This past Wednesday, we wrapped up our 2013 Vacation Bible School at Farmington. If I have done my math correctly, this was my ninth consecutive year to help direct VBS, and although it is a lot of work, it is a lot of fun as well.
I think some people have the idea that VBS is a hopelessly outdated program from a bygone era. I do think that some congregations have a VBS like this, but I don’t think it has to be this way. VBS is one of the highlights of the year for our congregation, and while what we do is by no means perfect, I thought I would share some of the things that have made it successful.
What Does “Successful” Mean?
Before you have a VBS (or any program really), it’s important that you have specific goals, or at the very least, a general idea of what it is that you are shooting for. If you don’t have any idea of what a successful VBS will look like for your congregation, then it’s impossible to know if you’ve had one or not when you are finished.
For us, Vacation Bible School provides a lot of benefits, and I generally consider our VBS to be a success if these things happen:
(1) Kids have fun. Vacation Bible School is supposed to be fun. If kids from the community come and are then bored out of their minds, then all your hard work has been for naught (at least with that particular child).
(2) The church gets excited. The summer months can be somewhat of an energy drain on a congregation. A lot of people travel, so attendance and giving sags. Sometimes it seems that you go for weeks and weeks without seeing people that you care about and are used to seeing on a weekly basis. For us, VBS is an antidote to the summer slump, as every year it provides an energy boost to our congregation. A lot of people pool their talents and abilities for a common purpose, and then get to experience the satisfaction of watching their plans and efforts come to fruition. This is an important thing.
(3) Our reputation in the community is enhanced. Vacation Bible School provides a great opportunity for your congregation to increase its visibility and reputation in the community. If you get visitors from the community to come and then put on a quality Bible school, children and their parents will leave with a good impression of your church.
(4) A lot of people come. Numbers aren’t the most important thing (which is why I listed this one last), but they are important. After all, what does it matter if you have the most amazing VBS in the world if no one is there to see it? Attendance of visitors is especially important, as the church should always be trying to reach out to bring more people in. This year we were blessed with the largest attendance we have had in my time year (Also, related to the second point, if a lot of people come it definitely adds to the excitement factor of your congregation).
Tips for a Successful VBS
Now that you know how I define a successful VBS, here are some tips for bringing it about:
(1) Recruit a lot of talented helpers to do what they are good at. If you do it right, VBS takes a lot of work. So, you can either have a few people try to do everything, or you can recruit a lot of people who can focus on specific tasks. I have tried it both ways, and believe me, the second way is preferable. When you do it the second way, you end up having a better product, fewer burned-out people, and more church involvement. For example, this year we had:
- A coach in charge of our outdoor games and activities
- Someone who had studied theater in college working with our skits
- Teens with years of experience doing Puppet Theater at Lads to Leaders doing the puppet shows
- A talented song-leader directing our time in the auditorium
- People with strong organizational skills doing registration and refreshments
- Some very talented ladies doing decorations and crafts
(2) Provide something for the adults to do. Kids may be the primary focus of VBS, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore your adults. Some parents will drop off their kids and leave, but others live far enough away that they would rather stay if there was a reason for them to. And what about adult members of the congregation who aren’t helping to run things? Shouldn’t they get to be around the fun as well? We have had good classes for adults in the past, but this year we focused on it more, bringing in one speaker for all four nights to present a topic that was different from what people generally get to hear (biblical archaeology). The class was excellent, our adult numbers swelled, and I heard from members and guests alike how much they enjoyed the class and how it strengthened their faith.
(3) Get teens involved on the service side. Several years ago we made the decision that, rather than having the teens come and sit through a Bible class, we would get them involved in serving during VBS, and I think it was one of the best decisions we could have made. Our teens spend hours at the building the week before VBS moving furniture, decorating, and cleaning. During VBS itself, they are the primary characters and teachers in the story rooms, they do puppets, they help lead the kids around from place to place, and they help run games outside. Not only do our teens really enjoy these roles, it also provides opportunities for them to interact with all generations of the congregation: they get to work alongside those who are older than they are, and teach and lead those who are younger (this is hugely important!).
(4) Provide a variety of activities for the kids. Our hi-tech digital society does not cultivate long attention spans in children. Just the opposite. So if your VBS schedule calls for children to sit in class for 90 minutes listening to a teacher, then it will probably be hard for the teachers and rough on the kids. I absolutely believe that biblical instruction is important, and that is at the center of what we do. But the lessons are taught through skits in decorated rooms and then reinforced in craft time and puppet skits. Kids also get to play games outside, sing, have refreshments, and buy trinkets in the VBS store with coins they have earned by bringing guests and answering questions in class.
(5) Choose good material. Not all VBS material is created equally. Some of it looks really nice; some of it looks like it was made in 1975. Some of it looks like it was made for children; some of it seems like it was made by someone who had never even seen children before. We have found some VBS curriculum that we like, but even it isn’t good every year. This year we actually re-used (good) curriculum from 2009 rather than use the new (not-as-good) stuff. Personally, I am a fan of VBS themes that try to transport the kids to Bible time and places (this year our theme was “Rome: Paul and the Underground Church”) rather than those odd topical themes that don’t make sense and seem incredibly lame to me (things like “VBS Pirates: Searching for Buried Treasure in God’s Word” or “Tropical VBS: Learning Lessons from God’s Word in an Island Paradise”).
(6) Advertise. Honestly, I didn’t do a great job advertising this year; if I had, we might’ve had even more people. There are a lot of ways to advertise. You can send out flyers to area congregations. If your VBS is early in the summer, you can see about sending home flyers at local elementary schools. You can hang attractive banners outside of your church building for those who drive by. For us, the best method of advertising is contacting those parents from our community whom we already know through Thursday Bible School. If you have a similar program at your congregation, these are exactly the sort of people who would be interested in participating in your VBS.
(7) Follow up with the guests who come. We have, admittedly, been weak on this in the past, but are trying to do better this year. If you have registration information on all of the children who came, then you should have contact information for those whose parents are not members. Send a card thanking them for their attendance. Send a letter or brochure telling them more about your church family and the programs you have available.
(8) Plan for next year. Soon, we will have a follow-up meeting to reflect on things that worked well, and things that we could improve for next year. It’s important that we do this now, while this year’s VBS is still fresh on our minds. No matter how successful things were this year, there’s always something that could be done better or more people who could be involved.
Vacation Bible School can be a powerful ministry for your congregation if only you put the necessary time, planning, and effort into it. The ideas I have suggested above might not be the only “right” way to do VBS, but it certainly works for us!