Early in my time in my role as director of family ministries at a church, a supportive retired pastor met with me for a consultation. He challenged me, “Is Vacation Bible School still an impactful form of ministry today?” The program began around the turn into the 19th century, he said, as a way to keep kids out of trouble in the summer through providing them with biblical education during vacation. But was this model relevant anymore, or had it become an event that was “singing to the choir,” so to speak, a week (or more) that requires a lot of volunteers, money and effort only to provide fun and games for already-churched kids?
“I guess we’ll see,” I told him, as we already had the ball rolling on our program, and I wasn’t prepared to cancel a historic event in my first year on the job. I looked at it as an opportunity to assess what needs were being met and to ask, were we providing an important experience for our congregation and neighborhood? I spent time connecting with other people running VBS programs in our city and paid special attention to what happened at our own event.
A Mountaintop Moment
Here’s what I’ve concluded: VBS, if done well, can be a milestone in a child’s faith development. Yes, as my friend pointed out to me, most of the attendants are Christian. Those who attended who were not from our congregation were largely from other churches in the city. But is that a problem? We used to call these “mountaintop moments,” times where you feel the collective encouragement of being surrounded by others who are growing together, enjoying the intensity dwelling on God’s truth for a short but concentrated period of time. I began to think of VBS as the elementary school version of the youth retreat—an experience where young people can develop positive spiritual friendships with others, experience God’s love, find mentorship relationships with older Christians, and create memories that are formative to a healthy faith journey.
However, I think the original missional intention of VBS needs to be held central to our ministry. The VBS programs I observed at other churches were intentional about reaching out beyond their congregation. One local church who hosts a VBS of 160 kids always reserved 60 spots for children who were bused in through a local outreach program. Another VBS director at an inner-city church runs four weeks of 9 a.m.-5 p.m. VBS programs because, “If I don’t, I know that there will be children who will be left at home alone.” She cares deeply about letting her VBS reach the concrete needs of their neighborhood. And her ministry does not end with the elementary school-aged children; many of her teenage volunteers are not from faith backgrounds and are being mentored through her leadership.
Reaching out to the broader community looks different according to where your church is located. Hanging posters and putting out signs only goes so far. Personal invitations are hugely effective, so getting the entire congregation invested in the ministry and encouraging them to invite neighbors and friends is one of the best ways to get kids attending. Handing out flyers in local apartments and networking with local children’s programs are other ways to reach beyond the walls of the church (however, it’s worth noting that flyers are only effective if distributed multiple times).
Some Outdated Aspects
There are two elements of VBS that might be outdated, the first being the name. The term “vacation Bible school” speaks to church needs, but for those not raised in the church world, it’s an unclear name. Now curriculum providers like Group and Lifeway simply call it by its acronym, but that also creates insider language that is unfriendly to those outside of church culture. I was grateful that my predecessor at church used the term “summer adventure camp.” Camp is truer to most models and makes more sense than school. Why would kids want to go to school in the summer? (This is also why I lean toward the wording “Children’s Ministry” instead of “Sunday school” for children’s programming during Sunday worship, but that’s another discussion.)
The other outdated feature is VBS’s dependence on stay-at-home mothers and teenagers to make the wheels turn. More than any other ministry program I’ve run, VBS requires a huge amount of volunteers to pull it off safely and effectively. When I was a child, the VBS programs in our town were run almost exclusively by stay-at-home moms and high school students. Now more and more families rely on a double income and most teenagers work summer jobs, so it is challenging to find volunteers. In our congregation we were blessed to find volunteers in a few stay-at-home parents, people who worked in education, a number of retired folks, and a handful of teenagers who were still nostalgic about their own Summer Adventure Camp experiences. I can understand why many congregations are no longer able to run this ministry and why many are opting instead for a summer camp model with a cost so that teenage leaders are paid an honorarium.
Before my friend at church challenged me about the effectiveness of VBS, I had been involved in about six different VBS and church day camps—some that were simply a fun club for the kids in the congregations and some that were a significant gift to the neighborhoods they served. While I ultimately disagreed with his conclusion that VBS (the program, not the title) is passe, I am so glad that my friend asked me to consider why we were doing it. I’ve concluded that in order to run a strong, missional Christian day camp, a congregation needs to ask: What is our goal in running this program? How can we both create a meaningful experience for the children in our church community and share God’s love with those beyond? This answer will look different according to your neighborhood and the reputation of your program. But it’s important to ask it before planning every year so that this can be an opportunity to build the faith of our own children as well as impact the broader community around us.