As visitors that day, we found the usual Sabbath school scene. Classes had just convened. Our teacher, a distinguished-looking middle-aged man, stood and, with a pleasant smile, said, “Welcome to our class. I see we have some visitors.
We are very glad to see you. We have a very important lesson today, and I will need all of the time to cover it. We will start the offering envelope over here.” With that, he launched into his lecture -- or sermon.
On another Sabbath in a different Sabbath school, we expected the same ritual, but discovered a significant difference. The teacher, a nicely dressed young woman with a big smile, said, “Welcome. It’s so good to see each of you. I’m especially glad that Martha is back with us. We prayed for you, Martha. We welcome our guests. Would you please tell us your names and where you are from?” After the visitor introductions, she continued, “We are glad to see the Masons back from vacation. The Martins have been absent now for three Sabbaths. Who will volunteer to call them? By the way, Phil is back in the hospital. I am passing a get-well card for everyone to sign.”
With that, she began a fascinating short story to introduce the lesson. The discussion produced lots of warm, caring interaction. The teacher covered the main points of the lesson in a contemporary, relevant way with lots of practical applications.
As we drove away after church, my wife and I discussed the contrast between this class and the one we had attended the previous week.
“What was the difference?” I asked.
“Caring about people,” she replied.
“Don’t you think the teacher last week cared about people?” I asked.
“Well, I suppose he did. He obviously had spent much time in preparation. But a lecture doesn’t usually meet specific felt needs. The lesson today was rich in scriptural content, but the teacher applied the Bible to the life needs of her class members.”
As we drove along, I thought about our home Sabbath School class. Recently Carol had mentioned her son, Mike, who lives in San Francisco, asking us to pray for him. But I knew of her deep pain; her son was in a drug rehabilitation hospital. She did not feel free to open her heart and ask the entire class to pray for him.
Then there is Tom, who had surgery for cancer. No one in the class knew about his extreme anxiety.
Jim had just retired from the railroad. He confided to me that he feels lost; he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
How wonderful it would be if in our Sabbath School classes we could “share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear.” But we just don’t know one another well enough to share our deeper needs. We don’t take time to get acquainted and listen to each other.
If there had been genuine caring and more person-centered teaching that focused on meeting needs, Carol might have felt free to ask, “Would you please pray for Mike? This week he is being released from a drug rehabilitation hospital. Pray that he will find a job and resist temptation.”
Jim might have said, “The text that Jack mentioned last week in class was a great blessing in relieving my anxieties.” Jean might have felt at liberty to say to Jim, “Why don’t you volunteer to help the Pathfinders? They are working on model trains.”
“The teacher should carefully study the disposition and character of his pupils, that he may adapt his teaching to their peculiar needs” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 231). This level of acceptance and sharing presupposes a high degree of trust. Trust comes into a Sabbath School class when people learn to know and love one another. And this is encouraged when learners are allowed to share their scriptural insights.
Content-centered teaching says, “I am here to give information. I must get through this lesson at all costs. I must share as many of these texts and quotations as possible during the 30-minute period.” A teacher whose teaching philosophy is more person-centered will ask himself, “What in this lesson will help Carol, Tom, and Jim?”
Members of a caring Sabbath School class respect one another’s opinions, no matter how far-out they may seem. How easy it is to feel disdain for “narrow, bigoted thinking” or “liberal views.” How natural to attach labels to people, causing a curtain to fall between us. How easy we find it to judge others. Caring people accept one another, even though they may disagree.
We share a caring attitude in our classes by listening to one another. Because of our loneliness and hurting, we often become preoccupied with ourselves. We do not care for others as much as we care for ourselves. It takes energy for me truly to listen to another human being, to listen with my heart, to identify the feelings behind the words, to listen between the lines.
Teachers find it very difficult to listen to learners. Many teachers ask a thought-provoking question, then jump in and answer it before anyone has a chance to respond. The average time between a question and the teacher jumping in to answer is one second! We need to develop a tolerance for silence. “It is a wise educator who seeks to call out the ability and powers of the student, instead of constantly endeavoring to impart instruction” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 166).
Another way learners can show a caring attitude in Sabbath School is to speak up. Usually 25 percent of the class does 90 percent of the talking. Some people are naturally more verbal than others, but no one of us is as smart as all of us together.
Sabbath school is so much richer when everyone contributes. Discussion brings together a wide scope of information, insights, attitudes, and skills. Adults should share their rich backgrounds with one another. Group solutions are usually superior to individual solutions—even the teacher’s. Discussion serves as a check on our thinking processes. I have been amazed at the insights brought out in classes.
Drawing People Out
Jesus encouraged discussion. “What do you think?” was one of His favorite expressions, His way of drawing people out. A member who hesitates, draws back, and refuses to share his insights and experiences could be refusing the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Your thoughts and experience may be just what some brother or sister in the class needs.
Sabbath School class is a place for sharing and caring. All of us need to be human, even vulnerable. When we share our Christian journey, its joys and disappointments, we share our humanity and show that we truly care about our fellow members. Trust begets trust. When I as a teacher can say “My problem is . . . ,” learners tend to remove their masks and become more genuine and open toward one another. Morton T. Kelsey, in his book Caring, says: “Opening ourselves to the voice of God and trying to put caring principles to work can change the spiritual climate and moral atmosphere of any group of which we are a part.”1
Ellen White describes optimum learning in this way: “[Our schools] should be family schools, where every student will receive special help from his teachers as the members of the family should receive help in the home. Tenderness, sympathy, unity, and love are to be cherished” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 152). How different from the many classes in which the Bible is taught in abstract terms in a formal setting that isolates teaching and learning from the realities of daily life.
The most important aspect of teaching is loving relationships. I believe that the comparative isolation in many of our Sabbath School classes accounts for the large number of Sabbath School dropouts. “You must win their affection, if you would impress religious truth upon their heart” (Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 68).
A few minutes of caring, sharing, and prayer before the lesson study each week helps to create a climate for learning and helps to make a “family class.” In such a class there are no strangers, no masks, no walls of isolation. The learners can be genuine and open with one another because there is trust. And trust allows for sharing feelings on a deeper level. Such a class will always have lively discussions, because everyone feels free to share.
It takes everyone -- teacher and learners -- to create a caring Sabbath School. People want to love one another, but they don’t know how. As Karl Menninger said his book Love Against Hate: “At best it is hard for human beings to really get together; it is hard for even the best of friends to understand and to feel with one another sufficiently to promote a continuous, peaceful affection. . . . Frustrated and hungry for a word, a touch, a smile, a shared experience that would satisfy this universal hunger, many people try feverishly to fill the void with semblances of love: activity, popularity, philanthropy, prestige -- there are thousands of ways of extracting recognition in lieu of love, none of them satisfactory.”2 Ellen White adds: “One thing is certain, there is too little of the spirit of love among Seventh-day Adventists, both in church and Sabbath school work” (Counsels on Sabbath School Work, p. 86).
A caring Sabbath School becomes possible when we understand its importance in the learning process, when teacher and learners pray for caring and practice it.
1 p. 153.
2 pp. 271, 272.
Charles H. Betz
© 2006 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists