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Today’s VBS: More Than Just Popsicle Sticks
School-break camps run by churches contribute to community and can plant seeds of faith.

Rod Wasson of Moncton, New Brunswick, knows the impact that church-run daycamp—commonly known as VBS or “vacation Bible school”—can have on a life. A children’s pastor at Moncton Wesleyan Church, Wasson has “a soft spot” for such kids’ programs because he can trace his own faith journey back to one almost four decades ago.

Photo courtesy Trixie Hoyer / Church of the Resurrection.

“I was raised in a very poor family situation,” he says. “My mom and dad were not churchgoers. There was a Baptist minister who approached my mom and asked if we—her kids—could go to VBS.”

The minister came every day and picked up nine-year-old Wasson and three of his siblings. “Eleven miles to come and get us and 11 miles to bring us back afterwards,” he remembers.

The four loved the program and returned the following year. During those two weeks—one week each year—Wasson received his only childhood exposure to Christian teaching. But it was enough to plant a seed of faith that would germinate, take root slowly and blossom 13 years later. At 23, Wasson was married and had a child of his own and a neighbour invited his daughter to church. He let her go, he says, because “I was remembering my brief exposure to VBS.”

Within weeks, Wasson and his wife decided they too should “check out” the church. They did and came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Ask Wasson today what he remembers about those two weeks of VBS and he recalls a simple program with “a lot of Popsicle sticks and singing songs.” No doubt there are thousands of North Americans with similar memories. A typical VBS of the 1960s or ’70s involved a handful of children fidgeting in a circle as they listened to Bible stories in somebody’s backyard. And of course there were simple crafts, sometimes made with Popsicle sticks. It wasn’t always a coveted experience.

In a Christianity Today essay, Mark Linville recalls VBS as “that bane of summer; a whole week of daylight stolen from the middle of a sandlot-baseball-playing boy’s vacation.”

But those days are—if not forgotten—certainly gone. Few children today still have the summertime freedoms of the “sandlot-baseball-playing” generation. Today’s working parents often struggle to find high quality, affordable summer care and entertainment that doesn’t involve electronic screens for their youngsters.

Recognizing a community need and an opportunity for church outreach, an increasing number of churches are working hard to fill the void. Many will give their program a catchy title that captures the imagination of today’s kids.

A week-long, summer VBS requires early-in-the-year planning. Materials need to be selected and ordered; volunteers recruited; crafts planned; skits and new songs accompanied by actions rehearsed; appealing snacks prepared; bold, thematic decorations made to decorate the entire church. All of it often adds up to a significant investment, including a financial one.

All that effort appears to be paying off. Today’s Nintendo-playing, media savvy boys and girls are flocking to summer church programs in growing numbers. Many VBS leaders report that high percentages of participants come from non-church homes. For many churches, VBS is their most significant outreach event of the year.

“If it’s used strategically, VBS is probably one of the most effective tools for reaching into a community,” says Shelley Campagnola, chair of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Children’s Ministry Forum. “Even parents who wouldn’t normally send their kids to a mid-week [church] club will send their kids to VBS. It’s just a much-less threatening environment.

“Parents love it because they need childcare for their kids. It’s far cheaper than any babysitter. It’s a good quality, safe program, and the kids are having a blast.”

Churches differ widely on what they charge for these programs, from nothing at all to a small registration fee to something more substantial. But whatever the price, VBS is “one of the few tools [for outreach] that’s still broadly accepted by communities,” says Campagnola.

Discipling believers

Non-Christians are quick to appreciate VBS as a community service, and Evangelicals are quick to see its potential for creating a safe relationship and an environment to talk about faith (“pre-evangelism”).

Photo courtesy Circle Drive Alliance church.

Campagnola underscores another important aspect: “VBS is an equipping tool. Many leaders are teens, and they’re being trained. It’s not just about the little kids. It’s also about giving opportunities to older kids to learn the impact their ministry can have.”

At Millbrook Christian Assembly in Millbrook, Ontario, assistant pastor Mel Versluis offers an example: “…we had a junior high [student] who has grown up coming to VBS and now she wants to volunteer. We’ve taken a child from being ministered to, to ministering.”

VBS can be used for more than outreach. Helping the spiritual growth of Christian children was the intention at Edson Alliance Church in Alberta. The congregation ran an “inhouse” VBS for 25 of their own kids. “Our primary purpose was discipleship,” says Steve Rigby, senior pastor. “We wanted to address some issues that have been recurring in our own congregation and the broader community, like respect for authority and the concept of obedience. A smaller VBS allows more one-on-one.”

Cheap babysitting, outreach and big business

As well Edson Alliance has also participated in an outreach VBS. In the summer of 2004, it worked together with five other churches in the small town to host a weeklong, half-day VBS for 135 children. “The non-church community likes their kids to go to VBS,” says Rigby. “It’s something for the kids to do during the summer that’s fun, profitable and safe. The parents may be using it for cheap babysitting, but the Holy Spirit can use it for something else.

William Robotham
Photo courtesy Trixie Hoyer / Church of the Resurrection

God’s got a bigger plan for kids than we have.”

Mel Versluis agrees. The majority of children who attend Millbrook Christian Assembly’s VBS come from outside the church. “Our goal is to reach out into the community,” he says. “Every year, families bring their children over and over again.”

Moncton Wesleyan does their VBS program up in “grand style” according to Wasson, with lots of decorations, an opening rally and a closing barbeque for both kids and parents. Of the 120 children who register each summer, he estimates 40 percent come from non-church homes.

