Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.

For too many Adventists, Sabbath mornings consist of little more than going to Sabbath School (maybe) and listening to a sermon. But then what? How do these activities connect to “real life”?

At Sunnyvale Adventist Church in central California, “LifeTogether” groups were developed to address this question. These small groups help members grow deeper in their walk with God and with one another.

The small groups meet throughout the week in members’ homes for six-week periods. During this time, the groups focus in-depth on the topic of the Sabbath School lesson, which is introduced each week through the sermon. This combined emphasis has truly helped members to better experience and live out the topic.

“Just as there is compound interest in finance, there is compound interest when people hear a message on a topic, discuss it in Sabbath School and/or a mid-week small group, and also prayerfully study on their own each day. This combination of sermons, small groups, Sabbath School, and solo time really helps people integrate these truths into their lives,” says Pastor Sam McKee.


After participating in a Natural Church Development survey, the Sunnyvale Church discovered that while it scored high in many areas, its lowest score was in passionate spirituality. Passionate spirituality measures the level of spiritual disciplines in church members. As in so many churches, Sunnyvale had a team in place to prayerfully plan for the church’s future physical structure, but there was not a similar vehicle to plan for the church’s spiritual future. In response to this alarming discovery, a spiritual vision team—comprised of one person with spiritual depth and influence from every church demographic—was developed with the aim of “growing the soul” of the church. 

Attendance was great on Sabbath mornings, and people were genuinely inspired by worship, so the question became how to help members take their Sabbath spirituality and live it out during the week. With a high percentage of people already attending Sabbath School—an Adventist curriculum already designed for small groups and personal devotions—the team decided to launch its small groups in tandem with the Fall 2005 study on the book of Ephesians.

One or two LifeTogether series are done each year, with topics chosen carefully and prayerfully to meet the needs of the congregation.


Since the inception of the LifeTogether idea, Sabbath School attendance (which was already high) has seen an increase, and at least 50 people who otherwise would not have been connected have joined classes or groups. Those who were already connected marvel at how much richer their spiritual lives have become through involvement in the LifeTogether series. Seniors remark that the Bible came alive for the first time in their lives, and young adults say they “get” the Gospel and finally feel like they’re part of the church family.

Besides the importance of Bible study, the smallgroup format allows for a fellowship and accountability too often lost when people attend worship services only. This is evidenced in the Sunnyvale groups’ ability to reach across demographic lines and allow for intimate fellowship among church members who perhaps would not have gotten acquainted in any other way.

The biggest challenge has been recruiting and developing leaders across demographics and geographic regions. The first group of leaders was trained by the pastor and the visioning team. To be most effective, the leaders need multiple resources, including the Collegiate Quarterly and the Teachers’ Quarterly for the given Sabbath School lesson, as well as other study options on the same passages or topics, such as those available from Serendipity and NavPress.

While the Sabbath School quarterlies cover 13 weeks, Sunnyvale has found that far more people will commit to a six-week study. Once people participate in a small group and experience the fellowship involved, they tend to keep the group rolling if there’s good momentum, or they join a Sabbath School class if they are not already involved in one.

“For most,” says McKee, “six or seven weeks is a good growth cycle before the holidays hit in the fall. Many people tell me they wouldn’t have volunteered to run a perennial cell group, nor would the people they invited have come to an endless group. So you have 12 people gathering quarter by quarter, bonding, reading Scripture, sharing experiences, and praying for each other. And they wouldn’t have come together if we hadn’t made it an achievable six- or seven-week mission.”

Gary B. Swanson - Associate Director, Sabbath School and Personal Ministries, General Conference


Bruce Fenner has been an elder in the Caldwell, Idaho, church for the past five years and has served as first elder for the past year. He and his wife Leticia, with their two boys, came to the church in 2003, when he accepted a position at Pacific Press® Publishing Association.

Fenner compares his elders to a team of foot - ball players who hold different and unique positions but who perform different tasks based on their individual talents or gifts; he believes the church should be organized in the same way. Each elder has a unique spiritual gift, and his/her role of responsibility in the church should be matched up with that gift. In this way, each elder can address a specific area of ministry. 

Fenner believes that service starts with an intimate relationship with God. “When we are working for the church or doing God’s work, it is very easy to get caught up in the work of ‘the Work’ and lose sight of what we are doing and why we are doing it. If we are going to serve God well and present Him to others, we must stay committed to growing in our own personal spiritual walk with God.”

In his free time, Fenner enjoys snow skiing with his boys or camping with his family in the beautiful mountains and forests of Idaho. He closes with this wonderful thought: “It is truly amazing when you stop and think about the fact that God, the Creator of the universe, the Savior of all mankind, the One who has the power to simply speak things into existence, actually loves us so much that He wants to have a real and personal relationship with each of us. It is so humbling and such an incredible honor when we come to fully understand this. It is a real privilege to serve a God like that.”