In spite of its outstanding contributions to the church and the larger world, Adventist Education is under fire. The sad fact is that, here in the early 21st century, the attacks all too often come from inside the denomination.
Some pastors, for example, have even argued that Adventist Education “is stealing money from evangelism.”
A concerned church member recently wrote, “The pastor of my church has decided that Christian education is irrelevant and not soul winning. Therefore, our local [Adventist] school should be closed so as not to waste any more of the money that he could be putting into his evangelism to win souls. He has previously sent out e-mails stating that it is his intention to see the school closed.
“Last school year, the school presented a church service at each of the constituent churches, except ours, because the pastor felt it was irrelevant to the members and a waste of time and told them they were not welcome. He has even preached a sermon on the evils of not bearing fruit, which is a great sermon topic, except when his whole point was that our academy does not bear any visible fruits and therefore should be closed.”
Eye on the long view
As I read that letter, I wondered how that pastor would have evaluated the teaching/evangelistic ministry of Jesus. After all, He intensely taught a core of twelve disciples/students for three years, yet when He went to the cross, not one of them—as far as we can tell—was converted or even understood the central message of His teaching. Far from self-denial and servanthood, they were all arguing about who was the greatest, even as He approached His sacrificial death. And, of course, one betrayed Him and another swore that he didn’t even know Jesus.
From a human perspective, Jesus could certainly have spent His time in a more profitable way. But He had His eye on the long run rather than the short term. After Pentecost, the majority of those disciples would be transformed into powerhouses for the gospel.
So it is with Christian schooling. Results are generally not immediate. Ellen White caught that vision when she wrote of the resurrection morning:
All the perplexities of life’s experience will then be made plain. Where to us have appeared only confusion and disappointment, broken purposes and thwarted plans, will be seen a grand, overruling, victorious purpose, a divine harmony.
There all who have wrought with unselfish spirit will behold the fruit of their labors.… How little of the result of the world’s noblest work is in this life manifest to the doer!… Parents and teachers lie down in their last sleep, their lifework seeming to have been wrought in vain; they know not that their faithfulness has unsealed springs of blessing that can never cease to flow; only by faith they see the children they have trained become a benediction and an inspiration to their fellow men, and the influence repeat itself a thousand fold. Many a worker sends out into the world messages of strength and hope and courage, words that carry blessing to hearts in every land; but of the results he, toiling in loneliness and obscurity, knows little. So gifts are bestowed, burdens are borne, labor is done. Men sow the seed from which, above their graves, others reap blessed harvests. They plant trees, that others may eat the fruit. They are content here to know that they have set in motion agencies for good. In the hereafter the action and reaction of all these will be seen (Education, pp. 305-306).
Myopic vision just won’t do in evaluating the true value of Christian education. Short-term evaluations of long-term projects are nearly always distorted and inadequate.
The life-changing powers of Adventist Education
The Seventh-day Adventist church has operated an educational system long enough to realize the incredible power that such a system exerts on the hearts and minds of young people. The reasons for its continued existence are many. Allow me to highlight just a few and share how students within the Pacific Union Conference are benefiting from it.
1. Adventist Education introduces students to the Bible as a framework for thinking and evaluating.
In 1881, writing about Adventism’s first educational institution, Ellen White noted that “God has declared His purpose to have one college in the land where the Bible shall have its proper place in the education of the youth” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 26).
It does no injustice to that quotation to expand the idea to an entire system of Christian schools. But—and this is a crucial point—the Bible in an Adventist school is never studied as an end in itself. Rather, the Scriptures provide the framework for everything that takes place on campus, whether it be academics, extracurricular activities, chapels and Sabbath services, or work-study programs.
2. Adventist schools are introducing young people to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
At its core, Adventist Education is evangelistic and redemptive. As Ellen White puts it in the book Education, “In the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one.… To aid the student in comprehending these principles, and in entering into that relation with Christ which will make them a controlling power in the life, should be the teacher’s first effort and his constant aim. The teacher who accepts this aim is in truth a co-worker with Christ, a laborer together with God” (p. 30; cf. pp. 15, 16, 29).
