Stories & Commentaries

Life Without a Box

A Multisensory Approach to Sabbath School

Ancient Greek philosophers [1] believed that the world was made up of small static particles, called atoms, separated from one another by empty space. It was also believed, if a person could break something down to its smallest components to study and understand the way these components interacted with each other, [2] one could have full understanding of the object being studied.[3]

Unfortunately, the Greek’s atomistic world-view not only shaped the way in which reality was perceived, it also affected the way we live. If the best way to understand something was by its smallest components, then this must also be the best way to conduct an efficient life.[4]

Multisensory Sabbath School Campfire

Photo by iStock

Consider the relationship between science and religion as an example. Fragmented, science would stick to the study of empirical evidence and not comment on the religious or philosophical life. Religion would, therefore, stick to the study of more conceptual things and leave the empirical evidence to science.[5] This separated the empirical part of life from the spiritual, social, and emotional part of life.[6]

Living Inside the Boxes

The Greek’s view shaped the modernist view of reality,[7] which has taught people to look at their lives compartmentally. For example, work, social, church, family, health — are all boxed separately.[8] It is not a problem, therefore, to act one way at work, or at home, and another way at church, in both worship service and Sabbath School.

Modernism also brought an over-emphasis to the rational (objective) over the emotional (subjective) ways of learning. When a student comes into a Sabbath School class to learn about the love of God, there will most likely be logical information shared with the child about the love of God. They will learn memory verses and perhaps hear a Bible story about Jesus dying on the cross for them to show them God’s love. If taught in a dingy classroom on hard seats by a teacher with no enthusiasm, the emotional connotation of the love of God will not be a very positive one.

If instead the love of God is taught in a well-lit classroom, with comfortable chairs that are soft to the touch, and being greeted by a socially loving teacher (both inside and outside the classroom), then the emotional connotation of the student regarding the love of God will be much different. Which learning experience is more likely to draw them towards the love of God in the future?

Reaching the Whole Person

Another significant category of fragmentation is that of personhood. In atomistic thinking, individuals are identified as a person by their thoughts. Because of the atomistic focus on the objective view of reality as the most important part of life, the objective-cognitive function is the most definitive understanding for a person to know who they are. One could argue that as long as you have your thoughts and feelings you will always be you. The criticism of this, however, is that personhood is also made up of relational aspects.

The small group setting of Sabbath School has the potential to help build a more corporate personhood. If the setting is a welcoming one that encourages interaction with other students as part of a discussion, creative project, or service opportunity to the community, this will help to build the social personhood of the students. It will also give the student a better sense of belonging within the church body in general. A positive multi-sensory environment can help to keep students coming back because it has become part of who they are.

A multi-sensory Sabbath School experience can also help to reverse some of the effects of fragmentation on the learning process and social experience of students, which, in turn can help dissolve the compartmentalization of life today.

“Being There” Learning

The advances in brain research have allowed for educators to discover some very interesting results concerning the environment of the classroom. Similar to how there are many different shades of the basic colors on a color wheel, there are various senses related to the five factory senses usually recognized.

The researchers describe up to nineteen different senses that a person can engage in a when participating in class or school outside, surrounded by nature. They call this a learning context of “being there.”

multisensory sabbath school

Photo from iStock

The connection of this research to brain health has discovered that the more senses that are engaged the more dendrites are produced in the brain. The brain becomes denser and more active through these truly multi-sensory experiences.[9] This also increases the retention of the knowledge that is being shared through the teaching experience. In certain circles, this has encouraged a push for an outdoor classroom emphasis for children. Compare the rich sensory experience of a day at the creek (engaging multiple senses) with the average Sabbath School class in a church on Sabbath morning.

It is true that our children’s divisions will often decorate the room, have stuffed animals, songs with motions, and a great deal of movement and interaction. These multi-sensory experiences are valuable. If, however, the Sabbath School class consists of children sitting at a desk for the lesson study, the learning experience has been reduced to the symbolic level of learning[10] and engages only two senses. The brain growth significantly decreases, and so does retention of what is being learned.

