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.

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