I’ve heard anecdotes about P.H. Welshimer and how he used Sunday school to build attendance at First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio, so I was interested in this article he wrote for the October 24, 1953, Christian Standard. It’s a longish article, so without further ado . . .
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How the Bible School Was Used to Build the Church at Canton, Ohio
By P.H. Welshimer
WHEN I BEGAN my ministry in Canton, Ohio, Jan. 1, 1902, there were 120 persons in the Bible school that Lord’s Day morning. There was no adult class. The second Lord’s Day I started a mixed adult class with three persons—a man and two women. The class grew.
I preached to the congregation on the importance of the Bible school as an evangelistic field and force. I tried to impress upon them that the Bible school is the teaching service of the church to win souls to Christ and to train them in Christian service. The people caught the vision. The Bible school began to grow. Later, our school conducted a Bible-school attendance contest with the school in the Christian Church at Steubenville, Ohio, where Herbert Moninger was minister. This, I believe, was the first Bible-school contest held in the United States. It worked. It aroused an interest in the school and in the city. It gave the people something to do, and they did it. Reports from each school were telephoned each Lord’s Day in time to announce the results before the morning worship was dismissed. People made calls and campaigned for the school during the week, none of which detracted in the least from the teaching service and the worship in the school. The contest provided work for the people during the week.
To avoid a slump when the contest ended, we started another contest immediately. Several schools in various cities and in other states were in the race with us from time to time. We advertised the work of the school in the city paper. . . .
We had a church band that frequently stood on the roof of the church building on Sunday morning an hour before the Bible-school lesson began and played hymns. Occasionally, a man rode through the city on horseback, blowing a horn and announcing Bible school at First Christian Church. All of this aroused interest and put people to work, who, before that time, did not know what church work was. One morning a man who was a stranger to church activity came in from the outlying district. Getting off the street car with him, near the church, were seventeen people whom he led into the Bible school that morning, the majority of whom enrolled and later took membership with the church. Pages could be written telling of the personal work that was done and the results that followed. The whole thing is summed up in the one sentence: “The people had a mind to work.” Work keeps them content. They have no desire to find fault or to criticize, and the influence of the worker is contagious.
When people get to talking in favor of Bible school and church and go out and work for it, they get results. Sermons in boots are the most powerful messages that can be preached.
WE KEEP A record of church prospects, the majority of whom are gleaned from the Bible-school enrollment. Previously, we held an evangelistic meeting of some length every year, and always with success. In one four-week meeting, following the Billy Sunday campaign in January and February, 1912, 1,028 were received into church membership. Seven hundred of the group were people who had not hit the “sawdust trail” in the Sunday meeting held prior to ours. Many of the others came by letter or transfer. Other meetings were held from year to year, but in every meeting we worked the Bible-school prospect list and reached multitudes who had been in the school where they had been more or less indoctrinated. They were acquainted with the church atmosphere of friendship and fellowship. They had cast off all fear. From the teaching in the Bible-school classes and the good fellowship of Christian people, many who were in the school, but not acquainted with the church proper, gladly came confessing Christ and were baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Through the years until the present day many who are added to the church come from the Bible school. Some of the younger group who are able to be taught and who are at the age of accountability come into the church through the evangelistic service, or on the Lord’s Days through the year.
THERE ARE MANY men in the Canton church today who were timid about the church before they became Christians. Many of those men, after having been in the Bible school a while, were easily led to make their decision for Christ. Some of them are among the best we have in the church today.
We have a number of teachers in our Bible school, who are active Christians today because of the Bible-school background.
Good teaching is a prime factor in the building and holding a Bible school. The teacher is the key man or key woman. It takes more than a building, well planned, to reach and to hold people for the Bible school.
Sociability counts for much. In our school we have in the corridors and in each class those whose one task is to greet visitors and members of the church and school in general, as they enter. Registrars are at the tables where they can greet the people as they come in. They prepare a note of attendance to hand the visitors to take back home with them.
Visitors, both local and out of the city—and there are a number every Lord’s Day—are shown through the school and given literature. Each resident of the city is by special effort contacted to secure their regular attendance in the school.
Good teachers are mighty factors in Bible-school building. Good teachers come from the unexpected places quite often. As Moses was called from the wilderness where he was caring for sheep, so men have been called from various places in the busy world who, along with other duties, have found time to prepare to teach and to do much of the pastoral work with an individual class.
