When the expected 300 kids show up for Vacation Bible School at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Kettering this year, they’ll be greeted by a live band, a 21-member VBS song and dance team, a 10-foot high space station, and a sanctuary draped with a 250-by-13-foot high curtain that mimics a starry night sky, not to mention special effects created by twinkling lights and a fog machine.
This is not your parents’ VBS.
The idea of VBS may conjure up quaint images of children sipping Kool-Aid in church basements, perhaps doing crafts involving Popsicle sticks and paper plates. But in a world where children are used to interactive video games, 3-D movies and television stations catering to their tastes, as well as any number of activities competing for their time and interest, churches have had to work hard to update their VBS programs.
Children attending Emmanuel Lutheran’s VBS will have an “Out of this World Adventure,” July 26-30. “They will be astronauts blasting their space shuttle to the space station Lifestar,” said Sue Freeman, director of children’s ministries.
Freeman devises each year’s concept and writes the scripts. She spends a year preparing. Every Thursday year-round, she meets with a group of five volunteers who work on creating the decorations. “We go a little crazy, but we have a ball,” she said.
Crafts are still an important part of the VBS activity plan, but at Emmanuel, in keeping with the astronaut theme, the kids will be “engineering” instead of crafting and doing so in rooms and hallways transformed by black vinyl wall coverings, accented with glow-in-the-dark patches. Every child will get a CD of the week’s music, recorded by the band, including an original theme song written for the school.
Throughout the week, in “intergalactic disciple training” they’ll learn lessons based on this year’s theme verse: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” On the last night, the church hosts a family carnival with games and refreshments. Last year, after a western-themed week, more than 800 people attended.
“I think our VBS works because of all those layers we put into it. They never know what to expect. Our success comes in all of the levels of stimulation we have to really catch the heart of every kid,” Freeman said. To gain the hearts of the preteen girls, she jokes they have a secret weapon: “You always have to have a cute guy in the band for the young girls to have a crush on.”
At Beavercreek Church of the Nazarene, they’ve taken a different tact to make their VBS appealing. “We started doing family VBS about four years ago,” said Sheila Slone, the church’s children’s pastor. “We saw a need for families to come together and have a shared activity.”
The Beavercreek church held their evening VBS in June. “This year we did ‘God Story,’ related to ‘Toy Story,’ ” Slone said. They used a set designed to look like a big bedroom, with an 8-foot-high bed and 6-foot-high toy box.
Parents and kids could enjoy songs, watching presenters, crafts, movies and popcorn, and water games outside. “Sometimes, the kids could play and the parents could sit and talk with each other and build relationships,” Slone said. About 150 families participated this year. Slone said the church used to welcome nearly 700 children when they did a more traditional VBS, but that the change was worth it. “We’re about families and building families that are connected. We don’t have as many children attend, but we think we’re doing something really valuable,” she said.
Another untraditional VBS was organized by Fort McKinley, the Dayton campus of Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, which offered an evening Mega Sports Camp the week of June 28. Kids signed up for karate, baseball, basketball or cheerleading, and could come early for a free dinner. Each night began and ended with a group praise and worship, with two sessions of sports in between. A half-time rally included teaching time, and huddles with the coaches gave the kids a chance to pray and talk together.
“This is the first year we’re doing it,” said Erica Sharp, children’s ministry coordinator at Fort McKinley. “We chose this because we polled our kids and gave them a choice of two traditional-themed VBS’s or the sports camp, and the kids hands down chose the sports camp. In an urban setting, the kids are attracted to that. They’re not necessarily interested in doing a craft – they want to be up and running around.”
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Kettering is following the theme “Egypt: Joseph’s Journey from Prison to Palace” for their VBS, which will take place July 26-30. It will be based on materials prepared by Group, a Colorado publishing company that specializes in resources for church ministries. The Joseph theme is being used by multiple churches in the area this summer. “High Seas Expedition,” also by Group, is this year’s other big theme.
Group sells just about everything a church could possibly need to put together a VBS. They offer publicity materials, including posters, bulletin inserts and outdoor banners. There are craft kits, name tags, instructional posters, props, DVDs, music CDs and books, as well as leader manuals and guides.
“We’ve used a lot of Group’s stuff over the years,” said Don Bennett, director of youth and family ministries at Good Shepherd. “We like their music and the general way that everything is laid out. There’s an opening which gets everybody singing and they provide a video we can use to teach the kids movement.”
He expected nearly 70 children to attend. “We will have kids who will have been through the curriculum elsewhere, but done a bit different,” he said. “Some parents choose to use VBS as a daycare because it’s fun for the kids and they know that it’s safe.”
Activities will include lots of singing, as well as the chance to shop at a bazaar, watch skits about the life of Joseph, and discuss what they’re learning. “They talk about how Joseph’s struggles relate to their own lives. We want to convey that instead of just stories in some old book, they really do have meaning for our own lives,” Bennett said.
Northridge United Methodist Church in Springfield is using Group’s “High Seas Expedition” as the basis for their VBS, taking place the evenings of July 12 through 16.
Church members Mindy and Steve Nickell volunteered to organize the school this year. The Northridge sanctuary is going to be transformed into an ocean scene. “We are fortunate to have someone in our congregation who builds sets,” Mindy Nickell said. “He is building a ship for the front of our church, complete with sails and a huge ocean background.”
Other rooms in the church will be decorated daily to match each day’s theme. To illustrate a lesson about being a prisoner on a ship in a storm, the kids will get to navigate a room filled with blue tarps buffeted by fans and a water mist.
Nickell said the theatrics are worth it. “You have to present the information in different fashions because all kids learn differently,” she said. She sees a lot of merit in helping the kids to have fun. “It helps them to see that it’s not uncool to be a Christian and that the Bible is not boring.”
As a mission component, Northridge attendees will be asked to contribute to a local charity that gives children backpacks full of food to provide weekend meals for their families. “We are asking the kids to bring food in each day instead of a collection,” Nickell said.
At Emmanuel Lutheran’s space-themed VBS, they also will be collecting food for a similar charity. “You want to teach the kids that it’s not all about them,” Freeman said.
That said, she appreciates every child that attends VBS. “I think you have to really value that time they give you,” she said. “I make sure these kids know I appreciate getting to hang out with them because I know they have other choices.”