The large wooden boat and never-ending rain would have been the perfect setting for Noah — except our Vacation Bible School theme was Peter. What was supposed to be a Galilean fishing village looked more like a refugee camp in the middle of a monsoon.
But thanks to cookies and lemonade, 600 slightly damp children still managed to enjoy their first day of VBS. And the next morning, the sun shone on a perfect June day, and everything began to look like we had planned it six months earlier.
For most of us who grew up in Christian families, VBS conjures up childhood memories that appear like the stuff of a Norman Rockwell picture: warm summer days, singing at the top of our lungs, poster board crafts that invariably fell apart before we even got them home, and of course the all-important cookies. Could a tradition so old, so quaint, still have any relevance to today’s churches? You bet!
Vacation Bible School is perhaps the best outreach event available to your church, and the reason can be summed up in two words: free babysitting. As the father of two small girls, nothing gets my attention faster than those two words. Every parent welcomes the chance to get a reprieve from the daily demands of child care. Give their kids a safe, free, fun place to go, and you will see all sorts of parents at your front door that would not come for any other reason.
The key to an evangelistic VBS is capitalizing on that front door interaction.You have two wonderful opportunities:
1) You have a "captive audience" of children who may be hearing the Gospel for the first time; the seed you plant may not bear fruit for years, but at least you were able to plant that seed.
2) You have parents in your building who are there for the first time. They are testing how well you treat their children. Thom Rainer’s research in his book "Surprising Insights from the Unchurched," indicates that the quality of a congregation’s children’s ministry is one of the most important factors in attracting seekers. This is your congregation’s chance to shine.
My congregation, Memorial Road Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla., has built a tradition of VBS’s that are big, busy, and a bit amazing. This year about 300 volunteers took care of 600 children for our four-day VBS.
We are a church of about 2,100 in an affluent suburb, so not all of our methods would translate neatly to other congregations, but here are some basic principles for hosting an evangelistic VBS:
Keep a vision in front of your volunteers
Without a sense of purpose, your volunteers can quickly come to resent VBS and these "freeloading" parents who dump their kids at your church door. This is not just babysitting! This is evangelism! We have several champions in our church who actually take a week of their vacation time for VBS. Other volunteers plan programs months in advance or use their skills to build props and stages. A dozen coordinators spend several weekends recruiting teachers and preparing materials. Over 100 of our teens take time from their summer jobs to be part of VBS. Why? Because that has become the culture of our congregation. They believe in what can happen at VBS.
We host a picnic on the evening of the last day of VBS to say thank you to our volunteers. We share stories of VBS successes, and keep sharing those stories in the bulletin and pulpit the following Sundays. If you can name church members who were introduced to Christ through VBS, and especially if you can share those testimonies, it puts VBS in a whole new light.
Capture them at the door
It is absolutely essential to capture information from your guests when they register. Get the information you need to contact them, as well as their church preference and how they heard about your congregation. After VBS, we follow up with postcards and phone calls thanking our guests for sharing their children with us, asking about their children’s experiences, etc.
I also ask a few of our first-time guests if they would be willing to come back some Sunday as "test guests" to attend our worship service and classes and then complete a survey for me about their observations and perceptions. I give them a gift certificate to Target or a restaurant as a thank you, and then share the completed surveys with our ministers and coordinators. Besides collecting valuable information on how visitor-friendly we are, this also gives our VBS guests one more reason to come back. After all this, they hopefully know that we truly want to be their church home.
Go above and beyond for safety’s sake
Parents have to know that their kids will be safe with you. Make it obvious that you are doing everything you can to ensure their children’s security; most parents will be appreciative, even if it is a bit inconvenient. The security measures you take for VBS should probably be even more stringent than your normal Sunday classes because you will have a larger number of strangers in your building. Sadly, these types of policies are necessary:
· Some sort of accountability system for who picks up each child is recommended in this age of split families and custody battles. Give parents a card or receipt that they must present to pick up their child. This ensures only the right person picks up that child.
· In recruiting volunteers, make sure you have a mix of males and females overseeing each group of children, and make sure your volunteers are old enough to take responsibility.
· Do not send children to the bathroom unescorted, and never allow a male volunteer to escort a girl to the bathroom.
No one goes home empty-handed
Each day our kids take home not only crafts, but also application sheets with Scriptures, a synopsis of what the child did in a particular learning center, and age-appropriate games or activities that serve as optional "homework." Sometimes we attach the lyrics to songs so parents can learn these new songs along with their children. Not only do these materials allow the parents to see what their kids experienced, but for unchurched parents, these sheets can conceivably serve as self-teaching tools that introduce them to the Bible.
VBS: It’s not just for kids anymore
Finally, find a reason, any reason, to draw the visiting parents past the front door and into your church. We send invitations home with all the kids to bring their parents back on the Wednesday night of VBS to take tours of our decorated rooms. We make a special effort to welcome the parents warmly and give them a taste of VBS, as well as information on all our programs and classes. This ends with an ice cream social to encourage further mingling between our members and guests. Some congregations offer an adult class that runs concurrently with the kids’ VBS. This would be especially attractive for churches that hold VBS in the evenings because the adults will be off work and perhaps more willing to spend a few hours at the church.
If you have children in your neighborhood, VBS is a potent tool to reach your community for Christ. The memories you create, the Bible stories you share, may not bear fruit until those children are parents themselves, but there is no better time to plant that seed.
Scott Franks is the Education Minister for the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla. He served previously as the Involvement Minister for the Bammel Church of Christ in Houston, Texas and as the Dean of Students at Oklahoma Christian University. He has written several adult Bible study series, some of which are available on www.mrcc.org. Scott is also an associate in New Avenues Career Ministry, which brings practical job search seminars to local churches as community outreach events. Scott is also a licensed church consultant through Thom Rainer’s training program with Church Central.