Often, by the time our children move to junior, earliteen, or youth Sabbath School, the decorated rooms, the songs, the stuffed animals are gone, and so are the creative mind-stimulating movement and projects. The students enter a room with a circle of folding chairs to open their bibles, read, and have a discussion. It is no wonder that the learning retention, let alone student retention, goes down.[11]

A Multi-Sensory Youth Sabbath School Program

multisensory sabbath school in action

Teen members from the Pleasant Valley Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Happy Valley, Oregon, engage in a multisensory Sabbath School event by painting Ezekiel "murals" for their classroom. Photo provided by Cory Wetterlin

When I was the youth pastor at the Pleasant Valley Church in Happy Valley, Oregon, I gathered a creative group of Sabbath School teachers. I decided to develop a multi-sensory learning experience for the students when they came into Sabbath School. At the time, I didn’t understand any of the research mentioned in this article, I just knew that I wanted to engage multiple learning styles and make Sabbath School a worth-while experience.

The first general factor of the every-week experience was the atmosphere of the room. With the help of a church member who was also an interior designer, we made a warm and welcoming environment for the students to walk into. We had to be very intentional about this because we were meeting in the fellowship hall so the decorations had to be set up and taken down every week. We bought large plants, candle holders, pillows, curtains, other decorative items that could be spread around the room. We bought floor lamps, which allowed us to change the lighting in the room to a warmer atmosphere. We also bought large (20+) photograph frames to insert photos of the students from Sabbath School and other youth events.

The second general factor was breakfast. There was a rotating team of parents who would come in every week to make breakfast for the students. Not only does this increase the sensory input, but nothing can raise youth out of their beds and get them to church on time like knowing breakfast is waiting! The care and affection of the church for the youth could be seen, felt, and tasted every week.

A student team would also choose and lead worship music every week. The screen was used for song lyrics and illustrative graphics, and videos for teaching illustrations.

There was also a multi-sensory teaching team, which came up with specific, creative ways to teach the content of the Sabbath School lesson. For the study in Ezekiel we set up giant canvases made from queen size bed sheets stretched over 1”x1” pieces of wood. We then brought in drop clothes, old t-shirts, and a bunch of house paint and brushes. When the students came in, we turned on an audio recording of Ezekiel 1 over the speakers and instructed the students to paint what they heard. Once the paintings of wheels-within-wheels, whirlwinds, and four-faced cherubim had been finished, we waited for them dry, cut them out, and put them up on the wall. The rest of the 13-week series on Ezekiel had the paintings from the first week as a backdrop. There were other weeks when catapults were built with popsicle sticks and a pile of Styrofoam bones were piled around the class room waiting to be brought back to life.

Another intentional step taken for a different lesson series included the involvement of small group leaders and mentors. Adult leaders where selected and at a certain point in the lesson time the students would break into their small groups for the discussion time. This was a hard-hitting life issues based series and asked some significant and personal questions. These small groups gave the students a context in which to share and grow closer to those in their groups.

Healing the Fragmentation

How does this multi-sensory Sabbath School class approach help to meet the concerns of fragmentation and healthy brain growth? First, the atmosphere creates a positive subjective experience for the learning that takes place every week. The students have a sense of ownership of the space, which means that they can feel that they belong to the church. This helps to lessen the fragmentation often felt between the rest of the church and the youth ministry. Multiple adult volunteers being involved heals the generational fragmentation from both the side of the students as well as the adults. This was especially true with the use of small groups during the lesson time.

The stimulating atmosphere and activities also caused the greater growth of the brain, engaging more of the brain, and increasing retention of the material being taught. I will never forget the first chapter of Ezekiel as I think back on those paintings. If you can’t have the “be there” experience, when trying to teach the biblical narrative and theological concepts, immersion is the next best option.

