VBS: Return to its Roots and Take to the Streets

Did you know Vacation Bible School (VBS) started at a saloon in New York City? 

Like most of us, I never thought to ask, “Where and when did VBS begin?” What I learned was surprising to say the least. VBS was conceived by the wife of a missionary doctor who saw a need to get kids off the streets of New York City in the summer of 1898. The doctor’s wife, Mrs. Hawes, rented a saloon in the city’s east side to host her “Everyday Bible School” as it was called back then. Would you have ever guessed that VBS was 125 years old, and started in a New York City saloon? Neither would I. Vacation Bible School has come a long way since 1898. And I would argue there is more of an opportunity to build God‘s kingdom through VBS than the church gives it credit for. 

Who knows, by the end of this article you might have a total paradigm shift, or at least a different approach to consider. My hope and prayer is to expand your expectations on what VBS is capable of.

How Vacation Bible school has grown and changed

One thing is abundantly clear when you study the history of Vacation Bible School. It was solely focused on evangelism. 

The strategy Mrs. Hawes stumbled upon was to give a bunch of aimless kids something positive to do with their summer. What she did struck a nerve in the community, and the church took notice! By 1901 there were five schools. By 1903 there were 17 schools across New York City. Over the next few decades, VBS went north to Canada, west to Chicago, and south to the Baptist churches. Committees were formed to manage the growth. Curriculums were written to standardize the model. Conventions were held to spread the strategy across denominations, and for international use. This dynamic ministry went on virtually unchanged until the 1970s when new technologies and cultural shifts began to influence VBS. By the late 1990s, VBS was not so different from what you might experience today. However, there is one major difference between a modern VBS and its traditional roots. In a word, it’s the “outcome.” What do I mean? Let me share a story. 

My personal journey with a Vacation Bible School

I was 27 years old and newly married when I took my first role as a Children’s Director at a non-denominational church. Two years as a Middle School Director in youth ministry was all the experience and training, I had to lean on. This did not help me when it came to planning my first VBS, so I just did what I saw other churches doing. We went with an evening style VBS and served dinner to help attract families. Kids were encouraged to invite friends. A fun “Heroes of the Bible” theme was chosen. The kids I saw every Sunday at church were all there, plus a neighborhood friend or two. Everyone had a great time! A few kids raised their hand during an altar call on the last night. Sound familiar? The next year was much the same. New theme, same location, same format, same outcome. 

Something was bugging me after the second VBS. I couldn’t help but think, “Gosh, this seems like a lot of work with little to show for it at the end. Am I doing this wrong?” Now I know that every sinner who repents causes great rejoicing in Heaven. And this is nothing to scoff at. All I’m saying is that planning a VBS is a LOT OF WORK! Meanwhile, I had heard that VBS had evangelistic, and even missionary-like roots. I did some digging and found a curriculum that was designed to be packed in a box and taken on a mission trip. I thought, “What if we did this in neighborhoods and community parks?” Some of my more seasoned volunteers looked at me and said, “That’s how we used to do VBS back in the day” Encouraged by the thought that there was an historical precedent, and that my volunteers were familiar with this type of VBS, I pitched the idea to some parents and church leaders at a later event. The response was tepid to put it kindly. There was no real interest in a different approach, so I tucked my tail and went back to the usual methods of VBS until we left that church a few years later. 

Fast forward to March 2020. I was gearing up for the first VBS in my new role at the Parish Church of St. Helena when COVID-19 hit! It was a struggle for everyone, and we were no exception. All plans and progress came to a screeching halt, and it was the middle of June before I remembered the VBS curriculum designed for missions’ trips. Again, I thought, “What if we did VBS outside in neighborhoods and parks?” I pitched the idea to Father Shay Gaillard, and unlike the response I received years ago, he enthusiastically said, “Go for it!”

Back to the roots of Vacation Bible School

With Father Shay’s full support, I had the opportunity to fulfill a desire God placed on my heart years prior and meet the substantial need I saw in the community to be together under the banner of the Gospel. With little time to plan I still had to get clear on what we were after. What was my goal? The answer shaped everything. Here’s the outcome we were after: Meet people we don’t already know and invite them into a relationship with Jesus and his church. 

This statement would drive every decision related to VBS up to this very day. If you have read this far, you must be wondering, “are you reaching your desired outcome?” The short answer is yes, but not at first. Were we meeting people we did not already know? Yes, somewhere between one quarter and one half of our attendees met this standard at any given location over the last three years. As our follow-up plans improved, so did the rest of our desired outcome. Last year, two families joined our church as a result of these events. One of these families is now faithfully serving in the children’s ministry. This is a perfect example of the desired outcome! We have every reason to expect stories like this to become more frequent in years to come. There was a lot of trial and error along the way. For those courageous enough to try something different, maybe I can save you a few years. 

