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To VBS or not to VBS? (part 3): Best Practices for Reforming VBS-Inspired Events

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


Beyond the gathering of idle children to keep them busy in a wholesome environment (Eavey, 1964), in its hay-day, VBS did serve an important purpose and inspired many young believers to follow Christ. Much of this was due to the fact that in those earlier decades Vacation Bible Schools were not a one-week entertainment-themed extravaganza but rather a summer long school where children were instructed in the basics of the Christian faith.

When the focus moved from genuine prolonged biblical teaching in the local church toward an accommodation of culture (think Disney-style themed VBS adventures of the early 1980s and 90s*), and competition between churches to offer the most fun entertainment venue, the ability to keep focus on either Bible teaching or evangelism were compromised. *(see Part 2 of this series on To VBS or Not To VBS)

Are there alternatives to VBS as one-week extravaganza that might serve to reach children in our churches and as well as serve to evangelize the surrounding neighborhood?

Here are 3 models that might be worth your church’s consideration (click the titles below to link to resources):

Through a Godly Play approach to faith formation we discover that we belong to a bigger story than just here and now. We discover that we are part of the Great Family and the prophets are a part of us, and that there are not always easy answers – if the answer comes at all. Perhaps less emphasis on evangelization and more emphasis on faith formation . . . less emphasis on a one-time decision and more emphasis on a life-long journey of faith.

This approach to faith formation leads participants of all ages to stop, watch and pay attention to how they connect to the sacred stories or what the parable might really be about or how liturgical traditions honor our shared history.

There are six full volumes of Godly Play stories which can be used in endless combinations to bring together a week of immersive Christian formation programing. Here are a few combinations to give you an idea. Find more ideas and purchase materials here.

  • Christmas in July: The Advent Lesson, the Mystery of Christmas, and Epiphany from Volume 3 as well as St. Nicholas from Volume 7.

  • Creation: The Creation Story from Volume 2 gives you seven days of creative lessons and LOTS to wonder about together!

  • The Golden Boxes: The Six Guiding Parables and Parable of the Deep Well from Volume 3 and the Greatest Parable from Volume 8. Some churches use the Parable of the Deep Well and the Greatest Parable for their middle schoolers.

  • Water, Water Everywhere: Spend your VBS wondering about water and the important stories about water found in Scripture, from Noah’s Ark to Baptism.

  • Living in a Fragile World: This is a Godly Play set of 5 lessons found in Living in a Fragile World: A Spiritual Exploration of Conservation and Citizenship Using the Methods of Godly Play by Peter Privett. It is about stewardship of the Earth and each other. It is phenomenal, although may need to have a few tweaks if used after the pandemic. I bought the book on ebay.

  • Now Go in Peace: How can we be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world? Jesus and the Twelve, the Pentecost story, and the Good Shepherd and World Communion from Volume 4 as well as Knowing Jesus in a New Way from Volume 8 and Introduction to the Communion of Saints from Volume 7.

An advantage of offering Backyard Bible Clubs is that, rather than driving their kids across town to attend another VBS extravaganza, it accomplishes the goal of getting families together in neighborhoods. In some ways, this seems like more work than just offering the at-church version; however, your church may decide that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. If you do decide to go this route, make it a goal to engage families and not just keep the kids occupied. By offering this as an evening event and advertising it as “family-focused” you can increase the effectiveness.

Keep in mind the questions from Part 1 of this 3 part forum post:

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?

Remember to focus on developing reciprocity and mutuality in intergenerational relationships by considering if it is time to intentionally engage ALL the generations that make up your church family and put your church’s financial and volunteer resources into an activity that accomplishes several goals at once.

There are so many advantages in reaching the goal of building community, deepening faith formation, and creating a sense of belonging to putting your time, finances, and efforts into intergenerational mission events.

One thing to consider is that many young children in your congregation may not have grandparents or an extended family network. These sorts of relationships can be beneficial for all and should not focus on “who is in need.”

Here are some ideas for sharing gifts and talents across generations:

  • Learn to cook or bake, then send those meals or goodies to the doorstep of people who could use and enjoy them. Consider putting together freezer meals.

  • Learn how to knit scarves together from YouTube videos or by using FaceTime with someone older who knows how, with the plan of sharing the work with others. Does your church already have a knitting or prayer shawl ministry? Try getting a Zoom tutorial going between some church knitters and households.

  • Do any of your youth or children play an instrument or sing? Invite them to record themselves performing a song that your congregation is already familiar with and then post it on your church’s social media sites. Perhaps it could even be used in your congregation’s worship service!

  • Do you have any poets in your group? Invite them to write a poem specifically written as a message of hope to share with the congregation. They can record themselves reading or performing it and send it to you to post on the church’s social media sites. (Raps count too!)

Contrary to popular opinion, more children are brought into deep and lasting faith through opportunities to be still and know that God is God than through entertainment-based extravaganzas. Salvation usually does not come through themes, nor over-sized displays, nor themed T-shirts, games, even fun and catchy music . . . it comes through relationships and opportunities to connect with a community of care and belonging.

Before you break open the Oriental Trading catalogue (online version, of course), before you dream up the themed games and music . . . during this month while you are still a few months out from your VBS extravaganza . . . take time to lead your church's ministry team in a discussion of the questions raised in part 1 of this To VBS or not to VBS series. I am guessing you will be glad you did.


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