What You Do at VBS and How You Do It Matters

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Where I live the snow is starting to melt, spring is in the air, and two groups of people—gardeners and Vacation Bible School (VBS) leaders—are thinking about the seeds they’ll be planting and nurturing this summer. 

Although my thumbs aren’t green, I’ve learned from experience that when it comes to planting seeds, context matters. As part of my planning process I consider the content of the soil, the amount of sun and shade I can expect, and how often I plan to water it. I’m also thinking about the other plants in my garden and how they’ll work together.

And while I’m grateful for the ways in which growers have removed most of the guesswork for buyers like me by providing plant tags with the information I need to know, I recognize that it’s important for me to do my homework well in advance of gardening season. What you plant in your garden, and how you plant it, matters. 

And, since it’s our prayer that the seeds of faith we’re planting and nurturing in the hearts of kids through our summer ministry will take root and continue to grow, the same rule applies to VBS: what we plant and how we plant it matters. In fact, the ways in which you invite children into God’s story over five days during the summer deserve as much attention as you give the ways in which you do so with the children of your congregation during the rest of the year. 

Here are three things to consider as you plan the what and how of your summer ministry with children:

1. Choose content that aligns with your theology. VBS may only be a week, but what you teach kids about God’s love can last forever. Unsure about how the content you’re considering lines up with Reformed theology? Look closely at the goals for each session and avoid content that is moralistic, focuses too heavily on a virtue, connects works with salvation, or turns biblical characters into the heroes of God’s story rather than focusing on God as the main actor. (If the sample provided by the publisher doesn’t list all the goals and objectives for each session, contact them to ask for that information.) 

Solid theological content will interpret the Bible as the story of God and each story in the Bible as one part of the story of God’s redemption and restoration of this fallen world through Jesus Christ. That helpful summary comes from the free 10 Question Tool for Choosing Curriculum from Faith Formation Ministries. Although the tool was designed primarily for Sunday school curriculum, it also works well when reviewing VBS content with one exception--because the Scope and Sequence of a VBS curriculum is condensed, simply swap the criteria for Question #2 with the following: 

Scope and Sequence refers to the selection of stories included in a curriculum and the order in which they are presented. The stories selected for a Vacation Bible School curriculum should be unified by a common theme. For example, stories from the life of Joseph can be grouped to learn about God’s presence in the life of Joseph and in our lives today; a VBS based on the creation stories can help kids understand that God created the world (and them!) and can invite kids to explore how God might be calling them to care for creation today. Ask: How do the selected stories connect with each other? And how does that grouping invite children to learn about and experience God’s love? 

For additional information on the curricula you're considering, be sure to check out the annual list of VBS Top Picks and Reviews from the fine folks at Virginia Theological Seminary. 

2. Make the right impression. Have fun planning the backdrops, gathering the props, and preparing the snacks, but remember that the theme is like a garden’s accent plants, whose purpose is to draw your eye to the showstopper in the center of the garden. The most lasting impression you leave with kids should be that God loves them, not the fact that there was a pirate ship in the sanctuary. “I am troubled by programs that offer a glitzy theme that fails to plainly deliver a faith message. While pirates or outer space can provide wonderful opportunities for decorating, your VBS committee needs to ask whether a five-year-old will grow in faith through that theme,” says Paula Hartzell in her helpful post 5 Things to Consider When Choosing a VBS. Keep your answer to one question in the forefront as you plan and lead VBS: What’s the most important thing we want to impress on the hearts of each participant?

3. Be open to fresh approaches. Is a traditional VBS still the best way for your church to connect with and provide support in your community? Or is it time to rethink your approach to summer ministries? How does the local context of your church shape your plans for summer ministry? For great ideas, open the Summer Ministries tab in the Children’s Ministry toolkit. In addition to a series of questions to help you discern the best approach for summer ministry in your context, you’ll find a list featuring some of the fresh approaches other churches are taking and more. 

Happy planting! 

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