Sabbath School was the backbone of the early Adventist church. As a people of the Book at study, we matured as a people of faith. Today, unfortunately, a vibrant Sabbath School experience is missing from many of our local churches due primarily to two factors.
Secondly, Sabbath Schools' flounder because the members of local churches (and perhaps the church at large) have forgotten the four purposes of Sabbath School. It has been said that “without a vision the people perish.” Nowhere is the truth of this maxim as evident as in the empty pews during Sabbath School each week.
It is the purpose of this blogpost to address the four purposes of Sabbath School. In strengthening the understanding and integration, at the local level, of the purpose of Sabbath School our churches will be blessed by health and growth.
Vision - The Four Purposes of Sabbath School
In Ministry of Healing, Ellen G White writes: “Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with [people] as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me’ ” (Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing, p. 143:3). This quote demonstrates, quite well, the purpose of Sabbath School. Sabbath School meets to fulfil a four-fold purpose: To nurture the class members, to organise compassionate ministry to the local community, to support the global ministry of the Gospel and to worship God through the study the His Word. A church that operates by the great commission given by Jesus will model all four of these key aspects.
“The Sabbath school was developed to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ in response to the command of Jesus, and in the setting of the three angels’ messages. In loyalty to this original purpose the Sabbath school continues to communicate the good news with the objective to win, hold, and train for Jesus Christ, men and women, youth, boys and girls, in the entire world. This objective is carried forward through the following four areas: faith emphasis, fellowship emphasis, community emphasis, and world emphasis” (Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, p. 1258).
Let us now explore each of the four purposes of Sabbath School.
Bible study is the one purpose of Sabbath School that has not been forgotten. As Adventists, we love the Word of God and enjoy hearing it presented again and again. This is a wonderful thing and keeps us grounded in the Scriptures.
“The Sabbath school, if rightly conducted, is one of God’s great instrumentality to bring souls to a knowledge of the truth” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 115).
Not only are few church members informed of the four-fold ministry purpose of Sabbath School but very few Sabbath School teachers have been trained in how to teach a lesson. Far too often the lesson study turns into another sermon because both teacher and student decide that jug-to-mug is “good enough” for their Sabbath School. Training in both Bible study methods and discussion leading are needed to empower Sabbath School’s to become the primary source of teaching they once were in Adventist churches.
Due to church growth, only 20% of world church members have any Adventist heritage. The rest are new. By 2020 only about 12% will have any Adventist heritage. While this is a good thing, because it means we are growing, it also means we need to tell our story well and often. Our Sabbath Schools are meant to be our teaching time - defining in the mind of new members and believers what it means to be an Adventist and how the Bible teaches the beliefs we know to be true.
“The Sabbath school is an important branch of the missionary work, not only because it gives to young and old a knowledge of God’s Word, but also because it awakens in them a love for its sacred truth, and a desire to study them for themselves; above all, it teaches them to regulate their lives by its holy teachings” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, pp. 10,11).
Probably the most important aspect of church life, in the creation and maintenance of healthy relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, is a faithful commitment to fellowship. Sabbath School is meant to be a time when we nurture each other. Through testimony, prayer and conversation the body of Christ is strengthened.
As fellow followers of Jesus and students of the Bible, the more time we spend getting to know each other, the better. We teach our children that “we become like those we socialise with” and thus we should endeavor to socialise regularly with those who are as passionately committed to the justice, mercy and teaching of Jesus as we are.
“Nothing is more needed in our work than the practical results of communion with God. . . . His peace in the heart will shine forth in the countenance. It will give to the voice a persuasive power. Communion with God will ennoble the character and the life. Men will take knowledge of us, as the first disciples, that we have been with Jesus. This will impart to the worker a power that nothing else can give” (Ministry of Healing, p. 512).
Our time with God will be greatly emboldened as we spend time with each other. We will hear the life stories of other people in our Sabbath School class and bless them with our stories of faith. We will also have a spiritually safe place to share our suffering and receive prayer and compassion. Sabbath School is meant to strengthen both our faith and our heart. God’s ministry to the heart both in us and through us is an important part of Sabbath School.
“There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort. If less time were given to sermonizing, and more time were spent in personal ministry, greater results would be seen. The poor are to be relieved, the sick cared for, the sorrowing and bereaved comforted, the ignorant instructed, the inexperienced counseled. We are to weep with those that weep, and rejoice with those that rejoice” (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 458).
The most commonly overlooked purpose of Sabbath School is local outreach. In the past, we were asked during Sabbath School preliminaries to signify the number of “Acts of Service” we had done in the previous week. While many church members continue to do these charitable acts, we rarely report or discuss them in Sabbath School. This is unfortunate as the sharing of our activities strengthens both the person participating in them and those listening. Having a commitment to increasing the presence of Jesus in our local community should be a focus each week of every Sabbath School class. Time should be provided for the telling of these stories.
“The Lord upholds the cause of the oppressed, comes to their defense, he gives food to the hungry, he sets the prisoner free, he lifts those who are bowed down, he watches over the alien, he sustains the fatherless and widows” (Psalm 146:7-9).
“Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).
“Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him” (Acts 10:38).
These verses and many more demonstrate that God describes himself as God of the poor, Friend of the weak, Father of the fatherless, Defender of widows, Judge of the oppressed, Protector of the refugee. If this is the kind of God we worship, this is the kind of people we should be. We must imitate God in God’s divine care for the poor and the powerless.
Each and every Sabbath School class should have a local outreach plan which addresses the needs of their local community and demonstrates their interest, intention and progress in meeting these needs.
The final purpose of Sabbath School is world mission. The Adventist church is blessed to have a global corporate structure which allows us to share teaching, planning and funding quickly and effectively right around the world. 13th Sabbath offering is a wonderful example of this. Congregational churches typically choose one part of the world to help. The Adventist church is able to direct attention and funds to new areas of need each quarter. This is done in Sabbath School.
“God could have reached His object in saving sinners without our aid; but in order for us to develop a character like Christ’s, we must share in His work. In order to enter into His joy, the joy of seeing souls redeemed by His sacrifice, we must participate in His labors for their redemption” (The Desire of Ages, p. 142).
As we focus on the needs of our extended global community we develop a love for all humanity. Sabbath School’s that focus regularly, on the global mission of our church, are helping their church members to love those beyond their borders. Sabbath School is meant to extend the family of God and strengthen the corporate body of Christ through our commitment to world mission.
A healthy Sabbath School creates a healthy church. When fully understood, these four purposes will once again become the backbone of our local churches. Each Sabbath School class (8-12 members) should have a trained leader responsible for the four key areas of Sabbath School - Bible Study, Fellowship, Local Outreach and World Mission.
Sabbath School is the heart of a healthy vibrant Seventh-day Adventist church. By making Sabbath School intentional in these four areas we will ensure the holistic health and growth of the Adventist church both locally and globally.
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