But they’re just babies,” one church board member explained. “We just need to have someone take care of the little ones so their parents can go to the adult Sabbath School class.” With these words, this church lost a tremendous inreach and outreach opportunity.
Beginners Sabbath School, formerly known as cradle roll, is much more than a babysitting hour. I realized this more than 30 years ago when, as a new mother, I began attending beginners Sabbath School with my infant son. I noticed a room filled with excited children, from infants in arms to very active 3-year-olds, as well as exhausted parents!
During beginners class, the Sabbath School hour is filled with stories, songs, poems, and many interesting objects. The Sabbath School room is transformed into another world, decorated to create a space for a toddler’s active imagination.
Within a few weeks of my initiation into beginners Sabbath School, the Sabbath School leader quit. My good friend, who also attended this class with her son, a year older than mine, suggested we team up and take over leading the beginners Sabbath School programs and lessons. We both wanted the best for our little boys, and we agreed to the many hours of preparation that are needed for a good program.
I soon learned that leading beginners Sabbath School for one hour was more exhausting than a day of teaching in my Adventist one-room school. I also learned what a profound influence a good program has on these young children and their parents. The more interesting and engaging our program, the more children and parents who attended Sabbath School each week. The class of four or five grew to a weekly attendance of a dozen. Not only did the children want to be at Sabbath School, but so did their parents.
On the faces of those young mothers I noticed the same look that I saw in the reflection of my own mirror—the look of exhaustion. Taking care of an infant and/or a young child requires a great deal of energy. Our fantasies involve getting sleep and finding clean clothes. We long for the days of having time for personal, daily devotions and talking with adults. These mothers, and sometimes fathers, were at Sabbath School for their children, but they needed spiritual feeding as well. For this reason I believe beginners Sabbath School might be the most import Sabbath School class in any church.
Beginners leaders need to be some of the church’s most energetic, creative, and personable church members. This ministry is for our youngest, as well as their parents. Many families who have children of this young age don’t stay for church. Trying to keep a little one quiet during the church service is a more difficult challenge than many parents are willing to face. Sabbath School becomes their only corporate worship and fellowship time each week.
Beginners Sabbath School should be considered an evangelistic program. Young adults who have stopped attending church frequently bring their toddlers to Sabbath School. These former Adventists say they have wonderful memories of Sabbath School and that they would like to have their little one enjoy those same experiences. If there is no beginners Sabbath School, or if it’s a weak program, we lose an opportunity to help these former members reconnect with their spiritual roots.
Beginners leaders need to focus on this dual role: the role of leader for little ones and also for their parents. As we tell stories and sing songs, we should think of ways we can encourage and inspire the parents with messages of hope, the love of Jesus, and even parenting advice. But this added layer to leading Sabbath School means the leader cannot just “show up” on Sabbath morning and go through the motions of leading the class. There needs to be intentional preparation before arriving at the church on Sabbath morning.
The ability to be an evangelist, family counselor, and motivational speaker are characteristics not usually associated with beginners leaders. But in a strong program these needs will be taken into consideration when finding a leader.
Some parents will either attend this class with their children or not come to church at all on Sabbath morning. Beginners Sabbath School is not just babysitting.
Making a good program for this age group involves preparation, organization, and enthusiasm.
A good beginners Sabbath School program includes three parts. At the beginning there are welcoming songs, recognition of visitors, mission emphasis, prayer, and occasionally a birthday celebration. The middle part of the program takes up about half the classtime. This is where the theme, or focus, for 13 weeks revolves around one topic. The program topics can be discussed and taught using various means. Children can learn about Creation, heaven, oceans, forests, farms, camping, helping at home, reverence, Jesus’ birth, and other topics that children and leaders find interesting.
The theme is taught using songs, finger plays, poems, visual aids, felts, and objects the children can hold. Children are always kept busy doing something because they are at a stage of development where they are unable to sit and listen for long stretches of time. Each week the leader repeats about three fourths of what they did the week before and varies about a fourth of the songs and activities from week to week. This age group loves and needs repetition and routine. The more predictable their Sabbath School, the more comfortable and cooperative the children are during their class.
At this age beginners are learning to talk, sit on a chair, sing, follow directions, and participate. They frequently get up to go for a walk, put felts on the board, wave sticks, dress up, discover hidden objects, hold stuffed animals, etc. Most of these things occur while the leader, assistants, and parents sing very simple songs to accompany the actions.
The last 15 minutes of beginners Sabbath School involve lesson study. The children physically move to a new location. They sit around a felt board either on chairs or on a blanket or rug. If possible, a teacher other than the leader of the theme covers the lesson. The teacher uses felts to help the children picture the Bible story from their Sabbath School lesson. When the story is completed, the children individually repeat their simple memory verse. The teacher may need to ask the younger ones to repeat the memory verse word by word. As they get older, the children are able to say more words at one time. Before they are promoted to the kindergarten Sabbath School class, they should be able to say their memory verse from memory, if their parents work on helping them memorize their verse during the week at home. This is an excellent time for parents to begin training their child in the habit of daily Bible study.
When a child misses a week at Sabbath School, the beginners family could mail them their Sabbath School paper and/or Little Friend. It is nice to include a church bulletin also. This practice will help keep parents close to the church. After being absent, many parents have expressed thankfulness for the weekly connections to church that this simple act provides.
Beginners Sabbath School is the place children learn to sit and listen, participate with other children, obey the teacher, and sing. The training done in this class affects behavior in future Sabbath School classes.
Leading children’s Sabbath Schools is a significant ministry. The entire church should be praying that the Lord will impress the right people to help lead our families to the best future possible on this earth and for eternity. If we neglect the spiritual welfare of our children—even the very youngest among us—we a
re overlooking the most important ministry in our church. Let’s do everything we can to help our children come to know their Forever Friend, Jesus.
Judy L. Shull has served as a teacher in Adventist elementary schools for 34 years. She is director of the independent ministry Childhoods With Jesus.