I was invited to speak at a church of more than a thousand members in Los Angeles. As the Sabbath School superintendent gave her opening remarks, I noticed that a couple hundred people were in attendance. A few hundred more trickled in toward the end of Sabbath School. As we began the divine service, I had my offerings ready; however, the deacons did not come to the platform. I asked the senior pastor, “Did they forget to pick up the tithe and offerings?” To which he replied, “No, we usually pick up the tithe and offerings after the sermon because that is when the most people are in church.”
Maybe your situation is similar. Your members are not coming to church early—or are not showing up at all. Why is it that churches are packed for Sabbath School in some places, and empty in others? The reality is nothing new; but it still cries out to be addressed: Sabbath School particularly in the “developed” world, has been in decline for years. As we look at successful Sabbath Schools across the world, the answer may be as simple (and difficult) as this: An intentional return to basics that begins with me.
Revelation 2:5 contains these nonnegotiables: (a) “remember the heights from which you have fallen”; (b) “change your inner self—your old way of thinking”; (c) “seek God’s will . . . and do the works you did at first”; (d) “otherwise, I will visit you and remove. . . your church’s impact” (AMP).
How is your church’s impact? Studies show that there is a direct correlation between languishing Sabbath Schools and church growth.1 So here are four keys to bring life to your Sabbath School and growth to your church.
1. Growth happens in a church when the members are involved in fervent, constant prayer
Every study of the history of church revival and church growth shows that prayer played a central role. Jesus realized that in order to accomplish His mission, He needed to be in constant connection to the Father and in tune with the Holy Spirit. Jesus would get up before sunrise to pray. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).2 Jesus not only got up early to pray but also often spent whole nights in earnest prayer (Luke 6:12).
The disciples followed Jesus’ example. They prayed for 10 days between Jesus’ ascension and the receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). “They devoted themselves to . . . prayer.” “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42, 47). These Bible texts show a clear connection between a strong commitment to prayer and kingdom growth. Prayer is an essential element in the life of a Christian. A life without prayer is not spiritual because prayer is how people connect with the Holy Spirit. Churches that neglect prayer will languish and die.
Practical steps: Begin Sabbath School with a strong emphasis on prayer. I have seen many churches grow just by focusing on their prayer life. Some call for a special prayer meeting 30 minutes before the beginning of Sabbath School. Make it happen in your church, and you will experience growth as never before.
2. Growth happens in a church when the members worship God together
I baptized a young woman named Rosy. The day of her baptism, she said to me, “The reason I like to come to this church is that you teach the truth as it is in the Bible. I learn a lot in Sabbath School and as I study my Bible lesson every day. I love to learn from the Bible.” Effective Sabbath Schools have all of the elements of worship: (a) Bible study, (b) prayer, (c) praise, (d) singing, (e) fellowship, (f) offerings, (g) mission. Should we not, then, consider Sabbath School as a worship experience instead of just a place to discuss the Bible lesson for the week? Sabbath School is revived when it is viewed it from a different perspective—as an opportunity to worship.
Practical steps: Encourage members to prepare for this weekly corporate worship experience through individual study, using their Sabbath School lesson, reading the Bible daily, and prayerfully meditating on it.The teaching time is not the preaching time. The teacher should facilitate the study and understanding of the Bible. He or she should make study of the Bible in Sabbath School interesting, engaging, and participatory, and even introverted members can be encouraged to read a text.
3. Growth happens in a church when the members are involved in fellowship
Research conducted among former prisoners of war reveals that the most effective method the enemy used to break the spirit of prisoners was isolation. Worse than torture or lack of food and water, what really penetrated their psyche was separation from other people. Similar experiments were conducted on monkeys, with the same results. These studies show why social interaction is so crucial for our overall health and survival.
