Whatever happened to adult Sabbath School?
We surveyed 1,451 church members and 59 pastors in the Seventh-day Adventist Church from a cluster sample in all nine unions in the North American Division to determine the relationship(s) between Sabbath School attendance and the following five groups of factors: achievement, satisfaction, sociocultural factors, institutional factors, and general perceptions.
From its inception in the 1850s until the early part of the twentieth century, people flocked to the Adventist Sabbath School in North America. During those times, Sabbath School reached its highest attendance rate. In fact, Sabbath School membership was, sometimes, even larger than church membership. Since then, the attendance rate has significantly declined. It is estimated that less than 25 percent of Seventh-day Adventist Church members, at least in North America, now attend Sabbath School on a regular basis. And the statistics may be similar in many other divisions.
“If I were not a pastor, I would never attend Sabbath School.” So stated a church leader interviewed for this study. Another admitted, “I am really ashamed of my Sabbath School. I would never invite anybody, especially non-Adventists, to attend my Sabbath School class.” A seminary professor said, “I remember the classes in only one Sabbath School that I truly enjoyed in my entire life.” A Sabbath School leader acknowledged, “Sabbath School is dying if it is not already dead.”
Instituted in the early 1850s, prior to the official establishment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Sabbath School is one of the oldest organized ministries in the movement. As an educational institution, it was established as a platform for fulfilling the church’s mission of teaching the gospel and nurturing the spiritual growth of its members. From its inception, Sabbath School was intended to be “one of the greatest instrumentalities, and the most effectual, in bringing souls to Christ.”1
For many decades until the early twentieth century, the Sabbath School mission and goals were maintained. The early history of Sabbath School shows that the adult Sabbath School was growing and its members were spiritually enriched. Referring to the early history of Sabbath School, William Covert, an early Sabbath School member, wrote: “I enjoyed my Sabbath School study then as much as ever in my life.”2
Originally, the Sabbath School had one objective: to instruct the youth of the church through a systematic study of the Word of God. Writing about the origins of Sabbath School, Flora Plummer mentions that Elder James White “was deeply impressed with the need of some regular system or plan of Bible lessons especially adapted to the youth.”3 As the Adventist Church grew, the objectives of Sabbath School gradually increased. An independent research study done on the history of Sabbath School objectives, conducted by Sherman McCormick, suggests that Sabbath School should be responsible for six “tributary” objectives:
- Bible study
- Community evangelism and soul-winning
- Fellowship and support
- Nurture and character development
- Training for Christian service
- World mission promotion and funding4
Based upon this, the Sabbath School Handbook states: “Sabbath School has four specific objectives: Study of the Word, Fellowship, Community Outreach, and World Mission Emphasis. These four objectives are the basis for every activity of the Sabbath School in all divisions.”5
The annual statistical reports of the North American Division show that for a number of decades from its time of inception in the 1850s, the attendance rate at the adult Sabbath School in the Seventh-day Adventist Church was continuously growing. Then things started to change.
Prior to the 1930s, Sabbath School was the main evangelistic ministry in the church. In an article titled “Sabbath School Evangelism,” Louis Dickson (1932) remarks on the important role played by the Sabbath School in evangelism. “It is stated that 85 percent of church membership comes directly from the Sabbath school.”6
Over the succeeding decades, Sabbath School attendance, as well as offerings, dramatically declined. Although Sabbath School attendance reports are no longer formally taken, it is estimated that typical adult Sabbath School attendance is lower than 25 per-cent of the church membership in the Adventist churches in North America. This proportional drop of more than 75 percent in Sabbath School attendance is in comparison to about 75 years earlier. Based on the annual financial reports in the 147th Annual Statistical Report, Sabbath School offerings currently represent only 2.55 cents (3 percent) for each tithe dollar.7 Benchmarked against tithe, this is proportionally a decline of over 90 percent in a period of about 75 years.
