VBS? Yes , but are they learning anything?

Sometimes Vacation Bible School can look and feel like barely controlled chaos. But the Spirit of God is hovering over those swirling children and dazzled teachers, creating a community of faith our Savior must thoroughly enjoy dancing around in. So it is undeniably fun, but what are they learning?

About the Bible
This is probably the oldest purpose of VBS, unless that would be evangelism. Children learn the Bible stories “by heart “ because years before we labeled the multiple intelligences, VBS was seldom a teacher at a table in a classroom all morning for a week or two. Remember centers? Bible villages? Preparing dramas and learning songs with hand motions? My daughter, the pastor, loves to tell people that the only way she can remember the fruit of the Spirit is to sing the song she learned in VBS 25 years ago. We have always played with the stories in rich and diverse ways in VBS and as a result, even if they don’t learn the daily memory verse, they can tell you the stories backwards and forwards and with a catchy melody. Today’s VBS curriculum only gets more creative, but the essential core of Bible stories is the daily bread.

About mission
The days of hosting missionaries may be past, but at VBS the boys race against the girls to bring the most cans and they know where that food will go, probably delivered by people they know in bags they hand decorated with symbols of love and words of hope. If they are lucky, a couple of the youth have set up laptops with Internet connections to mission Web sites and the kids are sending e-mail to Pakistan and Malawi or even “skyping” with missionaries around the world. Because the limits of an hour on Sunday morning in fancy clothes are gone, they may be planting a community garden or delivering homemade sandwiches to the Habitat build site. At VBS, mission is mobile and meaningful.

About gifts
Children at VBS get to try out all sorts of skills: singing, science, building, acting, art, prayer. They also get to see those gifts in others, in the leaders who offer them to the children. One of the most beautiful things about VBS is that children get to spend time with the older adults of the congregation and experience the youth as leaders. Most churches, even if they have youth and adult classes during VBS, find special spots that are perfect for leaders who might not usually consider themselves teachers or would never sign up to teach every Sunday. Incidentally, as a bonus, that also means that those folks are learning that they enjoy being with the children.

About the Church
Especially in large churches, where families are often all divided up on Sunday mornings and the children may never even get into the sanctuary, VBS is an experience of what it means to be the whole people of God. VBS usually includes some broadly graded assembly time, as well as the mixture of generations that was just mentioned. Often the activities take place all over the church building, so children see things they have never seen and begin to feel at home and know their way around. Often the daily music, or the drama activity, and the closing program will take place in the sanctuary. And sometimes the pastor is a daily presence and the children can call him/her by name.

They go home knowing this is THEIR church and they are welcome and expected. They know what to do and where to go and they can sing the songs in their hearts and tell the stories to their family and friends. Any church that does not follow up on non-member children after VBS may truly be disappointing a child who came to believe s/he “belongs.” They learn a lot at VBS, but it is transformation at least as much as education. Leonard Sweet, author of many books on the future of the church, says that ministry with those born in the computer age must be E.P.I.C – Experiential, Participatory, Image-Driven, and Connective. Probably nothing a congregation does all year is as EPIC as the days of Vacation Bible School. Perhaps every session should spend some time considering what can be learned from VBS to make the rest of the year more like it.

On a personal note: after 20 years in children’s ministry, I still won’t miss VBS because I think it’s a little taste of what heaven will be like. That much fun, that much love, that much music, all kinds of people loving Jesus, and the Spirit making us into something beautiful for God and our communities.

LINDA LeBRON is a retired certified Director of Christian Education and the 2009 Educator of the Year for the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE).