Our church is hosting Vacation Bible School this week. The sanctuary has been transformed into a Roman marketplace – complete with the Coliseum in the background – and classrooms now resemble Paul’s household and a cave where followers of the Way met secretly. Volunteers have spent countless hours painting scenery, practicing nightly skits (which will take place among the crowds in the marketplace), and preparing games, crafts, and snacks. My own small role, overseeing registration, kept me at the computer long enough yesterday that my husband complained that our family day had been spoiled.
My son can hardly wait to go to VBS, and he’s already asking questions about its theme, “Rome: Paul and the Underground Church.” I’m sure he will love it. But I can’t help but wonder, will all the wow of VBS draw his attention to – or distract him from – the message of the week? Will he come away remembering the sets and the excitement of the marketplace or the volunteer who demonstrated Christ’s love in a simple way by serving him a snack? After one night at a friend’s farm-themed VBS last year, he still believes that friend goes to church in a barn.
This VBS is impressive; it’s a far cry from the VBS I attended as a child, where we made crafts with popsicle sticks, played silly games, and heard flannelboard stories. I don’t even recall having a theme for any of the years I attended. The biggest thing that made VBS stand out from weekly Sunday school was the Sunday night “final program” for our parents: we spent our music time practicing new songs to sing between scenes of a play with a small cast. (One year, my mom and I were the cast – a mother and daughter angel discussing the lessons kids learned in VBS the week before.) Now, the VBS programs children proudly performed for their parents have been reduced to one or two songs in the Sunday morning service, overshadowed by the nightly VBS performances for those children by adults.
Some argue that these VBS extravaganzas are necessary to draw in today’s media savvy children, but the typical small- to medium-sized church does not have the resources or the skills to compete successfully with the entertainment industry. Our church of 300 people has more than 100 volunteers working for weeks to impress about 50 four- to twelve-year-olds, at least half of whom are our own children. Many of the most dedicated volunteers feel drained and discouraged before the week even begins. Remembering the work, some are reluctant to volunteer the following year.
I am not saying that VBS is a waste of time. Far from it! VBS is an excellent way to express God’s love to children and introduce them to the tenets of the faith. I am, however, saying that the extra time and effort we put in to create an exciting theme could be better spent elsewhere. A simple VBS would do the job just as well as an elaborately themed extravaganza – maybe better. What makes VBS most effective is the commitment of the adults who get involved in the children’s lives, showing them by their interest and attention that God, too, cares about them. We have lost that focus. In a lot of our churches, the “Bible School” part of “VBS” is forgotten; those letters really stand for “Big Show.”