By Jenny Whitaker
Last summer, Vacation Bible Schools (VBS) around the country were mostly either done virtually, in homes and neighborhoods, or not at all. I love VBS, and the idea of cancelling it—for any reason—was never an option.
We had to find a way to do VBS because it’s an important and fruitful tool in the hands of the local church, especially in this day and age when statistics show that the average regular church attender is coming to church one to three times a month as opposed to one to three times a week just a couple of decades ago (It’s Worth It, pp. 107-18).
Still, the thought of trying to do a virtual VBS seemed daunting. As I thought about the many small churches around our community and region, I wondered if virtual VBS was even a possibility for many of them. So I reached out to some of those local churches and asked if they’d be willing to partner together to reach as many kids as possible, and graciously, they said yes!
I was among a small group of leaders who hosted a virtual VBS for more than 45 churches from around the country. We know of at least two children who accepted Christ that week, and I’m certain many more seeds were planted not only in the hearts of the children who participated, but in the families exposed to the gospel we shared every day that week.
Without that partnership, what we did wouldn’t have been possible—not for my church or for the many others who partnered with us.
This year, I’ve traveled across my state, Florida, and talked to other kids ministry and VBS leaders around the country, and while many of us are opening or beginning to open back up for in-person ministry, VBS is still on the chopping block for many churches due to a lack of volunteers, budget resources, or perhaps other reasons.
Even before the pandemic, 61% of churches did not host a VBS due to a lack of teachers and volunteers (It’s Worth It, page 98). How many more churches will be forced to cancel VBS this year for the same reason?
Based on what we learn from Lifeway Research’s 2018 study on VBS, I would argue that we can’t afford to cancel VBS this summer, for a number of reasons. But most importantly, VBS is one of the largest evangelical outreach opportunities a church will have in a given year.
Additionally, even in the COVID-era, with its lack of volunteers and lower attendance numbers, VBS is one of the only events all year long that offers discipleship engagement and mobilization for the entire church body; there’s a way for everyone in your church to get involved.
This Lifeway Research study also revealed that 80% of those attending church one or more times per month believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but only 39% of people are doing so. VBS is the perfect opportunity for people to do what they think they ought to be doing.
And in 2018, Cigna found that younger generations reported they were the loneliest generation, with loneliness levels reaching epidemic levels. How much worse must that statistic be given the isolation kids around the world have faced this past year due to COVID? Kids are in need of connection, even if it is virtually or on a smaller scale, and the church has an opportunity to offer it this summer through VBS.
If cancelling isn’t an option, what should local church do if they don’t have the resources to host VBS this summer? I say the solution is working with other local churches for a combined gospel-focused effort.
It seems like an obvious solution, but working together comes with its own set of challenges. Logistics aside, we must admit that working together will require some adjustments on the part of the local church when it comes to how we define success.
VBS is often a ministry that provides the numbers and metrics that many of us value and often use to measure our success in a given year: How many unchurched people in the community did we reach? How many church prospects were identified? How many people were reached by the gospel through the church? How many baptisms did we do?
These metrics aren’t bad. In fact, these are the very metrics we’re using to show how valuable VBS is to the ministry of the local church. But when those metrics keep us from working together because they might lower or alter our numbers, then perhaps we need to reconsider how much value we put into them.
In 2017, VBS reports showed that more than 2.4 million people were enrolled in Vacation Bible School, and that of those, 65,301 salvation decisions were made, and 160,926 church prospects were identified (It’s Worth It, page 73). Those numbers aren’t likely to change if we give people the opportunity to attend VBS.
That said, working together will require some creativity and flexibility when it comes to reporting the victories, as well as launching a successful follow-up strategy. Follow-up is a critical part of Vacation Bible School. It is essentially a mission trip in your backyard. And like any mission trip, it is important to extend that week of discipleship by connecting the unchurched and new believers with a local church.
Last year, our team planned with the end in mind. By knowing the importance of connecting people to the local church after VBS, we developed a strategy we felt would best serve those we were ministering. As people registered, we made sure to get their address, and based on their proximity to a given church, we shared the information of any family without a church home to the church closest to them and let that church do the follow-up. Did it alter our numbers? Of course. Was it worth it? Absolutely. But what does working together look like? And how do we do it successfully?
I wish there was a formula every church could follow, but like anything in ministry, it really depends on your demographics, the community you are serving, and what gifts God has blessed your specific church with.
For our church, we’re struggling to find enough volunteers to staff the same size VBS as we’ve hosted in the past. Truthfully, even with reducing the size of our VBS, we’re struggling to get enough volunteers—and that’s not uncommon this year. Almost every other children’s leader I have talked with has a similar story.
What we do have, however, is a facility that can house hundreds of kids, if we can find the volunteers to teach and serve them. By simply partnering with one or two smaller churches in our community, we can safely welcome as many kids from our community as will come by using the combined team of volunteers from our three churches.
We’ll get creative about identifying prospects, we’ll celebrate every child who makes a salvation decision and worry about whose report it will go on later, and maybe we’ll get creative about baptisms and have a joint service one day to see all our VBS kids follow through in the step of obedience together. The point is this: We’ll work together in humble submission to the Father to further His Kingdom instead of getting caught up in the growth of our individual churches.
At VBS, statistics show it’s not about if we reach a child for Christ; it’s about how many we’ll reach. The 2018 Lifeway Research study showed that 95% of American parents agreed that VBS positively influenced their child’s spiritual growth. With that much fruitfulness, we can’t afford to cancel VBS without putting up a fight. And in this battle, we are stronger together than we will ever be apart—especially with the challenges we face in this season of ministry.
Whether you pool human or financial resources with other local churches and do VBS in person, virtually, in a neighborhood, at home, or some combination of the above, VBS offers an opportunity unlike any other ministry all year. Children and families need to connect with Jesus and the local church; it’s worth considering how working together can make VBS possible during a summer when it might otherwise not be.
Lifeway offers numerous resources to help equip VBS leaders to do VBS strategically in this season of ministry. To find those resources and more for a “kids ministry from anywhere” time visit lifeway.com/kmfa.
This post first appeared on lifewayresearch.com
Jenny is the children and family ministry director of Bradfordville First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., where she lives with her husband and three children. Jenny is a writer for Lifeway Kids curriculum and enjoys training children’s ministry leaders across the state of Florida.