Is Vacation Bible School Really Effective?

Vacation Bible School can be the best thing a church does all year long. All age groups coming together transforming the church around a particular theme, reaching out to the neighborhood, having grandchildren and those from the membership role you do not see much of throughout the year participating. For some churches, VBS is still one of the most important and well done events of the church year. But, the question I think more churches should be asking is “Should we still be doing Vacation Bible School?”

I have had two emails from different large churches near Richmond just this morning putting out desperate calls for volunteer leaders for their upcoming Vacation Bible School. As I have visited churches, I know that VBS is breaking some of our smaller churches. At one church after I had praised how great it was to see so many different volunteers helping, the childrens director lamented, “Yes, they love getting involved with VBS. I just wish I could get them to volunteer for other things throughout the year. This seems to tap out our volunteers for the year.” Others have lamented over the cost and pressure of such a production and feeling like their churches don’t have a clear purpose and understanding of why they are doing VBS.

For many of you the VBS train has already left the station for this summer. You’ve got your volunteers lined up (or at least some of them lined up) and publicity is already out. Here are some thoughts and questions though to consider this summer that can help you think ahead for the future. The best time to start asking good questions about VBS is in the middle of VBS this summer.

– Why are you doing VBS? The answer to that question should be more than, “Because we’ve always done it” or “We are Baptist, we have to do VBS.” If your purpose is to reach out to the neighborhood, how are you doing that? If your purpose is to reach families that are not connected to another church, does your attendance reflect that? If the reason you do VBS is to bring the church together in one project a year where everyone comes together, then maximize that. Plan opportunities for church members to really get to know each other. If you are continuing to do it so that grandparents have a way to connect their grandchildren to the church, then maximize on opportunities to train the grandparents for discipleship and use VBS as a launching pad for a discipleship relationship that continues.

If your desire is to reach children who are not connected to church and introduce them to Jesus, what is the best way to do that? I have seen some churches that just what to get as many decisions made during the week of VBS as possible. I feel that a better use of VBS is not to be so focused on “getting them saved” but to start a discipleship relationship with the kids. I know there are some who would disagree but what if we weren’t so concerned about the sinners’ prayer as we were about starting relationships that we can continue to foster? That is a lot harder, more time consuming and doesn’t make for an easy announcement from the pulpit but we know that people are more likely to continue to live in the faith if they are discipled, if they have a relationship with others who are mentoring them. I would argue that I’m not certain that a kid understands the decision being made during a one week Vacation Bible School. I believe we should come to see VBS be a starting point in a relationship with the child and with their families.

– Should you use youth as volunteer leaders? With the changing tides of culture, so many of our churches rely heavily on the involvement of youth leaders to make VBS work. I have seen this work incredibly well and seen youth unknowingly sabotage the work a church has put into VBS. Watch your youth critically this summer. Are they engaged with the kids or is this more about socializing with each other? Do they understand what you are asking them to do? Some youth just don’t know how to engage with children. You have to teach them how to sit among them, play games with them, jump in to help with crafts and recreation. This is true for our adult volunteers as well.

VBS can be a leadership training ground, an opportunity for youth to test their wings in leadership. But, is their wing testing hurting VBS?

– How can you change the way you do VBS to better meet the reality of your church? One church used to do a huge block party the weekend before VBS to invite the neighborhood. As adult volunteers began dwindling, they decided volunteers would be better utilized preparing and working VBS, so they stopped doing the block party. One church went to a weekend celebration of VBS because it was too difficult to get enough volunteers to come all week. One childrens’ minister searches for craft supplies at better prices online throughout the spring rather than paying so much to order it from the VBS publishing company.

You don’t have to buy everything that the VBS publishing company is selling. VBS is their big seller and so they are going to market to your church like crazy but you can make choices that allow you to make the most of your resources. What is creating the most strain on the resources of money and/or people, and how can you change VBS to adapt?

– What else could your church do instead of VBS? I am asked by smaller churches all the time about what else can they do instead of VBS. They feel like not only is it tapping all of their resources, they feel like just one of many churches doing the same thing. My reply is always, “Get Creative.” You are not going to find an alternative on the shelf of your local Christian bookstore or catalog. They make it easy to buy one box set because they make a lot of money.

Perhaps you could do a sports camp? Or an arts camp? Maybe a literacy or school skills type of camp? What if you offered a series of classes throughout the summer, parenting or cooking for example? What if you offered an intergenerational program where different age groups learning together and from each other?

Look around at what skills are already present in your church. Give people space to dream. There will always be those who want to keep doing things the same way they’ve always been done but you never know what could be birthed by dreaming new dreams. Look at what your community really needs? What do the young families and children inside and outside your church need?

I’ll be excited to hear about how some of you ask and answer these questions. My prayers are with you this summer as you minister to children and adults through VBS and seek the right future for these ministries of your church.

