Leading our children to Christ:

Adventist education and discipleship

Scott R. Ward, DMin, is an assistant professor of Discipleship and Lifespan Education at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Veteran religious educator Lawrence Richards once asked, “Where do we begin in our thinking about Christian education?” He then concluded, “For me the starting point is found in these words of Jesus: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ ”1

That is what drives my love of Christian education and burning desire for pastors to be passionately involved in it. But is this a ministry that all pastors choose to invest their time in? G. M. Baker surveyed more than 300 pastors and concluded, “The tangible effort and action put forth by ministers in support of church schools is at a lower level than their verbal statements affirming intellectual belief in the importance and value of church schools.”2 Simply put, pastors say Christian education is important and may believe it, but if one were to examine their weekly schedule, we would find little evidence that the school operated by the church is truly a priority for them.

Pastoral participation

I discovered the power of pastoral participationin schools operated by the church when, as a young minister, I found myself filling in as the Bible teacher. It amazed me to discover the close relationships I could develop with the youth by having the opportunity to spend time with them studying the Bible five days per week rather than just once a week at Sabbath School and perhaps another hour Wednesday evenings with those who chose to attend prayer meeting. At school, I had daily opportunities to interact in the classroom as well as in chapels and during lunch. Being on a school campus was a way to stay in touch with all the kids from my congregation enrolled there, and it was also a great way to find out what was happening in the lives of their families and how I could more effectively minister to them.

When I accepted a call to Lodi, California, I determined to get involved at Lodi Academy. Almost 90 percent of the children from my new church attended the school. I asked the principal if I could sit in on the art class since my bachelor’s degree was in fine arts, thinking it would be a good way to get to know the kids. When the principal told me that the academy currently had no art class, he invited me to start one. I ended up serving as the academy art teacher for the entire 14 years I pastored there. It proved to be a great way to encounter youth in a fun, nonthreatening environment.

Discipleship

Because of the classroom relationships I was able to build, more kids became interested in going on both the inner-city homeless ministry trips and the out-of-country trips. More kids became interested in participating in Bible study groups and other activities. As I had the opportunity to interact with parents as they would drop off and pick up their children, they also became extremely supportive.

Pastors, use your hobbies and passions as points of contact to build relationships with the young people at the school your church operates. One pastoral colleague with a passion for auto mechanics hosted a “shop night” at his local academy every week, helping youth work on their own cars. The relationships built with young people will open the doors for further spiritual conversations and activities. It is all a part of the discipleship process.

Christian education has proven over the years to be a significant factor in helping children born into Christian homes survive and thrive in church. Religious educator John Wesley Taylor’s research demonstrated that years of Christian education positively correlate with the likelihood for those children to get baptized, return a consistent tithe, marry a fellow believer, and develop into faithful disciples.3

Pastoral support and involvement

Seminary dean Jiří Moskala discussed five problems related to ministry through schools operated by a church:4

  1. Many pastors did not grow up in a Christian home or were not products of Christian education.
  2. Pastoral effectiveness is usually evaluated by the number of baptisms, financial growth (tithes and offerings), and preaching rather than results related to Christian education.
  3. Pastors and members may have a limited understanding of the symbiotic relationship that should exist between churches and the schools those churches operate.
  4. Pastors, members, and the church board may perceive the school as a financial burden and a time-consuming enterprise.
  5. No seminary class deals with religious education and how to facilitate collaboration between the church and the school.5

One of author Ellen White’s most powerful statements on education is, “In the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one.”6 If we want to take her words seriously, we need to make an extra special effort to lead our children to Christ when they are at the age when they learn the best and when they are in a place where they can practice the lessons. That would be during the elementary and academy school years in a school operated by the church.

A person’s worldview becomes established very early on. That is why it is critically important to take the lead in helping shape our children’s outlook within the walls of gospel-oriented and mission-minded schools run by the church, whether that be in the Bible class, science class, history class, or even math class.

Drawing on published research and my own youth-ministry experience, I have developed a four-step process for helping pastors partner with teachers in making Christian schools thriving centers of discipleship and outreach to the community.7

1. Pastoral involvement on-campus. For pastors to get involved in their schools, the first step is to regularly come to the school and be willing to participate in what happens there. You can develop caring and supportive relationships with faculty, staff, and students by simply showing up. Your presence at the school will open doors for conversations and shared meals. You may have the opportunity to participate in work bees or teach baptismal classes. As a result, you will have the privilege of becoming a spiritual companion and mentor for faculty, staff, and students.