Given all the benefits, it’s not surprising that Canadian churches are embracing the programs in a big way, according to Kelly Francis, former inside sales manager with R.G. Mitchell Family Books, the giant retailer that collapsed in 2008. She had the sales figures to prove it. In 2002, sales of their most popular VBS kits were up 14.5 percent over the previous year. In 2003, another 23.4 percent. The following year, 27 percent. 2005 saw a 30 percent increase. “It’s big business,” says Francis, “it really is. And I believe firmly that it’s because of the results [churches] are seeing in terms of the number of children coming to the Lord.”

Statistics from the United States, on the other hand, don’t paint such a rosy figure. The number of churches offering VBS there has declined, according to the Barna Research Group, which reported in July 2006 that 15 percent fewer churches are offering VBS than eight years ago. Reasons cited include a lack of teachers, a lack of time and that they’re offering “other activities.”

Tools and trends

Churches interested in VBS today can choose from a wide range of affordable, fun and easy-to-use kits. (See list of publishers at the end of this article.) The many VBS-in-a-box kits have “done everything for you,” says Francis. “It’s so easy to put [the program] on, and the ancillary products they have are attractive to children.”

ZoneCamps

Not all churches adopt the pre-packaged method. Some, responding to the specific needs of their communities, are coming up with creative programs all on their own.

Churches in urban centres, for example, sometimes find that demand from working parents for summer children’s programming is so high, the traditional one-week, half-day approach just isn’t enough.

West London Alliance Church in London, Ontario, runs four full weeks of daycamp each summer, Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with early drop-off and late pick-up options for working parents. That’s followed with a week of overnight camp at a location outside the city. Planning for the program they call ZoneCamp begins in November. Registration forms are mailed out by February. Total budget for all five weeks: $50,000. Registration fees of $75 to $125 per child per week cover all costs. Last summer they ministered to more than 400 children.

Jane Cushing, the congregation’s director of children’s ministries, calls ZoneCamp, “an exciting thing to be a part of, because you have a chance to invest in kids beyond an hour a week.”

On the Canadian Forces Base in Petawawa, Ontario, the Protestant chapel works with the Catholic chapel to run a cooperative VBS annually. In 2005 they expanded their 9 a.m. to 12 noon program by offering a breakfast club at 7:30 a.m. for a small additional fee. Volunteer Hilda Young says the move was designed to meet the needs of working parents who must get an early start in the morning. Most of the 60 children who attend the program “have no connection” with either church, she adds.

Power Zone Daycamp

According to Campagnola, VBS is increasingly being offered towards the end of summer, “which helps to transition kids more naturally into fall programs,” and at other times of the year such as Christmas or March breaks.

Whenever it’s held, and whether it’s a ministry to encourage people or a daycare service or outreach or fun, churches across Canada say VBS is being used by God.

“We’re about ministry,” says Cushing. “I know there are parents who use us as daycare. They’ll sign their kids up for five straight weeks. But [the Apostle] Paul said that what matters is that Christ is preached. I don’t care why they come. That they come is what I’m concerned about.”

Rod Wasson is glad he was invited to VBS almost 40 years ago. “That would have been only two weeks,” he says   of his childhood exposure to the Gospel through the simple program. “A week one year and a week the next. Yet it was just enough for God to get a hold of my life.” 

Considering a VBS?

Before launching a VBS program, Shelley Campagnola of the EFC’s Children’s Ministry Forum suggests churches consider the following:

Photo courtesy Trixie Hoyer / Church of the Resurrection

1. Evaluate why you want to run the program and how it fits into the context of your other ministries to children or families. Setting up a VBS program “just because everybody else is doing it,” says Campagnola, “is a recipe for disaster.”

2. Ensure you have someone willing to direct the program. “A lot of people don’t realize how much work is involved,” Campagnola says.

3. Allow adequate time for planning. Many churches begin their preparations as early as January for a July or August program.

4. Assess the space you can provide. Is there adequate room inside? Outside? If you have access to a lot of land, consider setting up tents.

5. Assess church support. VBS can fill your church with boisterous, noisy young people. If you want to avoid complaints, it’s best to ensure congregants are all onboard with the decision to run a VBS well in advance of its start.

6. Assess volunteer resources. VBS can use volunteers of all ages and abilities, whether it’s a teen to lead games or a senior to help prepare snacks. Incorporating a variety of volunteers can enhance the experience for children and leaders—and help build church-wide support.

7. Assess the skill sets of potential volunteers. Campagnola says having an on-site nurse and people to handle security (such as in hallways and washrooms) can take pressure off other volunteers.

8. Evaluate whether you’re located in a community with children. If people are going to have to drive to get to you, an evening program might be better.

9. Determine the amount and type of promotion you’ll need.

10. Assess your cash resources. “VBS is not cheap,” says Campagnola. “For a large program of 300 children,  you’ll probably need to budget $3,500 to $4,000.”

VBS resources

  • John Robert Cutshall, 155 Awesome Ideas to Energize Any VBS (Group Publishing, 1998). Even veteran VBS workers can save time, energy and money with this book of practical tips.
  • ChildrensMinistry.net runs an online discussion forum. Visit their website and click on the VBS link.
  • Child Evangelism Fellowship offers training, support and resources for the evangelizing and spiritual growth of children. They can help with your VBS program. Visit www.cefcanada.org.

Publishers of popular VBS curricula include:

Patricia Paddey of Mississauga, Ontario, regularly writes feature articles for Faith Today.

Originally published in Faith Today, March/April 2006, updated February 2008.

 

 
 
 
 

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