Worship Wars15: Vacation Bible School
It’s summertime, which in Baptist culture means VBS time. Just last week somebody from my old church put a VBS brochure on my door. I saw her from the window and did not recognize her so I am reasonably sure it was the wife or daughter-in-law of the current interim pastor. The church has signs up in the neighborhood and Vacation Bible School will begin this Sunday night.
I grew up attending VBS. Back in the day it was held for two (yes, 2) weeks, and always met during the day. That was back before all the moms had to go to work. My memories are of the music, marching in with the flags and doing all the pledges, and making colored macaroni necklaces. I remember lots of kids making “decisions” during the evangelistic service, but I don’t much remember them ever coming back to Sunday School.
When I started pastoring in 1992 I remember my wife getting drafted to be the VBS director that first year. My wife is great with children, having already worked in Sunday Schools, VBS, and children’s choirs previously, but being a VBS director was a new experience. That year there were probably about 60-70 children, but of course we heard from the older crowd about the years previously when they had a hundred children. Our facilities were a bit crowded and we were a few workers short, but we had a good VBS. We always did VBS at night because by the early ’90’s most moms were working in the day. This affected the availability of workers as well as the children because the parents had daycare situations for the children during the day.
Through the years we had several VBS directors serve and our averages slowly dropped from the 70’s to the 50’s to the 40’s down to a few years in the twenties. This decline corresponded with a decline in our membership and the amount of workers we had available for VBS. Never did we have enough workers on our own, we were always borrowing from other churches, relatives, etc.
The children who came to VBS, other than the few who were already a part of the church, were largely children from other churches whose parents wanted them to attend every VBS in the neighborhood. But we also had a reasonable sized group of kids from unchurched homes. Many parents dropped their kids off as a free babysitting service, which is understandable. The bottom line is that the smallest segment of kids in VBS was the unchurched.
The curriculum of VBS reflected those statistics in that it seemed to be written for children who were already familiar with the Bible, church and missionaries. This is the first problem I want to address: Curriculum. Over 14 years I saw a lot of VBS curricula and I am not happy with it at all. We used the Lifeway curriculum almost exclusively, with only a couple of years using something else. The curriculum emphasized character traits over doctrine with an evangelistic lesson thrown in. They constantly changed the curriculum every year along some fun theme but the lessons did not ever build towards anything. The emphasis was always on the new and different instead of having some kind of comprehensive plan. Some years I completely rewrote the curriculum and did my own thing with the 6th graders or youth.
I have a major problem with teaching kids to be good from Bible stories which is what 90% of the curricula did. Quite frankly, I believe we innoculated children against the gospel with this approach. I actually wrote a 3-4 page letter to the VBS staff at Lifeway outlining my concerns and making suggestions. I believe there should be a three year curriculum plan that takes kids through the basic core doctrines that present the gospel. You can change some of the cute themes if you want, but the lessons ought to build up to something over time. Teaching kids to be good is not what the church ought to be doing.
This same principle applies to the music as well. There was an emphasis on cute, fancy, fun songs. The musical emphasis should have been on building a repertoire of children’s hymns, church hymns and the best of contemporary Christian music that they would hear on the local Christian radio. There needed to be some solidity to the music program, and there just wasn’t.
Another issue in VBS was that of discipline. One year we had a couple of kids that were extremely disruptive. They were teasing some good kids unmercifully until the parents called me to say how threatened their children felt, and the bad kids had cussed out a couple of VBS workers. After talking with the kids did not help, the next day, as things got worse, I called the parents and explained and asked them to withdraw their children from the program and try again the next year. I then called the parents of the good kids back and the mom responded positively and brought her daughters back the next night. They ended up actually coming to out church for a few months after that.
However, the old ladies of the church called me on the carpet in a big way for sending the bad kids home. That was one of the worst chewing outs I ever got at the church. Not one older person defended my decision. I mean, they were absolutely MAD at me: “Pastor you don’t ever send any child home from church!” I explained the details about the teasing and taunting of the good kids, of the cussing out of the workers, and how the good kids mom had withdrawn her kids because of the bad kids. The old ladies of the church did not care. They absolutely disagreed with my decision. I stood my ground and told them that if I had kids, or youth who did not want to get with the program, and who were preventing the good kids who did want to be a part of the program from participating, I would side with the good kids every time. This would happen again with our Wednesday Night Youth Program as well.
In the final analysis, I absolutely believe that VBS, doing it the way we had been, was not a good thing. I believe that using a children’s ministry in a effort to grow the church was wrong. Our growth efforts ought to be directed at heads of households, grown ups, adults. Yes we need a good children’s ministry, Jesus did say “suffer the little children to come to me”, but that should not be the leading edge of a church’s outreach program.
VBS for my church was the most expensive special ministry that required the most planning and effort to execute during the entire 15 years I was there. Only a couple of times did it result in church growth and that was never lasting growth. But for the old ladies of the church, VBS was definitely the Yardstick by which to measure their effectiveness as a church. If they had a good VBS, they felt good about themselves- never mind if it was abysmally ineffective in actually growing the church. The size of the crowd of kids was all that mattered.
In conclusion I think that the way VBS has been done by the SBC and Lifeway is severely wrongheaded. The basic concept is worthy, but it is being done in an “anti-gospel” way that emphasizes virtue and character over the gospel, even though every year’s program has an evangelistic message. VBS needs to be scrapped and rebuilt from the bottom up. It should never be the main outreach of any church.
Friday, June 20, 2008– These are the stories from my years as a bi-vocational pastor in a small, traditional, elderly, neighborhood Southern Baptist Church. For 15 years I served in this church that I knew from day one was a declining church. These stories seem to focus on what went wrong as I seek to examine what I could have done better, or what the church could have done better. The bottom line is that people don’t like to change and if a church refuses to change with the times (without compromising biblical doctrine) then that church will eventually be surpassed by those churches that do change.
Let me begin this story with a link to a great publisher of very strong curriculum in the Reformed tradition. My church did not want to go with this publisher, of course, but I can recommend them to You: