Not only for six-year-olds: VBS for the ‘tween set

“Oh look,” the mom announces as she picks up the flyer off the kitchen counter.

“It’s time to register for Vacation Bible School!” The six-year-old’s head turns quickly, “What’s the theme?” The four-year-old bobs up and down excitedly, “Am I old enough this year?” But the mom waits for her daughter to react. Wait — it’s coming. Can you feel it? The arms cross defiantly across the chest, the head leans back slowly and yes, there it is — the dreaded eye roll! “Do I have to go to Vacation Baby School AGAIN this year? I’m too old for that sappy stuff!” The gauntlet has been thrown down by the all too predictable twelve-year-old!

Ah, the “’tween” years —the years between childhood and puberty when children (or ’tweens as they are now known) experience that confusing state of “no longer a child but not yet a teenager.” These years present a particular challenge for educators and VBS planners across the country. How do we engage these “older children” in discovering their own identity as faithful disciples without treating them like babies?

First Church of Nashville, Tenn., has found one solution that has flourished over the past few years. Feeling the eye rolls and watching the declining numbers of older children, educators at FPC began looking for an alternative, yet connected, VBS opportunity for children in grades four through six. It began small (as most new opportunities do) but has grown into a rich ministry that provides experiences and opportunities for discipleship that reach far beyond the theme-decorated hallways of the church.

The planning for the VBS Extended Mission Day Camp begins at the same time as the traditional VBS planning with a call to local mission agencies that are willing to allow our ‘tweens to “put their faith into action.” A strategy for serving develops as needs are determined. The church recruits volunteers, who have a heart for mission, to serve as “guides” alongside the ‘tweens in reaching out to the community in love and service. Imagination and creativity are the keys in this ministry as leaders plan activities and employ strategies that will empower ‘tweens to serve.

The VBS hours are extended for Mission Day Camp. ‘Tweens arrive with their younger siblings and join with the entire VBS population for a time of opening worship. Then, as younger VBS participants move out to begin their rotations, ‘tweens move to their own “home base” to begin their day with Bible study that focuses on faithful discipleship.

Often led by college-age youth with guitars, traditional VBS music is combined with contemporary praise songs that are designed to stir the soul and get the ‘tweens moving and grooving for the day that lies ahead.

Traditional recreation is replaced with group building games and traditional crafts are replaced with “gifts” that serve as tokens of friendship for the children and senior adults who will be visited by the ‘tweens during the week. Divided into service teams, the ‘tweens then load into vans and cars to go out into the community to serve God. In past years, ‘tweens have visited and led games with seniors in nursing homes, read and played with young children in an inner-city housing development, and served meals to seniors in a downtown housing project as part of the Meals on Wheels ministry. The day ends back at the church in the early afternoon where ‘tweens share with one another the ways they saw and experienced God’s love in action.

So if you build it, will they come?

What began five years ago with a small group of 15 ‘tweens and adults is now exploding with 62+ ‘tweens and 15+ adults and college age youth who are excited about touching others with the love of God! Limited only by the number of cars and vans with seatbelts, this growing ministry is opening doors and hearts across Nashville! (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the week is kicked off with a pool party and that “cool college kids” serve as guides!) Fueled by “word of mouth” advertising and “testimonials” by past participants, this arm of VBS fills up fast and even had a waiting list last year!

VBS Extended Mission Day Camp is truly a transforming experience for ‘tweens who set aside their own needs to serve others; for adults who accompany these young servants into places where they themselves would probably never travel; for children, youth, and adults who live in the community and are touched by acts of kindness; and for the larger church community that gets to witness a response to God’s call through the lives of these young people!

KRISTA LOVELL is a Certified Christian Educator working with First Church, Nashville, Tenn.