There are many reasons why the church needs Sabbath School. Our foundation as a denomination is an outgrowth of serious Bible study. It led to an appreciation of the Heavenly Sanctuary, an understanding of the still-binding Moral law, including the seventh-day Sabbath. It led to a proper understanding of the state of the dead and an appreciation for the promised immortality. It gave us an understanding of the end times and insight into Christ’s second return. And so much more.
From Bible study, we learned how to live victorious, meaningful lives of service. We learned how a body of believers should function. Compassion, forgiveness, charity –are all brought into clear view through the study of the Bible. And Sabbath School is the mechanism in our church to continue on that path of growth and discovery.
“If Christians would earnestly search the scriptures more hearts would burn with the vivid truths therein revealed. Their hopes would brighten with the precious promises strewn like pearls all along through the sacred writings. In contemplating the history of patriarchs and prophets, the men who loved and feared God and walked with Him, hearts will glow with the spirit that animated these worthies. As the mind dwells on the virtue and piety of holy men of old, the spirit which inspired them will kindle a flame of love and holy fervor in the hearts of those who would be like them in character, and as they gather the golden truth from the word, the heavenly Instructor is close by their side.” Ellen White, WM Herald October 26, 1904
As I travel the US and abroad doing Sabbath School ministry, I sense that the Bible is playing less and less of a role in our churches. For many of our churches, especially in the US, Sabbath School is barely attended. There are various reasons given for this lack of attendance, from “boring” (which it often is), “not relevant” to “stuck in the past.”
I can’t argue that those opinions are not true, because in many churches they are. The greater question is why are our Sabbath Schools in such a condition? Why is the only mechanism in our church designed for group Bible study in such poor and dying shape? I believe it is because we no longer see corporate Bible study as vital to our existence and growth.
The evidence cannot be disputed. For many churches, the Sabbath School period is just something that happens before the real service starts. Our resources are mostly funneled into the 11:00-hour church service. In many of our churches, pastors never attend or promote Sabbath School. Members take this lack of interest from the leaders as evidence that Sabbath School is not important. That should not be.
Corporate Bible study is key to the discipleship process. Growing boys and girls, men and women into the full stature of Christ can only be done by making the Word of God the guide for life. Why would we ignore the mechanism in our church that creates that very atmosphere?
We are always on the lookout for the latest ways to evangelize and grow our congregations. We look for any strategies and techniques other denominations are employing, and we race to adopt them, hoping that we too will grow. We seek to be contemporary and relevant as a church, yet ignore a unique aspect of the Christian faith – the Word of God with which Christ identified Himself.
I believe that Sabbath School, done right, would be the solution to many of the challenges we face as a church. I believe that, done right, it will lead to stronger, more dedicated members. Done right, it would lead to church growth and mission. Done right, it would give us guidance on how to make an impact in our lives, homes, and communities. But it’s the done right part that seems so vexing.
Here’s what I know. Most Sabbath School ministry members receive zero to little training over the course of years. Our teachers and leaders are doing the best they can. Many get little support from their pastors. While the budget for training is nil, often our churches find funds to bring in a guest speaker or singer for the main service. Where is the funding for training our people?
This is not a blanket indictment against our pastors. I have worked with many wonderful, committed pastors who are vitally invested in their church’s Sabbath School ministry. I applaud them and wish that more would adopt their level of commitment to this vital ministry.
We need the leaders of our church, from the General Conference down, to really appreciate this ministry. We need the best minds to invest in reviving this ministry throughout our denomination. We need pastors with an appreciation of the role Sabbath School can play in the discipleship and growth of their congregations.
Beyond pastoral support, we need our conference Sabbath School departments to implement regular, systematic, high-quality training. I have been fortunate to work with many conference leaders who want to do all they can to provide resources to the local churches. What would help would be a concerted effort that is well thought out.
On many occasions, I have been privileged to have a front-row seat to seeing Sabbath School done right. I have experienced the ‘aha’ moments that make learning enjoyable. I have witnessed Bible truths being revealed and new concepts of righteous living being expounded – all through the mechanism of Sabbath School.
I have seen children, youth, and adults engaged in meaningful Bible study discussions through the efforts of dedicated teachers who volunteer their time every week, teaching the ways of God and love of Jesus. But they need help.
Will this be another year where everything but corporate Bible study is tried? Or will this be the year that our churches realize the value of the Bible study foundation we are built on and continue that building process through the mechanism of Sabbath School?
The answer will be shown on what we emphasize. If the goal of the church is just to be good neighbors in our communities, nothing will change. If the goal of the church is to have the highest level of oratorical skills behind our pulpits, or the best music each Sabbath, nothing will change. If our goal is to be a place for fun and good clean diversions from the evils of society, nothing will change.
Our goals must be higher. Numbers are important but not everything. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
My prayer is that when we look back on 2017, we will have seen a shift in emphasis back towards the Bible. And Sabbath School is the church’s mechanism for that.