In some places, though, churches are putting a twist on how they approach VBS — trying to respond to changing needs in their communities and their congregations. In Houston, for example, the megachurch Second Baptist puts on a high-tech VBS extravaganza — wowing the attendees with an original Christian musical, using 700 parent volunteers and drawing more than 10,000 children, most of whom come from families outside the church. One church staff member described it to a New York Times reporter as “trickle-up evangelism.”
Presbyterian VBS tends to be less glitzy, but some congregations also are experimenting — trying to blend the tried-and-true with something new, including evening and weekend VBS, intergenerational programs and VBS for senior adults.
Multicultural. For First Presbyterian Church of Hackensack, N. J., changes to VBS grew out of much bigger changes: the struggle of a small and declining congregation to survive.
The congregation, predominantly white for generations, began dying out, said Steve McClelland, the church’s pastor for 14 years. “We basically had to reinvent ourselves,” he said. The ethos became that “we’re going to be like a new church startup, which was kind of freeing. In that environment, it was like, ‘Try anything.’ ”
Hackensack has become extremely diverse — at the local high school, students come from more than 125 countries. McClelland describes the town as “a first generational stop-off” — a county seat, and a place where new immigrants come to get a foothold, because the housing tends to be less expensive than in other communities in the area.
For about 15 years now, First Presbyterian has partnered for vacation Bible school with a nearby Episcopal congregation, the Church of St. Anthony of Padua. This year, those two congregations also invited the Korean congregation that nests in First Church and the Salvation Army group that rents space in a church nearby.
Although First Church has only about 110 members, about 60 children attended VBS last summer, including Ghanaians, Koreans and Hispanics from a variety of countries. “Our vacation Bible school is truly one of the most multicultural I’ve seen around,” McClelland said.
Brian Laffler, St. Anthony’s rector, “wears his high robes and his black suit and his collar. He looks the part — it’s a nice contrast. He’s standing there like that, and I’m standing there in an Hawaiian print shirt and shorts and sandals.”
The children come from the community, many from families which need low-cost programs for the children to attend in the summer while the parents work.
“This is a real opportunity for evangelism for us,” McClelland said. “A lot of these kids — their parents don’t go to church. But they like that they have a safe environment … We just want to reach out and follow what Jesus was trying to teach us to do.”
Approaches. Kathy Dawson, associate professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., said there are two main reasons why congregations do VBS — although there’s considerable variety in how they actually pull it off.
“For some it’s an evangelistic tool,” an outreach to the surrounding community, and those congregations often select a curriculum emphasizing the salvation story and relying mostly on New Testament texts.
For others, she said, VBS is more of a creative enrichment program for children already involved with the church — a way to expand what they know about the Bible, by using, for example, the story of Daniel to focus on the theme of exile. At a church Dawson previously served, “everybody would be in costumes and you would be telling the biblical story by immersing kids in the experience of the time and the place, with all the multi-sensory stuff.”
Some of the trends Dawson has noticed in recent years:
Evening VBS — sometimes with intergenerational programming, so both children and their parents or grandparents can attend.
Weekend VBS — with sessions held over a series of consecutive weekends.
Collaboration — with congregations in some cities working together to make sure their VBS dates don’t overlap. That’s a recognition, Dawson said, that for some families with limited resources, VBS can be an important component of their summer child care.
Not doing VBS. Dawson said her congregation, Oakhurst Presbyterian, a multicultural church in Decatur, Ga., doesn’t do VBS. It uses the resources instead to send children to Calvin Center Camp.
Adult VBS. Pines Presbyterian Church in Houston offers a classic VBS for children — one week in early June. But for the past four years, it’s also offered a vacation Bible school for adults ages 50 and older, held for four weekday mornings usually in the first week in August.
“Some of the thought behind this is that we spend a lot of energy and prayer trying to figure out how to reach out to younger families,” said Barbara Retzloff, an associate pastor at Pines. But many in her congregation are older, so the leadership thought “Hey, this is who God brought to us, and this is many people in the community around our church. Let’s reach out to them.”
The program typically includes gospel singing, a speaker, and hands-on activities. People from the congregation share their gifts — teaching others to knit prayer shawls, make paper or practice woodworking. Pines has a partnership with a local elementary school, and participants have helped prepare materials for the school-year startup. They’ve learned about local service programs, such as Star of Hope Mission, which serves homeless men, women and children.
And they’ve had fun too — ending VBS one year with a luncheon in the “Pines Diner,” a room decorated for the day like a 1950s café.
Adult VBS has “cemented all the more my love and respect for this age group,” Retzloff said. “They have so much wisdom, so much energy and creativity.” During VBS week, “we challenge the intellect and the heart as well.”