This redemptive role of education means that teaching is just as surely a form of ministry as that which takes place from behind a pulpit.1
Martin Luther glimpsed that idea. “If I had to give up preaching and my other duties,” he wrote, “there is no office I would rather have than that of school-teacher. For I know that next to the [pastoral] ministry it is the most useful, greatest, and best; and I am not sure which of the two is to be preferred. For it is hard to make old dogs docile and old rogues pious, yet that is what the [pastoral] ministry works at, and must work at, in great part, in vain; but young trees…are more easily bent and trained. Therefore let it be considered one of the highest virtues on earth faithfully to train the children of others, which duty very few parents attend to themselves.”2
And, Ellen White points out, “[while] it may seem that the teaching of God’s word has but little effect on the minds and hearts of many students…, some lessons of divine truth will linger in the memory of the most careless. The Holy Spirit will water the seed sown, and often it will spring up after many days and bear fruit to the glory of God” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 26).
The primary function of Adventist Education is to help young people find a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. And that function is just as important for children who grow up in an Adventist home as for those who don’t.
Concerning the evangelistic potential of Adventist Education, it is important to realize that worldwide, the percentage of young people from non-Adventist homes attending Adventist schools is more than 50 percent and sometimes runs as high as 90 percent. When we get our perspective right, we will see that public evangelism and Christian education are not adversaries but rather serve as complements to each other in achieving the gospel commission.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the school one attends makes no difference. The power of education was forcefully brought to my attention as a young pastor in Galveston, Texas. One of my professional families wanted to keep their only daughter near to them, so they sent her to the very fine local Roman Catholic school. It is perhaps not altogether surprising, given the power of education, that she dedicated her adult life to being a nun.
3. Adventist schooling at its best leads a person to a lifelong dedication to serving others.
It is no accident that the first and last pages of the book Education focus on the “joy of service” (pp. 13, 309). A major function of Adventist Education is to help naturally selfish human beings gain a vision of service for others. That is one reason why Seventh-day Adventist higher education has traditionally been heavily slanted toward the helping professions such as teaching, health care, spiritual nurture, and related fields. Most church leaders have been trained in Adventist schools. What if we had no such institutions?
Adventist educational institutions at all levels need to be viewed as training grounds for soul winners—in whatever profession they choose. And for the young to be prepared to give a definite sound to their service/soul-winning trumpet, they need to be properly instructed. The magnitude of that challenge becomes clearer when we realize that 74 percent of Adventists are first generation and lack even a basic grasp of the denomination’s heritage, structures, and beliefs—and most importantly, an understanding of the church’s apocalyptic mission to the world.
4. Adventist schooling helps students view every topic from the philosophic perspective of Scripture.
While the Bible is not primarily about history or science, it does provide a framework for thinking about and organizing the facts of history, science, and every other subject. In a similar manner, the Bible provides the tools for valuing and decision making. Here we have a contribution of Adventist Education that is all too often overlooked. And that is unfortunate, since, as one author puts it, “education has to do with the transmission of values.”3 Values are strategic to human thinking and behavior because they form the basis for every decision a person makes in life.
Our humanistic, postmodern culture has many methods of transmitting values. Young people are influenced by the glorification of consumerism, violence, and immorality in media, videogames, and music— and a peer culture that celebrates drinking, drugging, carousing, and casual sex. Yet public schools in most countries are barred from teaching religion or morality and cannot even tell students that there are alternatives to evolution. Other schools transmit a distorted view of the meaning of life and the way of salvation. Adventist schooling is one of the most forceful ways of transmitting a biblical value system. That transmission is not perfect, but when one considers the alternatives, it is a giant step in the right direction.
5. When a large sector of a peer group shares a Biblical/Christian/Adventist value system, social interaction becomes a vehicle for good, not an avenue for evil.
