Whenever I meet with a church to talk about their global missions strategy, I always ask what they are doing locally. Inevitably they mention VBS as a primary outreach tool. So I decided to do some research.
According to the NYCAGO, VBS was the idea of Mrs. Walter Aylett Hawes, a doctor's wife. Her goal was to get children off the streets of New York. In 1898 and 1899 Mrs. Hawes rented a beer hall in New York's East Side to conduct her Everyday Bible School. In 1900 Mrs. Hawes' pastor, Howard Lee Jones, insisted that the Bible school move to the church building, Epiphany Baptist Church. After two weeks it became clear that children from the East Side would not attend at the church, so Mrs. Hawes moved the school back to a site near the beer hall.
I’m guessing not many Christian Reformed churches (or other churches, for that matter) hold their VBS classes near beer halls these days. However, the idea that it was more successful there than in the church is an intriguing one, especially when VBS seems to be losing its luster in recent years.
According to Barna, there has been some decline over the years in the number of churches offering VBS. “In recent years, Christians have been somewhat anxious about the continued tradition of VBS. And while the national offering of VBS has dipped slightly since 1997, when eight out of 10 churches were hosting VBS, six to seven out of 10 churches has been the steady rate since then. Such consistency indicates the summer spiritual education of children isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Why the slight decline? Reasons given are a lack of teachers and that their church has "no time" for VBS. Additionally, a quick search of VBS online pulls up articles such as “How Vacation Bible School Drove Millennials Away from Church” and “Is VBS Dead? or Just Not Worth the Trouble?”.
Those articles focus more on the lack of follow up than on the idea, however. So it seems that with a bit of intentionality, Vacation Bible School could be a good way for churches to connect with their neighbors. In Makeover for VBS (an article no longer online), Alison Kennedy points out that “Sixty-seven percent of all parents need some form of summer care for their children.”
She goes on to describe how a church in California renamed their VBS as a “Free Christian Day Camp,” promoted it through the public schools, and quickly had 200 kids signed up — mostly unchurched.
Intrigued, I sent an inquiry to Communities First Association members — people who are in the trenches, helping churches connect with neighborhoods every day. Here are some of their ideas for a more effective VBS:
Coordinate all of the VBS offerings in a community and schedule them in subsequent weeks instead of at the same time. Then, issue passports to every child. As the child attends the various VBSs they would receive a Visa in their passport. The ones with the most Visas at the end of the summer would win prizes. (Jim Poimme, www.weareONECHURCH.com)
In Monterey Park, CA the churches have coordinated their VBS schedules throughout the summer and have a kick off day for sign ups in the park with all churches present. This was done as a way to help with school district cuts of summer school. Also in response to summer school budget cuts, in Fullerton 25 churches together are doing a program called Soulful. They will be in 4 different neighborhoods. The residents have developed the programs they want for their neighborhood and the churches are supporting those visions with volunteers, supplies, etc. Everything from academia to basketball and soccer (Terri Larson, www.kingdomcauses.org)
A church in Central California has been doing a VBS style event every two weeks in the park for several months and are planning to transition into being more present in one specific apartment complex so that it is not just a “to/for” event for the whole community with lots of give-aways, but an ongoing presence in the apartment complex with lots of input from the community members. (Monika Grasley, www.lifelinecdc.org)
Sonlight Community CRC in Lynden, WA ran a “Summer Fest” 2 summers ago that worked very hard to reach out to the surrounding community, even migrant camps, to draw kids to the church location. Rather than strictly a “Bible” school, they also offered interest/skill classes — everything from how to make and launch Estes rockets, soccer skills, painting, photography, tie-dye, scrapbooking, drama, cooking, woodworking, etc. was made available to the kids. Jeff Littlejohn says that the teen and adult leaders were allowed to align their skills and passion in and through their own class which they ran. “They gave their gifts! The Song of Community rang forth at least for the week.”
Feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.