First and foremost, your senior leadership must be totally committed. Father Shay and I put together a video outlining our vision for the shift to a new VBS style. Some in your church will not understand a break from the norm. His resolve was essential when questions were raised. Choosing my locations was the biggest mountain to climb. Make it easy on yourself and start early in the year.  We decided to start in communities where someone from our church lived already. This builds on a foundation of trust that currently exists between neighbors. An invite from a known neighbor is easier to say yes to than an unknown church. It also gives you insight as to how you will partner with the HOA or avoid them all together. 

Another key question to consider is whether you’re going to host a VBS exclusively for the people living in a certain neighborhood, or are you inviting your entire church to attend as well? Both options have pros and cons. Exclusive neighborhood events are smaller and easier to manage. They also give you more location options to choose from since your crowd is small. On the flip side, including your entire church in this off-site mission will make the transition easier. We started with exclusive events. Then moved to a one-day event for our church in addition to our other locations. Now we are reserving large city parks to accommodate our entire church along with local guests.  

The execution of good promotion and follow-up plans cannot be overstated! For promotion, we always start with people we already know in any given neighborhood. Meet with these folks to understand the culture of how their neighborhood communicates. Do they have an active Facebook page or Next Door app? Is it acceptable to put signs in yards? Would flyers in the mail, or handed out on foot by volunteers be well received? Is there a common area to put up posters? There is no one size fits all approach. I’ll just say this, leave no stone unturned. Follow up plans need the same attention to detail. Register everyone who attends so you have contact information to utilize later. Put something in parents’ hands that points them to your church’s next event along with service times. Then follow up with an email containing the same information. All that said, a follow-up phone call to every new family might be your most fruitful option.

Another component we found valuable was to plan an afterparty for your event. The purpose is to build in a reason for parents to stick around with their kids at the end of the event. This gives church leaders and VBS volunteers a chance to engage with parents in the casual environment of a shared meal. Some of our examples were pool parties at the neighborhood pool, bounce houses at a local public park, and even putt-putt golf at a country club where we hosted a one-day event. None of these options were better than the other. The determining factor is always related to the amenities at or near your VBS location. Finally, you will need access to water, power, shade, bathrooms, and a field space for games. These few principles will put you at least two years ahead, should you choose to focus on an evangelistic approach. More could be said, but let’s close with a few points on the overarching role of VBS in the church and how you can support this effort.

The role of VBS in the mission of the church

Designing a VBS experience to meet a specific spiritual need in the lives of your current kids and families is a respectable role for VBS to play. Building relationships with your flock feels necessary in what you might call the “slow season” of the church. But have you ever longed to see more young people pick up their cross and follow Jesus? Has a young family in your church ever left simply because they were longing for more young families to fellowship with? Are you concerned at the general deterioration of Christian values among young people in our country? My guess is you could enthusiastically shout yes to at least one of these questions. If so, then here is my follow up question, “What event on the average church calendar specifically goes after the demographic of young families? I am not talking about events or services designed to welcome a visiting family. I am talking about pursuit. This was a missing element for us as we prayerfully considered the way we lived out the Great Commission to go and make disciples. There are things you can do right now to help reach families in your community.

Supporting the effort to pursue young families

Your church’s nursery, children’s ministry, and student ministry are the greatest ways your church has to reach, and minister to young families! I promise you, the leaders of these ministries in your church are spending a great deal of time and energy praying for and stressing over ways to attract enough volunteers to keep the doors open and keep a quality ministry experience going. These leaders could be so much more effective in their ministry if this were not so. 

Don’t wait to be asked. Right now, parishioners across the diocese could go fill these ministries to the brim. And I pray you will. Right now, parishioners could go sign up to serve on the VBS team if regular family ministry volunteering is not feasible. Right now, you could give a copy of this article to your church leadership and ask them to consider implementing this VBS method to purse families. Right now, church leadership could ask their children’s director, “how can I support your VBS planning?” Right now, children’s directors can contact me for details and mark their calendars to attend the monthly meeting of their peers where we share ideas, offer encouragement, and provide coaching. These are just a few ways, among many the Church could put wind in the sails of family ministries across the diocese. I pray you would have the courage act if God has moved in your heart. And I hope to have expanded your expectations of what Vacation Bible School is capable of.

By Corey Vernon, Director of Children’s Ministry, The Parish Church of St. Helena, Beaufort