Vacation Bible Schools employ whimsy and Scripture to woo kids, families

Bo Thorp, foreground left, directs, from left, Taylor Ann Knott, 11, William Thorp, 15, O.T. Lunsford, Clay Thorp, and Olivia Rice, 15, as they rehearse a play depicting the biblical story of Jonah during vacation bible school Wednesday at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham.
Bo Thorp, foreground left, directs, from left, Taylor Ann Knott, 11, William Thorp, 15, O.T. Lunsford, Clay Thorp, and Olivia Rice, 15, as they rehearse a play depicting the biblical story of Jonah during vacation bible school Wednesday at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Durham.

Hell has not frozen over, but it will snow in the sanctuary of one Triangle church this summer, pool-noodle palm trees will sprout in another, and there will be a series of controlled fires at a third as congregations embrace the spectacle of Vacation Bible School.

Some churches go over the top with decorations and activities while others focus on simple Scripture lessons. But all hope to capitalize on what may be their biggest opportunity to share the Gospel and grow their membership, using a century-old formula of crafts, music, snacks and Bible verses.

“I look forward to Vacation Bible School the most of anything we do each year,” said Jennifer Hartman, family ministries coordinator for The Peak, a United Methodist church in Apex. “It’s the most fun. It’s the most work, but it’s also the most rewarding.”

The Peak is part of a faith community that includes Apex United Methodist Church and 519 Church in Cary. Together, the churches will offer three weeklong sessions of Vacation Bible School – referred to as VBS in planning meetings that launch each fall – on two campuses in June and July.

All told, more than 600 children are expected to attend.

Like most churches, The Peak and its partners will use a commercially packaged VBS curriculum, selected from those offered by more than a dozen Christian publishing houses and designed to make Bible stories exciting and fun. The Peak is going with an “Everest” theme that is proving popular this summer. Produced by Group Publishing, it offers activities to guide children in “conquering challenges with God’s mighty power.”

Curriculum kits are sold in packages from basic to deluxe. Churches can buy starter kits for less than $200 that include directors’ and teachers’ manuals, music CDs and ideas for themed crafts and snacks.

More help is available online, where companies and creative VBS volunteers share ideas and instructions for props and decorations that can help transform a fellowship hall and Sunday school classrooms into a science lab, a jungle, a swamp or whatever exotic locale their VBS package inhabits. It’s not unusual for churches to invest $1,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours in staging worthy of a community theater production.

“I even bought a snow machine,” said Hartman, who will use it to make the sanctuary of The Peak look like a mountaintop in Nepal.

She found the snow-maker online for about $120, Hartman said, and she’ll get the church’s money’s worth by cranking it up again for the Christmas music show.

‘Have fun and learn about Jesus’

Churches are mindful of the expense of Vacation Bible School and budget for it, from several hundred dollars to a couple thousand.

With a nationwide decline in church membership that has sapped volunteer pools, along with the recession that hit in 2008, some churches stopped holding VBS. According to a survey by Gospel Light, a Sunday school and VBS curriculum publisher in Ventura, Calif., 81 percent of U.S. churches offered VBS in 1991. By 2012, only 68 percent did.

Though VBS got its start in a rented beer hall in New York City in 1898, Gospel Light’s survey found that the South hosts more VBS programs than any other section of the country. Some churches have shortened their programs to make do with fewer volunteers, or hold VBS in the evening when more members are available to help.

While it may appear churches are competing with one another to see which can produce the most memorable Bible school, church staff and volunteers say they’re really competing with other entertainment children have at their fingertips.

“Kids want tactile, visible stimulation,” said Tracy Jones, a volunteer who is in her second year directing VBS at Fairview Baptist Church in Apex. “They’re so used to being on computers, watching TV, going to the movies. So we try to help them feel comfortable that church is not just somewhere you go to sit in a pew and listen. It’s a place where you can go and have fun and learn about Jesus.”

In her real job, Jones is a physician assistant. But for a few months of the year, she’s also chief planner and procurement officer for Fairview’s Bible school, which this summer is using the Camp Kilimanjaro curriculum.

“I have bought 68 pool noodles. I’m going to make trees out of those,” Jones said. “I’ve bought inflatable palm trees, zebra-striped paper, tiki torches, three dozen rubber snakes, inflatable monkeys – anything you can buy at the dollar store that looks like Africa.

