OWhat happened to Sabbath School in the Adventist Church?
“Sabbath School, in general, seems to be languishing in the Global North [formerly called ‘First World,’]said Justin Kim, associate director of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and publisher of the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide for Young Adults. “The question of the century is: Why? There are many theories, but we don’t know exactly why the number of spectators is dropping. »
In the developed world, about 50 percent of Adventist members attend church regularly, and about 50 percent of that number attend Sabbath School. As with Sunday schools, the decline began in the 1970s, along with the countercultural movement and a growing distrust of institutions. In the 1980s, the rise of mega-churches emphasized large worship experiences and mainline church service. Although the 1990s saw a resurgence of small groups, the emphasis was not on Sabbath School groups but on Friday night youth gatherings or after church.
“What we do know,” Kim said, “is that young adults — at least for the past 50 years or so — have lost interest in Sabbath School. We also know that Reverse somewhat reverses this trend in parts of the Global North.
Reverse is the new, updated and refreshed Collegiate Quarterly (CQ). While Reverse retained some aspects of CQ – like the social part of communication and Bible discussion – much of it has been revamped. While CQ was a devotional commentary on the Bible study guide for adults, Reverse has far fewer sections to complete and far more in-depth prompts to examine scriptural themes and language.
Each year, two quarters of Reverse attend the regular Sabbath School lesson for adults. The other two quarters focus on topics specifically relevant to young adults, such as the basics of salvation, sexuality, the purpose of education, principles of stewardship for young adults, Sabbath issues for professionals, and how to know God’s will for your life.
“Since the change in 2019, the global response has been very positive,” Kim said. “Divisions and unions continue to translate Reverse into new languages, but in areas where translation is slower, young adult members of the church are translating it themselves and distributing the study guide through social media and messaging apps.
It is important to note that the term “young adult” is flexible. Although generally defined as 18 to 35 years old, Kim said, anyone interested in the content is welcome to use Reverse Bible Study Guides.
Unlike many departments, Reverse benefited from the pandemic. Friends couldn’t get together, but people were thirsty for community and spiritual involvement. Reverse fulfilled both of these needs, Kim said, spreading the world by word of mouth from those who had created their small groups online and telling others how valuable it was, and allowing small groups to train across international borders – something that hadn’t been done before.
“Young adults have special spiritual needs that are different from those who are more experienced in their walk with God,” Kim said. “They try to figure out how to raise their children, what to do with their money, how to navigate society – sexuality, politics, career – what to look for in a life partner, and so many others. These are not some of the most important questions in other study guides. Reverse tries to address these topics openly, based on the Scriptures.
Every part of Reverse is divided into seven sections, corresponding to the days of the week, each with its activity taking the reader deeper into the Word. These activities include handwriting a passage of scripture, examining the passage for patterns, using the passage to rekindle one’s relationship with God, cross-checking additional Bible verses, obtaining an overview of related excerpts from the writings of Ellen G. White, and questions for discussion.
“It’s intense,” Kim admitted. “Those who engage with Reverse say it’s so different from what they’re used to and they love it. What’s great is that they’re excited about it and want to share it with others. It’s the Bible, and they want to talk about it. It is a natural and organic testimony.
Kim admitted that some of the topics Reverse addresses – such as biblical sexuality – gave some members pause, but the overall response was positive.
“People tell us that they see God in a totally different way after studying this subject from a biblical perspective using the Reverse method,” he explained. “Some admit it’s still a little awkward to talk about sexuality in church, but in the same breath they thank us for addressing it because it’s not something the church has done historically, and there is a need and a desire for it.”
Another aspect that defines Reverse apart from other study guides is that, rather than being entirely digital or entirely printed, Reverse is a mixture of both. It’s not an either/or scenario, Kim said; it combines the two approaches and allows the user to determine how much of each they want to incorporate into their study.
In addition to the printed study guide, Reverse can be found on the new official Sabbath School mobile app and has a TV show (formerly known as Sabbath School University) produced by Hope Channel. The weekly production can serve as a preparation for the study or as an extension of the discussion in small groups.
“Interaction with peers is an extremely important part of young adult life,” Kim pointed out. “So the social aspect should be integrated into the study guide. It works very well in Europe, South America and Australia, and they have produced a lot of accompanying material for Reverse. Everyone is trying to keep young people in the church, and they’re getting creative about it.
Kim told the story of a young man about to leave the church when his local Sabbath School group invited him to a Reverse group study. A small group that was on the verge of disbanding had decided to try Reverse at the start of 2020. A year and a half later, they are a successful little group that meets regularly.
“They were excited to learn more about Jesus in the text, not just the doctrinal exposition,” Kim said. “We want to see what’s in the verse, but it’s also about finding a reverse way of thinking and looking at things from a different perspective.”
While doctrine remains crucial to the church, Jesus is the one to whom doctrine points. Doctrine, Kim emphasized, is a theological construct to help us make sense of the Bible. And if someone truly studies the Bible with an open mind, Kim believes, they will naturally come to Adventist doctrines. But although these doctrines are used for clarification, they are not the primary goal.
“Our church was started by young people who were studying the Word,” Kim said. “They sat down and studied the Bible together. Social reinforcement is necessary because the Holy Spirit works with community environments, and dialogue helps clarify interpretation, understanding, and application.