There is no single cause for or simple answer to the declining attendance at adult Sabbath School in North America. The phenomenon of declining attendance encountered for almost a century is related to numerous factors, which cannot be easily and entirely identified. The literature, however, reveals the following aspects related to Sabbath School:
1. Sabbath School attendance has been related to the multiplicity of Sabbath School objectives. According to the literature, a single and clearly defined objective was an important factor in maintaining a high rate of Sabbath School attendance for the first several decades of its history. Based on the history of Sabbath School, it has been observed that attendance started to decline when multiple objectives were attributed to Sabbath School.
2. As a culturally sensitive entity, the dynamic of Sabbath School has been affected by the numerous sociocultural changes encountered throughout its history. Secularism has been attributed with the loss of vitality in Sabbath School, with its natural by-products of materialism and religious pluralism reinforced by a postmodern worldview.
3. Sabbath School is an educational institution, although not formal, so Sabbath School attendance is influenced by the quality of its teaching and learning process. Cultural and technological changes have dramatically impacted teaching and learning strategies over the past century, and these may not always have been reflected in the way Sabbath School classes are conducted. An adequate teaching and learning method, carefully and culturally contextualized, could result in better attendance at Sabbath Schools.
The level of achievement and satisfaction with Sabbath School is highly related to Sabbath School attendance. Based on the findings of this study, a balance between the cognitive component (achievement) and the affective component (satisfaction), along with active involvement in some form of ministry (psychomotor), appears to stimulate members to regular attendance at Sabbath School.
Other characteristics associated with regular Sabbath School attendance are these:
1. The Bible is used as the primary teaching resource.
2. An interactive teaching style is predominantly used by the Sabbath School teachers.
3. Fellowship opportunities are provided.
4. The local Sabbath School is engaged in community outreach projects.
5. Worship is the reason for coming to church.
6. Learning biblical truths is the reason for coming to church.
7. The participants believe that biblical truths enhance their relationship with God.
8. Sabbath School does not duplicate the features of the church worship service.
9. There is involvement in other ministries.
10. Sabbath School is considered necessary to the experience of “going to church” on Sabbath.
11. Sabbath School is considered relevant for the twenty-first century.
12. The Sabbath School lesson is studied during the week.
This study reveals that even in a postmodern culture such as twenty-first-century North America, adult Sabbath School is better attended in those places where the Bible is used as the primary teaching resource. No other resources, as relevant as they might seem to be, were perceived as a replacement for the study of God’s Word. The Bible was and continues to be the foundation and driving force for a successful Sabbath School.
An interactive teaching style employed by Sabbath School teachers makes a significant difference in Sabbath School attendance. When this teaching style is used, the Sabbath School participants feel encouraged to express their beliefs and develop their own well-considered theological identity.
A teaching style that takes into consideration the differences in learning preferences will enable the Sabbath School members to learn faster (achievement), enjoy what they are learning (satisfaction), and become more likely to put what they have learned into practice (psychomotor). These types of Sabbath Schools are more likely to grow their attendance. The art and science of teaching and learning seem to play an important role in achieving the goals in Sabbath School, but the most important attribute of the Sabbath School teacher is having a relationship with and dependence on God.
A friendly and welcoming environment where the Bible is taught becomes a binding force that attracts people to attend Sabbath School more frequently. An open and supportive Sabbath School class sets the tone for a growing Sabbath School.
A well-conducted Sabbath School provides the necessary ground for growth in discipleship—that is, personal spiritual sanctification and a desire to witness. Higher levels of achievement and satisfaction with Sabbath School in the area of personal spiritual development lead to better Sabbath School attendance.
In addition, Sabbath School attendance is significantly related to a fundamental attitude or worldview in which worshiping God is associated with coming to church. A genuine corporate worship experience has the potential to lead people to a stronger desire for an in-depth study and understanding of God’s Word.
In the same way, a fundamental attitude in which learning is associated with coming to church is significantly related to Sabbath School attendance. As the primary nonformal educational ministry in the Adventist Church, Sabbath School can satisfy the needs of those who value biblical truth and view this truth as essential to the enhancement of their relationship with God.