“Our church looks at it as our biggest in-town mission project,” she said. This year she expects about 120 children, from potty-trained 3-year-olds to fifth-graders.

It takes about one volunteer for every child attending, Jones said, to gather, paint and build all the props needed to turn the sanctuary into a base camp for safari trekkers, make and serve all the snacks, run the craft stations, teach the Bible lessons and make sure the children have everything they need for the few hours a day they’ll be at VBS.

‘A church is a church’

Some churches shun the ready-made curriculum.

“There are churches that just completely transform their entire campus, and we have done that in the past,” said Billy Rave, youth and children’s minister at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Raleigh. “But when you look at what’s spent, and all the volunteer hours that it takes, it’s nice, but it’s a horrible waste of money.

“And the rest of the year, the church is not a carnival or a spy lair. A church is a church. You don’t want to bait and switch kids.”

This year, Rave’s church will offer a homegrown curriculum. He and his senior pastor have been walking around Raleigh parks recently, handing out business cards and inviting parents to bring their children to Bible school.

“At the end of the day, I would rather say that I spent more money reaching kids than transforming the church with decorations that are going to be thrown away in a week,” he said.

Volunteers with Church of the Good Shepherd, halfway between Durham and Chapel Hill off U.S. 15-501, also go into the surrounding neighborhoods in the weeks leading up to VBS to hand out invitations. Last summer, 250 kids attended, the most the church has ever had, said Caroline Efird, the church’s full-time children’s ministry director and VBS organizer. Only about 100 were church members.

Church of the Good Shepherd creates its own VBS curriculum, using the talents of its members to craft Bible lessons, select or write music, and teach crafts. Volunteers even write and produce their own VBS drama. Last year it was the story of David and Goliath, with the giant making a cameo on stilts. This year’s VBS focuses on Jonah, and props will include a 10-foot replica of a boat.

To cap the week, Church of the Good Shepherd’s VBS kids will play on a Jonah-themed slip-and-slide built by church members. They’ll enter at the tail of Jonah’s nemesis whale, slide down its tongue and pop out its mouth.

As the Good Shepherd’s effort shows, a do-it-yourself curriculum can be flashy. Cheryl Walker, who has organized Crabtree Valley Baptist Church’s Vacation Bible School for the past several years, is a researcher in a UNC health lab so she uses science to make an impression.

One year, she taught the story of creation – on the first day, God said, “Let there be light,” according to the Scripture – by doing experiments with light.

“I like to burn things,” Walker said, so her VBS kids have seen the light created by setting gummy bears on fire. She has geyser-powered cars that shoot across the church parking lot. She also invites in animal keepers and traveling science performers.

“I just hope that by catching their imagination, they’ll get something out of it,” Walker said.

‘We’ll love ’em’

Churches say it’s difficult to know whether they gain new members as a direct result of VBS, but leaders know that many parents who have no church “home,” and rarely or never attend services, sign their children up for VBS. Some will come back later in the year.

Some send their kids to Bible school because their children attend preschool at the church, and when the academic year ends, VBS is a natural extension.

Others are just looking for safe, inexpensive activities for their children, and most VBS programs are offered at no charge or for a small fee.

Jones, at Fairview Baptist, doesn’t mind if parents use her VBS as a free baby-sitting service.

“Bring ’em on,” she said. “We’ll love ’em, let ’em do some crafts, tell ’em about Jesus and send ’em home.”

Wanda Curry, head of youth ministry at Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, said her parents enrolled her and her siblings in every Bible school in Lee County where they grew up.

“We went to the Methodists’, we went to the Presbyterians’, the Baptists’, the United Holiness’. Back then the churches all coordinated so they never had them at the same time, and you could just go to one after the other.”

Of all the activities she did in Bible school, Curry liked the music best, she says. At 66, she still remembers some of the songs she learned.

Last week, Martin Street Baptist hosted several dozen children in one of the earliest Bible schools held locally. Attendance was lower this year than last, VBS Director Mildred Robertson said, maybe because it started before kids were out of school.

The children, and a group of adults, gathered by age in classrooms to sing, make crafts, play games. The smell of crayons wafted from the K-2 room, where a half-dozen boys and girls colored pictures illustrating a verse from Proverbs.

Robertson loves Bible school.

“Just the opportunity to get to share the Word with the community,” she said, “and get to know them a little better.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989