Adult Sabbath School: Relic or Not?
by Lawrence Downing
I’m old enough to have experienced “genuine” American Adventist adult Sabbath School “programs.” For those who are not of a certain age, here is how the typical adult Sabbath School unfolded: Song service, Scripture reading and opening prayer followed by the Superintendent’s Remarks, usually a “spiritual” lesson often accompanied by a “sweet” religious poem, frequently of the syrupy variety. The Secretary’s Report was a recapitulation of what happened during Sabbath School the previous Sabbath; “Sister Halter offered the opening prayer. … Brother Freeman gave the Review.” And so on, including an account of how many people reported they had studied their lesson seven times, how much offering was collected and other pertinent information, as defined by the presenter. (The “Review,” for the uninitiated, was a review of the Sabbath School lesson from the previous Sabbath, a double dose for those who were in attendance the week before; new light for the absent ones.) Somewhere in the line-up came the Mission Story. In the hands of a more creative person, told in dramatic fashion, the jungles of Africa and the rivers of South America came to life. More often than not one of the older members stumbled through the two or three pages of the Mission Quarterly as the long-suffering congregation counted the spots on the ceiling. (It came as somewhat a shock to learn in later years that many of the thrilling stories were more thrill than fact. I became acquainted with several of the mission story authors and learned that some of the stories they wrote were somewhat embellished. One person admitted that some of the accounts she wrote were pure fiction, but her motives were pure.)
When the preliminaries were completed, the adult lesson study began. The classes met in sections of the sanctuary. The teaching style was didactic: the teacher stood in front of the group and read each question in the Lesson Quarterly for each of the seven days of the week, and then gave the answer from the listed Bible text or E. G. White quotation. It mattered little whether the text or statement had any bearing on the question. It was “here a little and there a little,” with a result that usually ended in little. (My biased opinion.) That was then. Now is another day.
Today, the Adult Sabbath School program continues in many churches to meet at 9:30 AM . There will be few holdovers from the olden days. The contemporary adult Sabbath School, if there is one, will probably have a brief song service, a welcome and prayer followed by a themed program presented by the superintendant or someone invited to address a specific topic. At 10 o’clock, the Adult Sabbath School classes will often meet in separate rooms, rather than be bunched together in the sanctuary. A significant number of churches have abolished the Sabbath School program altogether. People go directly to classes as they arrive rather than meet in the sanctuary. One may debate whether this change is better or less than ideal. It is reality, and, for many congregations, an improvement over the struggle to continue the adult Sabbath School as it was practiced in past decades.
For those churches that continue the struggle to maintain an adult Sabbath School, here’s my challenge to leadership: Take a hard look at your Sabbath School program. Count the number of people sitting in the pews at 9:30. If attendance is 15 percent or less of those who attend the worship service, there is trouble in River City! It is time to take a long, hard look at what may be a relic of a past age. (We do well to remind ourselves that “ought’s” don’t count!)
For the churches that wish to continue the traditional adult Sabbath School program, I believe it is important that competent leaders give as much attention to what is presented on Sabbath morning as for any major event. Strive for superior performance, and superior performance is defined as 15 to 20 percent above average. (How to measure average is the kicker. At this point I don’t have a satisfying answer. Any ideas?)
It is, I think, important for Sabbath School facilitators to develop a leadership team that will define, articulate and implement a plan that works a minimum of six months ahead. A plan for a year is better. It is also important, I believe, to initiate an educational process to equip future leaders to be competent Sabbath School presenters and organizers. An accountability system will help the leaders to evaluate the skills and qualifications important to Sabbath School leadership. Set the bar high and hold people to it. And, whatever the program and whoever leads the Sabbath School, if a significant number of people do not buy into the end product, the lack of buy-in may be the clue that the traditional Sabbath School is no longer viable. Face reality. Zip the Adult Sabbath School program and put energy into making the lesson study time a positive experience.