Children’s Sabbath School:
Not Just for Children
One Sabbath morning about three years ago, a little family warily walked through the front doors of the Orchards Church in Vancouver, Washington. They were greeted with smiles and warm handshakes. In the lobby they met the pastor's wife, Karen Wesslen, who offered to take eight-year-old Tyler to the primary room. “Don’t worry, he’ll be okay,” she assured his parents, Chris and Candy Conrad.
After Sabbath School, Karen met Tyler at the door just to be sure that he would find his parents. She asked him how he liked Sabbath School, and he said, “I really liked it. We’re going to come back here.” Then he added, “My parents have been looking at different churches, but we didn't like the priest at the last church, so we are going to come here.”
The Conrad family came back the next Sabbath and the next, and Tyler told his parents that he still liked the Sabbath School. “How he enjoyed the class really had a lot to say,” Candy said. “If he had come back from class with the same reaction that he had to the other churches we had visited, we would have probably kept looking for another church.”
Chris and Candy became faithful members, and Tyler says that he wants to be baptized soon—all because of a great Sabbath School and its leaders.
If you were to visit any of the beginners Sabbath Schools virtually anywhere in the Northwest, you would find bulletin boards and backdrops colorfully decorated with that quarter's theme, little chairs for the youngsters and, behind them, chairs for parents or grandparents. This welcoming atmosphere combines with prayers, songs and activities all geared to help the littlest members focus on the lessons.
Joan Smith is a lifer. She began teaching in cradle roll (now called beginners) division of the Walla Walla College Church when she was a junior at Walla Walla Valley Academy. As a college junior, she assumed the leadership of the division. And that was just the beginning. Joan has led the beginners of the North Cascades Church in Burlington, Washington, for the last 29 years. “I have kids now whose parents were in my Sabbath School when they were kids,” she says with a wry smile.
Walk into her classroom and you are transported into a very special place with sky-blue walls and wonderful cotton clouds hung from the ceiling. Trees, rivers, bridges and mountains form the backdrop for just about any theme. “While I don’t think it is necessary to have a ‘set’ like I’ve made,” she says, “the kids love it when they’re in an environment that helps their imagination.”
Joan is an avid collector of materials to use in her classroom. She has a collection of battery-powered animals to get the attention of a distracted or crying child, and she regularly checks thrift stores for anything she could use as Sabbath School props. She and her husband, Van, even turned a Goodwill massage chair into Namaan’s chariot for the children to “ride” in. They just turned it upside down and sawed off all unnecessary parts. “I have a massive amount of stuff I’ve collected over the years, and luckily I have a barn to store it all in,” she laughs.
Having an attractive room is important, but when all is said and done, Joan wants the children to know that Jesus is there to help them through life. “The goal is not to entertain the children, but to teach them about Jesus," she explains. "The props and programs keep their attention, but if they don’t get that message, we’ve wasted our time.”
She believes that Sabbath School exists to teach the children that Jesus is our friend and that He loves us. Even the beginners can begin learning that our God is a loving God. Joan believes we can teach doctrine even to the youngest members—at their level, of course, through songs and activities. “While the toddlers don’t usually sing much in Sabbath School, they go home and often sing the songs as they play.”
Children's Sabbath School is also for parents. Though Joan thinks that parents don’t necessarily have to stay with their children during Sabbath School, she believes that busy parents recognize this as quality time they can spend with their children.
Sometimes parents find that something is missing as they try to raise their children in a secular environment. Once they thoughtfully realize that the missing element is faith, they bring their little one to Sabbath School. There these parents can make friends with people who have children the same age as theirs and forge a social bond that helps to connect them with the church. They learn the songs, watch the activities and, as they encourage their child to participate, learn again, maybe for the first time, the fullness of God's love.
“If you take a child by the hand then you will have the parent by the heart,” says Sheri Uhrig, Oregon Conference associate Sabbath School director. “Any time loving attention is paid to a child, the parent’s heart is drawn into that relationship as well.”
John Slockbower, a truss designer-in-training, and his wife, Holly, live in Burlington, Washington, where they bring their children, T.J. and Katie, to Sabbath School. Baptized just a few years ago, John says that Sabbath School is new territory for him, but he feels that bringing his kids to Sabbath School is fulfilling what God wants him to do. “I think Sabbath School sets a great foundation for kids to learn about Jesus,” he says. “I’m actually going through these lessons with my kids. It is really neat, and I treasure these moments in Sabbath School with them because I know that they don’t last very long.”
Children’s Sabbath Schools along with their songs, crafts, activities and prayers exist to help lay a foundation for the child’s spiritual growth. And perhaps they are important for the parents' encouragement as they, along with the Sabbath School, teach their little ones spiritual life-skills.
Resources and ideas for Children's Sabbath School leaders and teachers can be found at: northamerica.adventist.org/cm