October 16, 2015

Adventist Education Can Learn a Lesson From Sabbath School

Read the related news story, “Unprecedented Summit to Address Challenges of Adventist Education”

, director of the education department, General Conference

This week I asked church leaders and laypeople attending the Annual Council business meeting to identify the first Seventh-day Adventist school.

Delegates called out answers from the floor of the auditorium in the Adventist world church’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Several people said the first school opened in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Actually the first Seventh-day Adventist school was Sabbath School.

Sabbath School started in 1852 when church cofounder James White authored the first set of 19 Sabbath School lessons.James White is depicted writing the first Sabbath school lessons.

Today Sabbath School is the place where old and young alike study the Bible in a community — and it remains at the heart of the church’s mission to reach the world with the hope of Jesus’ return. However, the Adventist Church’s formal education system, which started in the 1870s, is also a major priority. Adventist schools face a series of challenges — such as low attendance by Adventist students, high tuition, and an outflow of young adults from the denomination — that church leaders intend to address at a first-of-its-kind Adventist education summit next year.

But first, let’s take a look at the roots of Adventist education.

The first home school for early Sabbatarians opened in 1853, a year after Sabbath School. Martha Byington, the eldest daughter of John Byington, who became the Adventist Church’s first president when the denomination was organized a decade later, opened the home school of five children in Buck’s Bridge, New York. It operated for three years.

It was not until 1872 that church cofounder Ellen G. White published “Proper Education,” outlining the need for church-run schools (Testimony for the Church No. 22). Battle Creek College, today Andrews University, was founded in 1874. The shift from Sabbath School alone to a formal education system is based on Ellen White’s expanded understanding that “in the highest sense, the work of redemption and the work of education are one.”

Education a Top Church Priority

Education is ranked No. 2 — after Sabbath School — on the list of 13 strategic issues in the Adventist Church’s “Reach the World” strategic plan for 2015 to 2020.

“Less than half of all Seventh-day Adventists worldwide have experienced any denominational education, and many pastors have had limited Adventist education,” the plan says. “Although the percentage of church members who have attended Adventist educational institutions partly reflects rapid church growth rather than a lack of commitment to denominational education, this means there is a growing need for education for the children of the many new and recent converts. There is also a need for pastors to receive a thorough and distinctively Adventist training and to have opportunities for continuing education.”

Today Adventist schools face a series of challenges. The cost of Adventist education tends to be high, while the enrollment of Adventist students is low and even declining in places. Some schools are hiring an increasing number of non-Adventist teachers. Meanwhile, the church is seeing a sharp drop in the retention rate for young adults, with one church-commissioned study indicating that 63 percent of those who leave the church do so as young adults.

In the absence of a clear mission and philosophy, Adventist schools become driven by market forces; defined by national standards and accrediting agencies; and formed by culture rather than acting to redeem culture through the power of Christ.

A special committee met for the first time during the church’s Annual Council business meeting this week to begin drafting ideas for the Adventist education summit, which will be held at the world church headquarters on Oct. 5 to Oct 7, 2016. Invited to the summit will be all members of the General Conference Executive Committee, tertiary level presidents, board members for the Adventist Accrediting Association, the International Board of Education, and the International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education.

My Hopes for the Summit

Six outcomes that I would like to see upon the conclusion of the summit are that participants and the groups and schools they represent will:

  • be advocates for increasing the ratio of schools to churches.
  • commit to a curriculum and activities that build a culture of mission, service, and actual engagement by every student in mission.
  • enroll more Adventist students, and increase the percent enrolled by a target amount.
  • employ more Adventist teachers, with annual improvements in Adventist faculty and investments for upgrading the so-called educational pipeline.
  • enforce Adventist Accrediting Association policy and follow-through on the recommendations of Adventist Accrediting Association reports.
  • define and commit to three or four main key performance indicators that will be monitored for improvement.

In the meantime, perhaps it would be a good idea for us to learn a few lessons from the church’s first school, the Sabbath School.

Read here for more on the history of Sabbath School

For me, it is a thrill to belong to a global church where we are all studying the same lesson — well, sort of, since there are now lessons for collegiate, children, and so on. But the adult quarterly is a powerful influence in a shared understanding of Bible teachings.

Global research conducted in the Seventh-day Adventist Church from 2011 to 2013 found that “Sabbath School emerges as a powerful positive in church life around the world.”

“The adult Sabbath School lessons are well liked and regarded as spiritually beneficial in Africa, Latin America, and Asia,” says the “Reach the World” plan, which relies heavily on the research. “Sabbath School teachers are regarded highly by church members around the world and so, too, is the overall experience of Sabbath School.”

Sabbath School is free, ubiquitous, scalable, and supported by common Sabbath School study materials. It provides an opportunity to share one’s faith, apply one’s faith, and disciple one another.

Now I am not saying that Adventist education should be tuition-free. Teachers and educational materials have to be paid somehow. But Sabbath School holds many of the ideals for Adventist education. As Ellen White wrote, “In the highest sense, the work of redemption and the work of education are one.”

Lisa M. Beardsley-Hardy has served as director of the General Conference’s education department since 2010 and was elected to a second five-year term at the General Conference Session in San Antonio last July. Beardsley-Hardy completed two years of theology at Newbold College, England, and graduated with a bachelor of theology from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Far East (now Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies) in the Philippines. She has earned graduate degrees in public health (MPH, Loma Linda University), educational psychology (PhD, University of Hawai’i at Manoa), and management (MBA, Claremont Graduate University, California), and held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, the University of Illinois, Andrews University, and Loma Linda University.