Keeping the features of a Sabbath School distinct and relevant and avoiding duplication with the features of other church services, mainly with the worship service, could have a positive impact on Sabbath School attendance. If Sabbath School mirrors the exact features of a typical worship service, it is more likely that members will be tempted to choose one of the two services instead of attending both.
A culturally contextualized Sabbath School meaningful to the twenty-first-century generation is more likely to be frequently attended than an outdated Sabbath School that is not sensitive to members’ needs. This identifies an important responsibility for Sabbath School leaders and teachers. They must remain relevant to the culture as well as true to the Bible—identified by this research as the best study resource for Sabbath School.
The study of the Sabbath School lesson during the week is significantly related to Sabbath School attendance. Commitment to the daily lesson study appears to motivate Sabbath School attendance rather than being seen as a chore that decreases attendance.
Sabbath Schools in the twenty-first century face unprecedented challenges. The most significant of these is the paradigm shift to the post-modern era, manifested particularly through religious pluralism and cultural diversity. Sabbath Schools must deal with these new challenges in order to be effective. The study shows that a Bible-based teaching experience that is culturally contextualized and relevant is a vital ingredient for the twenty-first-century generation. In response to what has been revealed by this study, it is my personal conviction that one clearly defined and culturally contextualized Sabbath School objective, passionately and diligently pursued, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, may potentially set the grounds for a new and more productive phase of adult Sabbath School.
Overall, most authors who have written about Sabbath School consider the soul-winning objective to be the main objective or the supreme objective of Sabbath School. As profound as it may sound, this objective does not provide the parameters or the specifics of a soul-winning agency. In my opinion, this goal is more like the overarching goal of any church effort. Sabbath School needs to focus on a unique, clearly defined, tangible, and culturally contextualized objective that will enhance the Adventist Church in its ability to fulfill its mission. A diligent study of God’s Word was, is, and should remain the fundamental objective for any Sabbath School effort in the Adventist Church.
Is there a future for Sabbath School in this postmodern world infused with relativism and materialism? My answer is yes. Sabbath School still has its unique mission, a mandate that no other church ministry or church institution is able to fulfill as efficiently. In addition to what this study has revealed, I personally believe that the following four major outcomes of a properly conducted Sabbath School cannot and will not be fulfilled to the same extent by any other church entity:
1. Sabbath School was and continues to be the most effectual binding tool in keeping the Adventist Church theologically and doctrinally united.
2. Sabbath School provides a unique educational model that has the potential to guide the church membership, individually and collectively, in searching and studying the truths of the Bible at home and in Sabbath School on a weekly basis.
3. Sabbath School provides valuable mentoring and opportunities for young, aspiring leaders to practice and develop their talents.
4. Sabbath School provides important opportunities for members and nonmembers of the church to voice their beliefs and opinions. As individuals are encouraged to consider and express their beliefs in Sabbath School, they naturally internalize biblical values and take ownership of their beliefs.
Even with the unprecedented challenges of the twenty-first century in North America as well as around the world, a properly designed and conducted Sabbath School has the potential to become what it was originally intended to be—one of the most effective tools in bringing people close to God.
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1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies on Sabbath-School Work: A Compilation Approved by the Sabbath-School Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub.Assn., 1900), 20.
2 From a letter by William Covert published in Flora Plummer, Early History of the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath-School Work (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1911), 8.
3 Flora Plummer, From Acorn to Oak: A History of the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath School Work (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1922), 19.
4 Sherman McCormick, The Seventh-day Adventist Adult Sabbath School: Its Purpose as Described and Perceived (PhD diss., Andrews University, 1922), 147, http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=745218531 &Fmt=7&clientId=1898&RQT=309&VName=PQD.
5 Sabbath School Handbook (Silver Spring, MD: NorthAmerican Division of Seventh-day Adventists, 2004), 6.
6 Louis Dickson, “Sabbath School Evangelism,” Ministry, October 1932, 18.
7 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 147th Annual Statistical Report (Silver Spring, MD:Office of Archives and Statistics, 2009), 87.