Good teaching is enhanced by the personal touch of the teacher. In the Canton school we have tried to impress upon every teacher the fact that he or she is the pastor of the little flock included in the class he or she is teaching.
The social life in the Bible school means much. The contests helped furnish much of that. The follow-up is essential. Classes should not be too large, or oversize, and there should be one or two assistants helping the teacher in the calling during the week.
Sickness and duties which sometimes demand one’s service on the Lord’s Day cut inroads on the attendance of the Bible school. We have always attempted to keep in close contact with the sick of the school, whether they be regular or irregular in attendance. It is an old story but a true one—you have to wear out soles to save souls. A telephone message, a postal card, or a call in person on an absentee . . . will be helpful in securing regularity of attendance and renewing lost interest in the church.
IN THE CLASS all business should be eliminated. Have time for that during the business meeting each month. Give over the class period for the teaching, with possibly a brief announcement, taking a moment or so. Let nothing take the place of the teaching. Do not visit in the class. Each pupil should carry a Bible and make the class period a real Bible study.
Social events—class gatherings, departmental gatherings, meetings in the homes—contribute to the pleasure of the Bible school.
We have developed a good group of personal workers who, in the church and the school, are sent out with names of prospective members. They bring in a written report and, if thought best, the minister, assistant, or some other person in the church is sent to the home, using his instruction and personal powers in reaching the individuals for school and church membership.
Good literature is essential. The very best Bible-school supplies should be purchased, and pupils should be instructed to use them.
Years ago, in the Bible-school contest in our school a little boy was reprimanded by his teacher for some of his mischievous acts in the class. The teacher went to the boy’s mother to make complaint about him. Seeing her at the gate, the mother, a widow, who was doing a washing for another family, met her at the door. The teacher went to tell the mother she would have to have the boy removed from her class, or sent to another, for he paid no attention and was a disturber in her class. That was the speech the lady was going to make. When the door was opened, the teacher greeted the mother and introduced herself as the teacher of that little boy. That’s as far as she got. For the mother, when she saw the teacher, said, “I’m so glad to see the teacher of my boy and to tell her what a good boy he is. He comes from school and works until late gathering and delivering washings for me to do. He gets up before daybreak and delivers the morning papers before going to school. What little he earns goes into the family budget, and it helps procure food and meet other expenses. I feel so sorry for him. He has no real fun all week except going up to your class on Sunday morning.”
That teacher met me the next Sunday morning and said, “Don’t take that boy out of my class; I know him better now.” She met him happily that morning, and he was so pleased that she had been in his home and had talked to his mother. She made him sergeant-at-arms in the class, and his task was to preserve order and quiet. He did it like a major. Shortly after, in a contest, he brought a little girl from his neighborhood to the school. He was called a doubler, which means “one who brings another.” A little later in an evangelistic meeting, the little girl united with the church, and her mother, a non-churchgoer, came, too. Then the father, who was a hard-drinking man, who had left the home, followed them in uniting with the church and returned home. When the meeting closed seventeen relatives of that little girl, all but herself being adults, had united with the church—and they stayed put. Now most of them are dead, but those living are still in attendance with us.
It paid for a teacher to make that personal contact with the home of one of her pupils. That was better than turning the little boy out of the class.
In a contest, it is much like fishing in the lake—you catch all kinds of fish in the net. Some may drop out soon, but with personal care, the right teaching, the assigning of tasks to be performed, and the show of appreciation to individuals for good work done, results are obtained. James A. Garfield once said that he never met a little boy on the street without thinking one can not tell how great a man may be wrapped up beneath that shaggy coat.
A poet has written:
“A diamond in the rough is a diamond sure enough;
Before it ever sparkled, it was made of diamond stuff.
Of course, some one had to find it, or it never would be found,
And some one had to grind it, or it never would be ground.
But when it’s found, and when it’s ground, and when it’s burnished bright,
That diamond’s everlastingly just flashing out its light.”
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It isn’t mentioned in this article, but I’ve heard that Sunday school class attendance at First Christian in Welshimer’s day often was larger than the church’s worship attendance. One of our readers, perhaps, will know whether that was true.
—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard