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The Ear: “The Team-Led Sabbath School Class”


Alden Thompson, the well-known Adventist author and Walla Walla University faculty member, shares teaching responsibilities for the Chan Shun Sabbath School class on the university’s campus.  Thompson, from the School of Theology, teaches with Joe Galusha, a biologist, Loren Dickinson, a retired communications professor,  and Gayle Norton, religion teacher at Walla Walla Valley Academy, along with two new members of the team, mentioned below. The class meets for 75 minutes each Sabbath, year round.

The Ear will soon be addressing other topics than the Sabbath School, including the conference presidency and the healthy congregation.  Still, several additional interviews with leaders of great classes will be appearing down the road, in the hope, as always, that these classes may inspire other classes – perhaps yours – and other leaders – perhaps you.

The premise here is that Adventism in the church’s older strongholds will certainly decline unless a larger share of the membership participates in serious, shared study of the Bible.  A laity disengaged from Scripture, after all, is a laity easily manipulated, easily thrown off course.

Here, then, is Alden Thompson’s perspective.

—Charles Scriven

Question: What are one or two keys, do you think, to building a great Sabbath School class?

Answer: In our class, a full-service format with outreach programs has made a real difference.  In other words, we sing, pray, share, discuss Scripture, and also sponsor projects, both locally and overseas.

Question: How do you build community—the sense that your class is a mini-Christian family—among participants?

Answer: In class, sharing prayer requests, praises, and thanksgivings bonds us together. Outside of class, working together on projects does the same.  Once a month at the local Christian Aid Center, for example, volunteers from the class prepare the meal and serve it to some 40 to 80 people, mostly homeless. Recently another project brought together a dozen men on a Sunday to cut some eight cords of wood for a disabled church member. The women in the class prepared a fine meal for the workers.  Great good fun, said the participants.

Question: Do you bring in guest teachers?  Are some taken from the membership of the class?

Answer: Four regular teachers cover the bases. Three of us are university teachers, and one teaches at Walla Walla Valley Academy. Rarely do we go outside the class for teachers. We run an irregular rota and rarely tell the class who is teaching next. Our purpose is to develop loyalty to the class, not to a particular teacher. It mostly works. Recently we have added two more teachers: Emily Whitney, a member of our pastoral staff and Monte Knittel, CEO of the Walla Walla General Hospital. They each take one class a quarter and have done a fine job.

Question: Does your class attract some people who may be on the “edge” of Adventism?  If so, how does it happen?  Is intentional effort put into doing this? 

Answer: Our class typically does not attract those who are alienated because their questions are not addressed; but we do attract those who are separated for social or experiential reasons. For some, our class is their only “church.”  We don’t have a specific outreach “program.” Word of mouth is our best advertising.

Question: Do you follow the church quarterly?  Always, sometimes or never?  Why?

Answer: We take the quarterly as our point of departure, but rarely follow it closely. Our teachers have access to the GoodWord Study Guide prepared by the WWU School of Theology. The guide accompanies a recorded dialogue between the host (the study guide author) and two conversation partners. It is online at Since the quarterly is rarely exploratory, the GoodWood seeks to augment the official church materials. The resource is used unevenly by our teachers.

Question: If your class is intellectually adventurous – you take up matters many would be uncomfortable with – how do you maintain good relationships with the rest of your congregation?

Answer: I don’t hesitate to raise potentially volatile questions.  But problematic positions held by church members are usually addressed in a both/and format, with a “present truth” focus, i.e. a movement and growth toward a better position that is “present truth” for this time. Typically we don’t reject “older” positions, but portray them as stepping stones to better perspectives.  I don’t believe our class has a reputation as being a bunch of rebels. But the more interactive nature of our class leaves us open to the charge that we are sometimes short on substance. The other major Sabbath School on our campus features the rest of the School of Theology faculty as teachers.  That class has the reputation of offering more substance than our class does. That’s a fair judgment. 

Read a 2008 interview with Alden Thompson here.

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