Attending school board and committee meetings is vital, as are frequently expressing support for the school and sharing good on-campus experiences at church services on Sabbath. Make sure church members know and understand the tremendous benefits of Christian education, as demonstrated by all the in-depth studies that indicate their importance.8 Simply living life together throughout the week, as suggested by the Shema, is the beginning of the discipleship process.9

2. Community care and involvement. Work with the school principal and staff to help teach the students how to get involved in community outreach activities. Those activities can be humanitarian or spiritual in nature, such activities include cleaning up a local park or highway, helping in a homeless ministry, visiting shut-ins with the pastor or an elder, or assisting in giving Bible studies. Going door-to-door in the community around the school and sharing simple holiday greetings or baked goods, taking prayer requests, or offering to help needy neighbors with yard cleanup or other chores are excellent ways to let the community know the students care.

It’s all about breaking out of the fortress mentality and being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world around us. When pastors, teachers, and other caring adults engage in such outreach activities with our students, it builds these kinds of activities into the children’s lifestyles and becomes a vital part of their worldview.

3. Become a community center. The third step I encourage is to invite the community to the campus to experience nonthreatening events. I call them events without a “hook”; that is, there is no catch at the end. Instead, we just help people where they are in life. They can include such things as hosting cooking schools and Financial Peace seminars. In most cases, a school campus is a less threatening and more welcoming environment for secular people than a church building.

Other on-campus activities to invite your school neighbors to might be gym nights, softball games, craft fairs, or even a 5K charity run benefiting a local community nonprofit group. Such activities also help our students begin to understand how to reach out to those new to the faith and thus give them an opportunity to be involved in being a witness in a variety of ways, both humanitarian and spiritual.

4. Worshiping together. The fourth step is to develop a spiritual worship experience that you can invite your newly found community friends to as a part of the discipleship process. Hosting a worship experience on campus is an effective way to take the next step in your relationship with those who are now familiar with your school and are comfortable being there. As your relationships deepen, newcomers will be more interested in learning about what motivates you to live “the abundant life” (see John 10:10). Such worship experiences can happen any night of the week or on weekends. Once again, give students the opportunity to be involved in outreach to others. In some instances, a youth or family-oriented church plant may even be something to consider.

Always move forward carefully with the leading of the Holy Spirit. Once the community members you are engaging with on campus become more interested in the spiritual gatherings you offer at the school, the next step is to begin inviting them to events hosted at the church where they can be embraced by the church community at large.

Solidifying the gospel commission

Getting involved in nonthreatening forms of friendship evangelism helps young people develop an outreach orientation that can last a lifetime and assist them in becoming fruitful disciples of Jesus themselves. I know because I have experienced it. I always make a point to support and be involved with the school operated by my local Adventist church, sometimes leading short-term mission trips to help young people see the worldwide church and learn the joy of service.

Some pastors are already involved in supporting the schools run by their church, but my prayer is that every pastor will feel energized and equipped to get on campus, partner with our educators and parents, participate in leading outreach with our children, and help make our schools centers of influence in their communities, places where people can come together to worship our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I believe that when our children become involved in such vibrant, gospel-oriented schools, they will be inspired to become and remain active followers of Jesus.

  1. Lawrence O. Richards, Christian Education: Seeking to Become Like Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 11.
  2. G. M. Baker, “Attitudes and Support of Adventist Ministers Towards Denominational K-12 Schools,” abstract (unpublished research paper, La Sierra University, 1996), http://circle.adventist.org/browse/resource.phtml?leaf=11028.
  3. John Wesley Taylor V, “Joining and Remaining: A Look at the Data on the Role of Adventist Education,” Journal of Adventist Education 79, no. 2, April–June 2017, 39–46.
  4. Jiří Moskala, “The Church School: Where Churches and Schools Collaborate in Mission,” Journal of Adventist Education 80, no. 2 (April–June 2018): 4–8. Available at https://jae.adventist.org/en/2018.2.2.
  5. Cf. Circle, “Valuegenesis Studies,” http://circle.adventist.org/browse/252; Martin Doblmeier, “The Blueprint: The Story of Adventist Education,” http://the-blueprint-film.com.
  6. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), 30.
  7. For more information, see “Pastors and Educators Working Together: Helping Your Church School Thrive,” collaborativeministry.org.
  8. Taylor, “Joining and Remaining,” 39–46.
  9. Cf. Pamela Consuegra, “We Is More Powerful Than I,” Ministry, June 2017, 25-27.

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