Day 3 of VBS was over, and my children and I were in line at Chipotle to cool off and have some lunch to refuel after an energetic morning. We were all 3 wearing our Sonrise Camp T-shirts with a superhero on the front and a Bible verse on the back. We couldn’t escape being labeled as Church People.
We were like a magnet to another Church Person who happened to be in front of us in line. “It must be VBS week for you…what church are you from?” she asked. I began to answer her question, but her follow-up response threw me. “At our church, VBS is one of the biggest outreaches of the year. But by the time we finish preparing the decorations, we are exhausted. We don’t have any energy left. But we found a company that we were able to hire this year, so that young people would come lead our VBS for us.”
I hope that my mouth didn’t gape open or my eyes pop out. Every part of me wanted to say, “You’re kidding, right???” When did decorating for a VBS theme become the all-consuming aspect of ministry? And at what point is “bringing in young people to give the program energy” a bait and switch—we pay young adults to make us look like something we’re really not!
I’ve been in churches where VBS was small, and large, and everything in between. I’ve been involved in a bilingual VBS that was focused on Hispanic neighborhood outreach. But those have always been a church community joining together to do what they could do to bring the Bible alive to kids. And I can tell you never, NEVER, have decorations been the game changer.
On day 4 of VBS the next morning, one of our summer interns was encouraging the volunteer group before camp started for the day. “How many of you are first-timers with Sonrise Camp? How many of you have been involved 2 years? 3 years? 4 years? 5 years? 10 years?” She was astonished at how many hands were raised for involvement year after year. Most were middle school, high school, and college students who started out as campers and keep coming back to lead year after year. I saw teenage boys dancing with campers on their backs. I saw teenage girls engaging the shy kids in the games. I saw college students leading small group discussions. I saw hugs being given everywhere I turned. And I saw a lot of smiling kids clamoring to be close to all their leaders and helpers.
It’s about relationships, not about decorations.
Now, I’m not criticizing those of you who do decorations and do them well. I once saw an unbelievably cool Egyptian pyramid at a VBS entrance. But you can decorate a church from top to bottom and completely miss the opportunity for relationship.
Why do so many young people volunteer for Sonrise Camp? Because it’s fun (tiring…but fun)! And because they have been impacted by the relationships. And because someone they know—a friend or a neighbor—invited them to be involved.
I was a small group leader with a young group 3 years ago. That now 3rd grader still sees me at worship on Sunday and calls me his Sonrise Camp leader. The relationships that start at camp spill over into the ongoing ministry of the church. You can pay professional leaders to come and run VBS, but these professionals are not there for the long haul, and relationships are long haul.
Sometimes, I think we in the church get so desperate to bring in new, young energy or to decorate over the crumbling buildings we find ourselves in, that we forget that what we truly have to offer is relationships with people. We get so caught up in what we DON’T have, that we forget what we DO have.
So maybe we don’t have the best choir in town, but we DO faithfully pray for one another.
So maybe we don’t have the nicest fellowship hall, but we DO have great cooks and fantastic family style meals and conversations.
We need to stop trying to be what we are not, we need to stop hiring others to be what we can’t be, and start being the unique community God has called us to be.
Sonrise Camp is over for the year, but the relationships will continue. Some of the campers will intersect with us every week as they get food to take home for their family for the weekend. Some of the campers will play on a t-ball team coached by the guy who ran the game station at Camp. Some of the campers will have Mrs. H for a 4th grade teacher. Some of the campers will have tutors at the after school program who they remember from camp. Some of the campers will seek out their small group leaders every Sunday before worship, or will break out into a smile when they see someone from the skit team singing with the choir. This is the unique community committed to relationships with the neighborhood and one another that is the ongoing ministry, and it doesn’t end on the closing day of camp.
Shannon Kiser is the director of the East Coast Presbyterian Center of New Church Innovation based out of northern Virginia. She is field staff for the Office of Church Growth, and parish associate at Riverside Presbyterian Church, a church planting church in Sterling, VA. She is involved in the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement, and works with presbyteries, existing churches, and potential planters to fan the flames of new, creative ministries. Shannon lives in Springfield, VA with her husband and two daughters.