VBS = Vacation Bible School
Much of the world doesn’t know this as illustrated in a long, long Twitter thread I was reading in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. Someone posted that her local VBS was preying on children, indoctrinating them with myths about fire and brimstone and that it would take the rest of the summer to deprogram her child. And then the responses poured in:
- What’s VBS?
- I took my kids for the free childcare.
- Yeah, my mom took us to every VBS in town every summer for the free childcare and snacks.
- They taught my daughter that she was going to hell if she didn’t accept Jesus as her Savior. She was four.
- They taught my son that the Jews killed Jesus (from a Jewish mom)
- They taught my kids that Jesus was an American.
- They taught my kids that God hates gay people.
- They taught my kids that only boys can be leaders.
It was hard not to feed the trolls in that thread but it did make me wonder where their kids went to VBS. Yes, it’s true that many congregations use the same packaged curriculum (because it’s easiest) and sometimes that curriculum is shaky in terms of the theology (and politics) taught. Yes, it’s true that many parents use VBS for free childcare. Yes, it’s true that some churches take advantage of poor communities, sending buses to their neighborhood in hopes of proselyzing their children and therefore “saving them.”
And it’s also true that Vacation Bible School can be a valuable ministry to children . . . when it’s not transactional. This is what transactional ministry looks like:
- God will only love you if you pray like we pray and believe exactly what we believe.
- Yes, you can have snack today if you recite The Sinners Prayer.
- You can only get a t-shirt at the end of the week if your parents sit through a presentation by our pastor.
When I was fortunate to visit Christian schools in Lebanon and Syria, I learned that they were very popular with Muslim families because the religious lessons learned were about the love of God and how Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor. Muslim parents I talked with said that the Muslim schools taught lessons that denigrated their Jewish and Christian neighbors and they wanted their children to learn the way of Jesus. This did not include condemning their children to hell if they didn’t get baptized.
When I was a parish pastor, we often used packaged VBS programs because – yes – they were easier. You get flyers and puppets and CDs of Bible songs and easy-to-follow lesson plans. But when the staff felt creative and excited about something different, we made up our own curriculum and it was a lot more fun. Exhausting. But so much fun.
There was the time we did “Great Stories from the Old Testament” and we built a massive papier mache fish with a mouth big enough to fit 10 preschoolers and a teacher in there. We threw sand on the fellowship hall floor and got a life-sized blow up pharaoh which doubled as a punching bag. We built a Garden of Eden with hundreds of houseplants brought from members’ homes. It was exhausting but a blast.
There was the time (our church’s anniversary) when we used Bible verses with the numbers 40 (the church was founded in the 1940s), 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 and then we took songs from each decade and changed the lyrics. (“Jeremiah was a prophet! Was a good friend of mine” – from the 70s.) “I Want to be like Christ. I wanna be, I wanna be like Jesus” – from the 90s. It was a blast.
The summer of 2021 is particularly heavy with many global issues and our churches are still reeling from pandemic changes. But in spite of this, there are still congregations creating their own VBS and it’s about loving God and our neighbors and serving others. You know who you are, Amazing Followers of Jesus. I thank God for you.
I grew up with VBS. My mother was the refreshment lady, and in the 60s that consisted of Kool Aid and cookies. She bought Kool Aid and sugar every time it was on sale! We sang songs, made crafts, heard Bible stories. There was no “come to Jesus” moment. Decades later I ran a VBS that we pulled off with two weeks’ prep. It was a big hit. Again, no faith commitment. Just good fun with Jesus stories. Our daughter now runs very large VBS operations with her church and the next door neighbor church, but this year it was limited to 25 children, due to COVID protocols. Very simple, very sweet. She loved it.
I love VBS at our church, even if I did get conned into being a performer the first time around. I know we’re doing it right since, just like your experience in the Middle east, we get a variety of people who are not church members but who want their kids to know a loving God. Also, we have good snacks.