To VBS or not to VBS? (part 2): Does VBS contribute to Young People Walking Away from Church?

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


"Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, say Smith and Denton, seems to be “colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.” – Kenda Creasy Dena, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church


What's to love about VBS?

Over my more than half a century of participating in, volunteering for, and organizing summer VBS events, I have begun to question if this annual extravaganza is the best use of the church’s material, financial, or volunteer resources. Thus, I have found myself developing a love/fear relationship to the whole North American church phenomenon known as summer VBS.


First, I should mention what I love about VBS. I love the hype! The themes! The decorations! The energy! And I love that the volunteers - who would never commit to teaching Sunday School or midweek ministry on an on-going basis – could always be counted on to participate in this one-week-commitment of their time and talents.


Sounds amazing, right? So, what’s to fear?


For at least the final decade of my six decade VBS sojourn, deep in my soul, I had this continual nag that, in the middle of all the hype, the church in our culture was, and still is, inadvertently inoculating generations of children against a deeper commitment to the Christian faith and commitment to the church.


I fear that VBS was, and continues to be, a primary contributor to what a research study by Christian Smith & Melinda Denton discovered about young people walking away from the church (Smith & Denton, 2005). Their research discovered the roots of MTDs—a moralistic therapeutic deistic view* of God. Through their research they began to understand and name what the church’s children and youth had been conditioned to believe. A belief that God existed primarily to be their best friend, to teach them right from wrong, and to show up when they needed God in a large or small crisis.


The late 20th/early 21st century version of VBS also creating the stage for a spiritual condition Robert Bellah coined as Sheliaism** in his pivotal work, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Bellah, 1985). Creating a pick and choose version of faith that was convenient for me and causing me to believe that I did not need to actively participate in a larger faith community. A belief that creates the stage for seeing my faith as personal, just between God and me.


As one observes and reflects more on the role of VBS in faith formation, it is not hard to see that in spite of all the fun and activity, VBS has made a primary contribution to both a moralistic therapeutic deistic view* of God (Smith/Denton) and an individualized faith such as defined by Bellah, et al.


Why does this matter for the purpose of VBS?


Well it gets even more complicated when we consider the fact that between the late 19th century, when VBS got its start, and the early 21st century in which we now find ourselves, the American culture has gone through several momentous shifts.


For example, post WWII brought more discretionary income and mobility. For the first time in history, families were leaving urban neighborhoods and moving to the suburbs, and when they arrived they were not limited to only walking to the local neighborhood church but, with these conveniences of discretionary income and especially mobility, they could now drive across town to a different church.


OK, but why does this matter for the purpose of VBS?


Parents could now decide to cross town to a larger church with a more exciting VBS experience while having no connection to that church.


What had once taken place in community, was now becoming a consumer-driven event often offered in competition with other churches.


What’s more, parents were quickly discovering that VBS events could be a cheap childcare alternative. Thus, parents were tempted to send their children to week after week of summer activity at various churches. While that fulfills Eavey’s*** conclusion of the purpose of gathering idle children to keep them busy in a wholesome environment; all too often it is done in a disconnected community, in a church community to which they didn't belong.


Also, over the decades VBS has morphed from its original intent into a means of evangelism. On the surface this seems like a perfect venue for evangelizing unchurched children; however, as I wrote about in part 1 of this series, it is evangelization apart from faith formation and apart from community of accountability and belonging.


Of course, most of us can point to that child and that family that joined the church in a direct response to attending that week of VBS; however, when one considers the vast number of children and their families that simply enjoyed the experience . . . or raised a hand on the final day to ask Jesus into their hearts to be their personal savior but failed to make an ongoing connection to the faith community . . . one has to wonder if they way we have done VBS extravaganza over the past half century has really connected to the hopes we had?


My experience from over half a century of annual VBS weeks, as well as research from sources such as I quote above from Smith & Denton, 2005 and Bellah, 1985 (plus others that are not mentioned in this forum post), lead me to encourage us—especially those of us deeply invested in children’s spiritual formation—to consider if VBS might be reformed.


In part 3 of To VBS or not to VBS I share a few ideas for ways VBS-Inspired Events might be reformed and become more effective in faith formation

* Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one's health and doing one's best to be successful. ... Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is, second, about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one's prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God's love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people. – Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), pp. 162-164


** The term Sheilaism is a shorthand term for an individual's system of religious belief which co-opts strands of multiple religions chosen by the individual usually without much theological consideration. The term derives from a woman named Sheila Larson, who is quoted by Robert N. Bellah et al.


***see part 1 of this series, To VBS or Not To VBS.

In part 3 of To VBS or not to VBS I share a few ideas for ways VBS-Inspired Events might be reformed and become more effective in faith formation


In part 1 of To VBS or not to VBS I asked you to think about the following questions: WHY does your church do VBS? HOW do you get the most bang for your bucks? WHEN is the best time to offer VBS? WHO is – or should be – included?