It is financially prohibitive to travel to Jerusalem every week, but perhaps we can bring Jerusalem to the classroom. But with artwork, food, small groups, and social experiences perhaps we can get closer to the experience of visiting right from the classroom. It is more than possible to increase our students’ Sabbath School experience beyond the two senses found in typical symbolic education.

Multi-sensory Sabbath Schools increase the learning potential of the scriptures that are being taught. A sense of belonging is generated. And a more holistic and positive connotation surrounding the learning process, and reversing the effects of fragmentation within our church and thus our society, is created. Living outside the constructs of our boxes is possible—and this can start through Sabbath school!

— Cory Wetterlin has been involved in youth ministry for more than 15 years and is currently an adjunct professor of theology at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.


[1] “The atomic theory was first proposed by Democritus more than 2,000 years ago. Essentially, this theory leads us to look at the world as constituted of atoms moving in the void. The ever-changing forms and characteristics of large-scale objects are now seen as the results of changing arrangements of the moving atoms. Evidently this view was, in certain ways, an important mode of realization of wholeness, for it enabled men to understand the enormous variety of the whole world in terms of the movements of one single set of basic constituents, through a single void that permeates the whole of existence. Nevertheless, as the atomic theory developed, it ultimately became a major support for a fragmentary approach to reality. It ceased to be regarded as an insight, a way of looking, and was, instead, regarded as an absolute truth—the notion that the whole of reality is actually constituted of nothing but “atomic building blocks,” all working together more or less mechanical” (Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1995: pp.8-9).

[2] Edge, Hoyt L. A Constructive Postmodern Perspective on Self and Community: From Atomism to Holism. Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1994: pp. 10-11.

[3] It is now understood, however, that the cosmos is made up of much smaller particles than atoms and that they are constantly changing and interconnected.

[4] Peter, Ted. Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994: p. 45.

[5] “Science and religion are not in conflict, for their teachings occupy distinctly different domains…. The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven” (Gould, Steven Jay. "Nonoverlapping Magisterium." Natural History 106.2 (1997): pp. 16-22).

[6] Douglas Sloan brings out the classic complication of the modernist emphasis on reason to the detriment of all other parts of the individual. For the Enlightenment, reason is king and no other part of the human is more significant for gaining knowledge, which as Bacon says is power. Sloan points out that this “false divorce” between reason and emotions has led to the neglect of things like “schooling of the emotional life” (Sloan, Douglas. Insight-Imagination : The Emancipation of Thought and the Modern World. 2nd ed. San Rafael, CA: Barfield Press, 2008: p. 22).

[7] Modernity rose from the Modern Enlightenment Project, a political and philosophical movement, which is closely linked to the ethos of philosophical and aesthetic modernism.

[8] “What complicates the matter in the 20th century is the segmentation, if not outright fragmentation, of daily life. We divide life into a number of functional sectors: home and workplace, work and leisure, white collar and blue collar, public and private. Such sectoring suits well the needs of large corporations which operate bureaucratically and impersonally. We cannot live all day long in an impersonal atmosphere, of course. So, for our own mental health we find we must secure a domain for the personal. To do so we draw a line between the impersonal atmosphere of the work or public sector, on the one hand, and the personal domain of home, family and private leisure, on the other” (Peters Science, Theology, and Ethics 256).

[9] Kovalik, Susan J., and Olsen, Karen D. Exceeding Expectations: A User's Guide to Implementing Brain Research in the Classroom. 2 ed. Covington, WA: Susan Kovalik and Associates, inc., 2002: 1.3-1.4.

[10] The theory of symbolic learning proposes to account for the effectiveness of imagery, which suggests that the imagery helps to develop a mental blueprint by creating a motor program in the central nervous system.

[11] Kovalik and Olsen share that the non-use of the newly developed dendrites in the brain will eventually cause the loss of those dendrites. It is necessary to continue the stimulation in order to keep higher brain function.