To put it more bluntly, I firmly believe that one of the major contributions of Adventist schools is to bring young people together in sufficient numbers so that they can make lifelong friends and meet spouses who share their vision of what is important in life.
I still vividly remember my first three visits as a beginning pastor in San Francisco. Each of those visits was to young church members who had married non-believers. Disorientation and depression were the messages that consistently bridged their individual experiences. At that point in my professional career, I began to view the social function of Adventist Education as extremely important.
We must not forget that most students learn more from other students than from either teachers or parents. Thus, it is important that we do all we can to create an educational atmosphere that maximizes the benefits of peer group power and the influence of student leaders.
6. Godly teachers and other adult role models present the same message at school, home, and church.
This spiritual continuum exists within a student’s extracurricular activities, including sports and other programs. In public school systems, these activities often occur during the Sabbath hours, forcing Adventist students to make difficult choices between their faith and their social life. That reality is an extremely important one for most young people. The obvious solution is the creation of schools that respect both the needs of faith and healthy social development.
Adventist Education has held a central place in the building of a unified church, which since 1863 has spread throughout the world. And yet, Adventist Education is not keeping up proportionately with the growth of church membership.
As the denomination continues to mature, it needs to constantly reassess its commitment to reaching and teaching young members. To lose that commitment would have a devastating effect on the very nature of the church as it continues into the 21st century.
I’m convinced that re-commitment to Adventist Education should be viewed as an imperative for advancing the gospel commission. It should be the aim and prayer of every dedicated Seventh-day Adventist.
Even post-COVID, spiritual growth activities are still an integral part of school life. In the Arizona Conference, seventh- and eighth-graders engaged in a “camp” experience called GRIP, based on 1 Thessalonians 5:21, which calls believers to test everything. Each letter in the word GRIP represents a word based on the principle of testing ideas: G=Gauge (think the problem over); R=Risk (what are the risk and potential consequences?); I=Ignite (make a wise decision based on love for God and what you know to be right); P=Pursue (move forward with no regrets). “I think this is a real application of using the principles of the Bible to grow in Jesus and evaluate according to Scripture and our relationship with God,” said Nicole Mattson, Superintendent of Schools for the Arizona Conference.
Virtual Week of Prayer
In the Southern California Conference, K-12 schools came together for a virtual week of prayer called “Persisting Together” in early November 2020. The key themes were: “Keep going. We are in this together and God will see us through.”
The virtual event, organized by the pastoral team, included programming not just for students, but for parents and teachers as well. “During this pandemic the conference realized that we were physically separated more than ever, at home much more, and depression rates are on the rise. We wanted to give students, parents, and teachers support at the conference level,” said Iki Taimi, director of Southern California Conference (SCC) Senior Youth and Young Adult (SYYA) ministries. If there was one idea that Taimi hoped students, especially, took away with them from this event it’s that “God is in love with them, and that the church is in love with them.”
Serving Our Community
At Pine Hills Academy in the Northern California Conference, Community Service Days brought together students and staff for an entire day of service near Auburn. The three-day event was organized by students and included small group Bible studies as well as service projects in the local community such as raking leaves and yard work, tutoring, sorting and organizing clothing donations, engaging and interacting with mentally handicapped youth, and sharing a brunch with shut-ins.
“When service is incorporated into our lives at an early age, we gain a taste for the joy that comes from an others-centered life,” said Joe Fralick, principal at Pine Hills Academy. “When students see their time and talents impacting someone else’s life in positive ways, it produces a sense of satisfaction that surpasses self-seeking experiences. Service is also the piece in our relationship with God that makes our connection to Him become vibrant and authentic.”
At Kona Adventist Christian School in Hawaii, service is also a way of life. In this tight-knit community, students learn things such as gardening a variety of fruits and vegetables to ensure food security, as well as community service through projects such as Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts for children in Third World countries, collecting and distributing food to local families in need, making cards for the sick and the elderly, and other activities. Students take that spirit of service with them after graduation as some, such as alumni Jaylene Ventura and Joey Domingo, come back later to serve the school as teachers’ aides, tutors, coaching, teaching ukulele, and carrying out COVID-19 cleaning protocols.