Vacation Bible School

Vacation Bible School time is upon us. I went every summer as a kid, not only to our VBS, but to my best friends and even sometimes to my grandparents’ church. It always amazes me at how I can immediately recite the pledges we use to say in opening assembly. I remember sitting with my friends drinking Kool-Aid out of the tiniest cups and the little butter cookies you could put on your finger and eat.
The past two summers, I have traveled around the state of Virginia visiting some of our Baptist churches during their Vacation Bible Schools. Here are some of the ideas I have collected along the way that may be helpful in your planning:
* Share resources with other churches. While there are some copyright issues you want to investigate, I saw a lot of churches sharing their resources with one another, especially when it comes to decorations. One childrens’ minister said it was also helpful to spend a day visiting another church doing the same theme to see it in action. Churches shared volunteer resources as they helped each other put up and remove the decorations. Some areas have even gone to doing an area wide Vacation Bible School with other churches in the same area.

* Special Sixth Grade Class. For one church that does not include sixth graders into the youth ministry, VBS provides an opportunity to give them a view of things to come. They attend XBS (Extreme Bible School) which includes special activities and access to the youth room facilities during free time.

* Pastors Getting Involved. I saw pastors doing everything from dressing up in costume and taking on a Biblical character to doing crazy dance moves. It means so much to children and their families for the pastor to be so accessible and involved. It gives kids a great connection to the pastor as we want the kids and their families to continue in the future of the church. It is also great for connection with youth and young adults as the pastor serves along-side of them.

* Keep Connecting to Families. One church I visited states that there goal for VBS is to connect families in the community. They planned a family oriented event to be held in the weeks after VBS. As the children were leaving the week of VBS behind, the event gave the ministers a reason to contact and follow up with the parents and gave the families another opportunity to connect with the church.

*Be Organized. As a visitor, I was so impressed with churches that had walky talkies to communicate with other leaders, charts to show where each group was at all times and maps of the church. This was helpful for me as a visitor and I think would be comforting for any parent who is visiting your church. We forget sometimes that today, even in our smaller towns where we feel like we know everybody, it is a huge deal for people to trust us with their children! We need to do everything we can to show them up front that we take their child’s safety very seriously. Along these lines, think clearly about your check in and check out process. What are you doing to ensure that the right child goes home with the right parent/guardian?

* Utilize volunteer leaders from outside your church. This may not be a fit for your church but a few churches I’ve visited allow for non-church members volunteers from the community to help. I talked with one mother of three who were members of a small church in a nearby town. They loved their little church but she appreciated being able to volunteer in leadership and have her kids participate in a VBS to get a “big church” experience like she had as a kid. She said they while didn’t want to leave their small church, she sometimes she just really missed these kind of things from a big church.
What great ideas do you have for Vacation Bible School?

Taking My Space

On Sunday nights I like to take a zumba toning class. Unlike every other Zumba class that my gym offers, it is only moderately attended and so there is room to spread out. I’m not all that coordinated and I like to minimize injury to myself and others. I just like knowing that I have space. Space to dance, space to flail, space to get it wrong and even sometimes, to get it right.

Last week this woman keep trying to take my space. Like people and their church pews, I have a spot I like to stand. It is over to the side where I can stay near my water and have mirrors around me should I decide to look and be horrified by how uncoordinated I look. I have this thing about being in the middle, really the middle of anything. But this woman, who got to class late, must have wanted the same exact spot.  Even though there was ten feet just to the left of her, she kept moving to the right, forcing me to move out of her way. Like dogs trying to show dominance, she just kept leaning in, moving over slowly and pushing me out of the way.

Too many times in life we feel that same feeling. Like we don’t have a spot of our own. Someone keeps trying to force us over because they think we have a better spot than them. They may infringe on our relationships, may take credit for our ideas, may find passive aggressive ways to put us in our place. All of this makes us feel like we need to take up less and less space. We become more and more insecure about our place in the world.

If you haven’t already seen the video of this poem, you have to watch it now. In it Lily Myers recites her poem, “Shrinking Women” and in it she describes how as women we are taught to take up less and less space in the world. She talks about how her grandmother gets more and more angular as she gets smaller and smaller while her grandfather becomes more and more round everywhere. Her brother says laughingly, “How can anyone have a relationship with food?” To wish she replies, “You have been taught to grow out, I have been taught to grow in. You learn from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence. You used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much. I learned to absorb. I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself.” Her poem tells of the questions she asked in genetics class that day, each beginning with the word “sorry” and how she spent all of her meeting where they were learning about their capstone projects wondering whether she could have another piece of pizza. She talks about her mom, creeping downstairs at night to eat plain yogurt in the dark because she doesn’t feel she is worth the calories.

I realize it is not just an issue for women. We do this at work, in our relationships, in our world, we find ourselves feeling unworthy, like we should just move out of the way of everyone else. You will meet people who will try to take your space in the world. They are unsure of what space they occupy and they come for yours. Or perhaps they don’t feel their space is enough and so they begin to spread and commandeer the space of others.

You were created for a purpose. You have more than just space. You have purpose, you have love, you have gifts, you have ideas, you have life. You were created for a reason.

Stretch out once in awhile, literally and figuratively to remind yourself of just who you are. Keep taking up all of your space, keep true to who you are, keep pushing forward and don’t be afraid to push them back into their space from time to time.

And in case, you’re wondering…I did get my space back by the end of the Zumba class.