 5, no. 6 (June 1948).