June 18, 2021

Save Our Sabbath Schools

I recently watched a YouTube video entitled “Why Sabbath School stinks.” As the host of the video remarks, “Sabbath School done well can be the best part of Sabbath, or it can be the worst part.”

The video raised some important issues and got me thinking. But before we get started, some disclaimers. I’m not suggesting we get rid of Sabbath School (SS). We have all the tools to make it work. There are some incredibly healthy children’s, youth, and young adult SS groups. Yet, in transitioning between some of these age-specific divisions, many get stuck or drop away. Not all SSs are struggling, and in many areas, SS may be a healthy and active part of church life. And I don’t think a discussion on it can be complete without acknowledging the people who, often thanklessly, strive to keep SS going: to the countless volunteers, SS leaders, and teachers, thank you. 

Yet there are cracks, as I’ve experienced in my own life. Growing up, SS was my favorite part of church until I moved away from my home church. My church plant doesn’t include a traditional SS element, and when I travel, after a few bad experiences, I tend to avoid it if I can. As I talk to people my age, none of them are big on SS. It’s a shame.

Flora Plummer, the General Conference’s longest-serving SS director, said, “The purpose of Sabbath School is the winning of souls.” How many of us can now say that is the case? Attendance numbers are dropping.

“COVID has brought to the surface a problem with SS engagement that we’ve been struggling with for some time,” Lyndelle Peterson, Australian Union Conference personal ministries, SS and stewardship director, shared in an email to Adventist Record. “Churches that had a strong Sabbath School program pre-COVID found that moving online has in some cases enhanced their experience. Other churches that may have had multiple groups meeting pre-COVID have opted to combine on return because of a struggle to regain attendance.”

The problems are not new either. In 1889, Ellen White wrote, “The Sabbath-school, when rightly managed, possesses marvelous power, and is adapted to doing a great work, but it is not now what it may and should be. The influence growing out of Sabbath-school work should improve and enlarge the church” (Testimonies on Sabbath-School Work, 29).

“Our lives are busier and more complex than they've ever been, and rather than being a space of belonging, peace, and encouragement, often our Sabbath Schools can feel like a chore; something to be endured,” Peterson said. 

“When Sabbath School becomes a place of connection and community, we are more inclined to find a way and make time to engage.”

When our SS becomes insular, we can become comfortable, losing our mission focus. SS can feel like a hostile place for visitors. Something that has helped me in this regard is small-group facilitation training. Understanding the role of a teacher — to lead the conversation, to ensure there are no dominant voices, to provide opportunities for equal engagement (notice I did not say equal input; some don’t want to be forced to speak or read; they just need to feel safe to contribute if they want to) — these things help find balance. Someone who is “not safe” (aggressively opinionated or always right) can kill an adult SS faster than you can say investigative judgment. These people can cause others not to come back and must be firmly managed.

According to our YouTuber, teachers should be “curious, competent students of the Bible,” and teaching SS is an important gift that needs to be developed. If the teacher or leader can create and foster an outward focus, where we expect visitors and encourage the group’s growth, the SS will discover its purpose. “When groups start to think evangelistically, they start to grow,” Peterson said.

 Ellen G. White agrees: “The Sabbath-school is a missionary field, and very much more of a missionary spirit should be manifested in this important work than has been manifested in the past” (Testimonies on Sabbath-School Work, 35).

This article can’t “fix” SS, but it can start a conversation. We can plan, dream, study successful groups and find ways to enhance this vital part of church life.

The original version of this commentary was posted by Adventist Record.