Teaching With a Purpose
“You’re taught that things aren’t as simple as they seem. You’re encouraged to dig into topics, get to the root of it, and ask as many questions as you need,” wrote a student at Fresno Adventist Academy in the Central California Conference. “Adventist schools teach with a purpose. With Scripture as your basis, you view things with a new light and purpose. You don’t just learn something and think ‘oh yeah, that’s cool’, but it helps you wonder why it is, how it happened, and what it could mean.”
“Adventist schooling helps us as students to view every topic from the philosophical perspectives of Scripture in several ways,” wrote another student. “My parents taught me things like the Golden Rule and the Fruits of the Spirit, and my elementary teachers expanded on them, and then high school religion classes expanded even more on how Scripture affects our worldview.”
“Lifelong friendships are one of the gifts I treasure most from my Adventist education,” said Dan Martella, administrative pastor at the Paradise church in California. “These friendships have been nurtured not only through shared classes and experiences on campus, but later on through phone calls, emails, networking, shared ministries, and retreats through the years.”
This past New Year’s Eve, Dan and his wife, Linda, enjoyed a Zoom reunion with friends Jim and Betty McMurry, Dave and Eileen Gemmel, and Dave and Cheryl Calderaro, classmates from their Pacific Union College days. The group chatted about kids and grandkids, retirement, and life in the age of COVID. “We told stories, laughed a lot, and prayed together,” Martella said. “We reaffirmed our commitment to Christ and the life of ministry He has called us to. We enjoyed just being friends.”
Emphasis on Athletics
Adventist Education usually includes robust extracurricular athletic programs, but it is not without its challenges, particularly in terms of Sabbath observance. But that hasn’t stopped schools such as Orangewood Academy (OA) in the Southeastern California Conference from excelling in sports while remaining faithful to their values.
In 2019, their girls’ basketball team ranked third in Orange County and 27th in the state. The team was featured in the Orange County Register newspaper in November 2019. According to Leslie Aragon, athletic director and girls’ head basketball coach at OA, during the regular season it’s fairly easy for organizers to work the schedules so that Adventist schools don’t play on Friday night or Sabbath, but championship play becomes much more challenging. However, thus far, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), which governs high school sports in the state, has been very good at working with Sabbath-keeping schools.
Some students were drawn to the school for its athletic programs, but they stayed for much more than that. “Most came to play sports, but little by little they started asking questions,” Aragon said. “I’ve been lucky enough to baptize 33 kids in the last seven years or so.” Most of those students were not from Adventist homes.
Good sportsmanship is also a mark of athletics in Adventist Education. In February 2020, not only did Rio Lindo Adventist Academy’s varsity girls’ basketball team win the Small School Bridge League (SSBL) Tournament—becoming the first girls’ team in Rio Lindo history to win both their league and the SSBL Tournament in the same year—but the coach of the opposing team emailed the Rio Lindo athletic director to let him know that they were glad that out of all the teams there, a team with great sportsmanship like Rio Lindo were the winners.
“We hear these compliments all the time for our sports teams, and we are proud of our student athletes who continue to be a great example of Christ wherever they go,” said the school in a written statement.
Dr. George R. Knight has worked for the Seventh-day Adventist Church for 40 years in both its pastoral and educational ministries. He has authored several books on Adventist Education, including Philosophy and Education (Andrews University Press, 3rd ed., 1998) and Myths in Adventism (Review and Herald, 1985). He’s currently emeritus professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
Cynthia Mendoza, a freelance writer in Southern California, wrote the sidebars.
1. For more on teaching as ministry, see George R. Knight, Philosophy and Education: An Introduction in Christian Perspective, 3rd ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1998), pp. 198-202.
2. Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Duty of Sending Children to School,” in Luther on Education by F.V.N. Painter (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1889), p. 264.
3. Arthur F. Holmes, Shaping Character: Moral Education in the Christian College (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), p. vii.