It's January! Are You Ready to VBS or not to VBS? (part 1)

by Trevecca Okholm, MA – Certified Christian Educator (PCUSA), Family Ministry Consultant, and author of Kingdom Family: Re-Envisioning God’s Plan for Marriage and Family and The Grandparenting Effect: Bridging Generations One Story at a Time


“Costumed skits, scavenger hunts on the lawn, puppet shows and safari-themed snacks and sing-a-longs—it’s either the best birthday party a kid could ask for or the free kids’ program the church down the street puts on every summer. For many kids in America, summer means Vacation Bible School, or VBS. But it’s not just fun and games. Today, these kids might be gluing popsicle sticks together in a church classroom, but in the near future, these will be the next wave of emerging adults on the Church’s doorstep—deciding whether to step in or out for a lifetime.” The State of Vacation Bible School, Barna.com/research, 2013

It is January!!!

For many children’s pastors this is the deadline month for making decisions on your church’s summer VBS event.


You are probably already thinking about . . .

  • Curriculum! Will you purchase or create your own?

  • Volunteers! Isn’t it about time to start recruiting? Or past time???

  • Decorations! Is it time to pull up the online version of Oriental Trading Company?

It is so tempting to begin with a THEME (and, frankly, that is what most curriculum publishers what you to think of first)


But before you think theme, or volunteers, or decorations, or games, or snacks . . .


Stop and consider your answers to these 4 questions:


1. WHY does your church do VBS?

2. HOW do you get the most bang for your bucks?

3. WHEN is the best time to offer VBS?

4. WHO is—or should be—included?


1. WHY does your church do VBS?


Perhaps the most important question is to begin by asking yourself, your pastor, your staff, and your church board . . . what is our purpose for offering VBS every year?


Is it:

a. Because we’ve always done it!?

b. To evangelize the neighborhood kids and families?

c. To form our church’s kids into faithful Christ-followers?

d. To gather idle children and keep them busy in a wholesome environment for a week during the summer vacation months?


If your answer is “d” you are doing exactly what VBS was originally designed to do. According to C.B.Eavey, a former professor of education at Wheaton College in Illinois, the earliest models of Vacation Bible School date back to post civil war era as a means to “gather idle children into unused churches where unoccupied teachers might keep them busy in a wholesome way in a wholesome environment.” (Eavey, 1964) Vacation Bible School often lasted for several weeks during the long summer months and was quite effective in sticking with its original purpose.


If your answer above was either “b” or “c” you might want to consider that over the decades VBS has morphed from its original intent and started to be seen as a means of evangelism. On the surface this week—or multiple weeks—of VBS seems like a perfect venue for evangelizing unchurched children; however, and this is really important, it is often evangelism apart from faith formation and apart from community of accountability and belonging. (I will explain more about what this means in Part 2 of To VBS or not to VBS)



2. HOW do you get the most bang for your bucks?


Let’s face facts, per capita, a week of VBS often costs more than any other single event in your annual budget, especially in children’s ministry budget. VBS often becomes a major budget line item for a church; however, it is not just financial resources . . . offering a week of summer VBS also becomes a major drain on volunteer resources. A person who gives a full week of volunteer hours for VBS is less willing to give regular ongoing hours to teach Sunday School, I discovered this personally over my many years in professional children’s ministry. Even though—and, again, this falls under the “this is really important” category—spreading out the same number of hours over a longer time allows the establishment of deeper relationships with children, thus stronger influence on faith formation and potential for lasting sense of belonging with community.


3. WHEN is the best time to offer VBS?

and 4. WHO is—or should be—included?


There are multiple books* and statistics out these days that show the effectiveness of offering intergenerational experiences for faith formation. (see links to resources below)


A few questions to ask your team:

- Would an intergenerational event create stronger influence on faith formation with our children as well as potential for lasting sense of belonging with community?

- How do we communicate this change with our parents, teens, and older adult members?

- Why might this be a more effective means of evangelism than bringing in lots of neighborhood kids and recruiting teens to help corral them?


*Here are some great resources to jump start this conversation!


This brings us back to first question . . .

WHY does your church do VBS?

Clint Jenkin, PhD., former vice president of research at Barna Group, suggests that an “effective VBS needs to have specific objectives:

  • Is the objective ‘conversions’ or new church members?

  • Is the objective new long-term relationships with kids and families or an increased awareness of the church in its community?

Churches need to determine their own objectives and structure their VBS accordingly—not just do VBS because ‘it’s always been done‘—but to have goals in mind. One thing that has been missing from VBS is a way to identify the elements of success. Cooperation with other churches or effective debrief afterward—to establish ‘VBS best practices’—could greatly enhance the efficacy of this type of program among American churches and families.” (Barna, 2013)

In part 2 of To VBS or not to VBS we will take a close look at research that draws reflection on why years of summer VBS may be a primary contributor to young adults walking away from the church. Then, in part 3 of To VBS or not to VBS I share a few ideas for ways VBS-Inspired Events might be reformed