While the same is true for Christian growth, Christian fellowship goes deeper than just social interaction. It is based on a close relationship with God, and as we fellowship with God our fellowship with others increases. “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). We cannot have real, genuine fellowship unless we have real, honest relationships with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Most of what we consider to be fellowship is just a superficial encounter rather than the communion of heart and soul. Real Christian fellowship goes beyond a mere “Hello, how are you?” Koinonia is a participative fellowship. It is a partnership in the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.
Practical steps: The Sabbath School teacher should use a few minutes during class time to plan a fellowship meeting outside of class. Meet for one hour to pray, to plan, to eat, and to talk about how to reach the community for Christ. In addition, this will be an opportunity to find out who has been missing from class for two consecutive Sabbaths and plan to get in touch with these people. Pray for missing or hurting members, and make specific plans on how to care for them.
4. Growth happens in a church when the members are involved in daily soul winning
The best gift a pastor can give the members of the church is to teach them how to work for Jesus.3 Make members fishers of people. Nothing will make them stronger than using their talents and gifts to bring someone else to Jesus.
I was invited to hold evangelistic meetings in San Antonio, Texas. I visited the church one month ahead of the meetings to find out what kind of preparation was being done. I attended a Sabbath School class and participated in a healthy discussion of the Bible lesson.
After the worship service, I was invited to a fellowship meal. As I waited for the meal to begin, one of the church elders approached me. “Pastor, I want you to meet the members of my Sabbath School class.” He proceeded to introduce me to each one of his class members. Then he said, “The pastor is teaching us how to visit homes, knock on doors, pray for people, and give Bible studies. Every Sabbath afternoon, we go out in pairs as Jesus sent His disciples. We divide up the neighborhood, and each couple takes a street. We pray for the people who live on that street and begin knocking on doors. With this methodology, we found several families interested in Bible studies. Some of those families were here today, and others will come for your meetings in a few weeks.”
I was delighted to hear this and knew that my evangelistic meetings were going to be successful, not because of my preaching but because of what the Holy Spirit was already doing in the life of each church member involved in sharing Jesus in their community. And indeed, the Lord blessed those meetings with an abundant harvest in a city believed difficult for winning souls.
Practical steps: Each Sabbath School class should pray about and discuss ways they can be involved in fulfilling the gospel commission. This should comprise all ministries in the church. Plans should be made and implemented in every phase of the discipleship process: preparing the soil of the heart, planting the seed, cultivating spiritual interests, harvesting decisions for the kingdom of God, and keeping people in the church by making them disciples of Jesus. Youth can be involved in sharing their faith by passing out tracts, praying for neighbors, prayer walking, and preaching at home or abroad. As you organize mission opportunities for your church, remember that the best help we pastors can give our youth and church members is to teach them to work for the Master.
Back to basics
Charles Bradford says to pastors, “A good sundown family worship on Friday night is of inestimable value to the Sabbath sermon.” He also stated, “Rise early in the morning. Let nothing keep you away from Sabbath school. Remember, a good conscience helps a [person] to speak with greater authority. It also helps you with your people, when they see you on time and involved in the study of the lesson.”4
These four keys can help bring revival and growth not just to Sabbath School but to your church as a whole. This was the disciples’ lifestyle: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (Acts 5:42). The very next verse says, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing . . .” (Acts 6:1). Growth happens when we do our part and allow the Holy Spirit to do His. It is God who gives the increase.
Sabbath School will never be revived if the pastor sees it as the task of the superintendent alone. Getting back to basics begins with me. I am the pastor, yes, but I am also a church member and, as a church member, I am a Sabbath School member. Pastor, what change in your Sabbath morning practices might God be calling you to?
1 Laurentiu A. Serban, “Factors Related to Declining Attendance at the Adult Sabbath School in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventist Church” (PhD dissertation, Andrews University, 2014), digitalcommons.andrews.edu/dissertations/690.
2 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this article are from the New International Version.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 82.
4 Charles E. Bradford, Preaching to the Times (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1975), 118, 65.