WITH THE SCHOOL year over, churches across the state are being transformed into lion dens, airplane hangars, space stations and other captivating places – all in an effort to teach children biblical values while they are away from school for the summer.
“It’s always cool to see the church totally changed each year,” said 10-year-old Olivia Bird, who attended vacation Bible school (VBS) at Central Baptist Church, North Little Rock, in June 2011.
Her brother, Wesley, 7, agrees and looks forward to seeing the decorations.
“I like (VBS decorations) a lot,” he exclaimed with excitement.
Whether it’s a theme centering around airplanes, pandas, alligators or the moon, there is always a great deal of work that goes into transforming classrooms and sanctuaries into far-away places.
“It takes a lot of people to make this happen,” said Laurie Milholland, children’s director at Central Baptist. “Even with lots of volunteers, it typically takes us days just to decorate the sanctuary.”
There’s more to VBS than the decorating. Some churches start preparations nearly a year prior to VBS programs.
“I find that the best time to begin working on VBS is when you finish up the present one,” said Tanya Day, VBS co-director at First Baptist Church, Dumas. “We immediately start looking at the budget and discussing our kickoff. We even start ordering the curriculum in early fall. Volunteers are recruited in January.”
With so many lessons, songs and crafts to learn, it is wise to start early, said Ron Pierce, associate pastor of preschool/children at First Baptist Church, Cabot.
“It takes months to plan out all the curriculum ideas, skits and decorations – not to mention recruiting all the needed volunteers and leaders,” he said.
Why do churches focus on summer programs like VBS, investing so many countless hours of staff and volunteer time year after year?
“This is an excellent way to minister to children in the community, as well as our church,” said Day. “Each year we will have decisions made from children from the ages of 8 to 13 that … decided to make the decision of their salvation during our VBS program.”
Statistics say VBS has one of the greatest evangelistic impacts in Southern Baptist churches – with more than 25 percent of baptisms resulting directly from VBS, according to Keith Tusing in the article “Is VBS dead? Or just not worth the trouble?” posted on the Creative Ministry Buzz website.
Additionally, VBS is an opportunity for churches to reach beyond their own members, said Rodney Welsh, minister of students and youth at Heber Springs Baptist Church, Heber Springs.
“VBS is a way for the church to build a bridge to the community. We see kids from other churches, our kids and kids with no church home. It’s interesting that our kids are usually outnumbered,” said Welsh.
To keep things interesting, churches select unique themes each year.
“The theme helps create excitement and fun,” said Pierce. “It helps everyone think along the same lines and creates community.”
Others pick a theme based on the frequency of use in the community.
“Since most children in Heber (Springs) rotate to different VBS programs, we try to offer a variety based on what others are doing,” said Welsh.
He added the church doesn’t always choose its VBS program based on theme alone.
“The theme is secondary. … We make sure the VBS package we choose has a solid Bible base, a topic we feel the kids will get into and lays a good foundation,” said Welsh.
“We want to teach kids about Jesus,” said Milholland. “That’s what it’s about.”
“The best part about VBS is that it’s not like school at all. The teachers act out the stories, which makes it easy to remember, and every day we do something different,” said Olivia Bird.
VBS workers have seen a number of changes to their programs over the years, according to Day. One of the major differences is the way music is used.
“I still remember singing the traditional VBS songs – “This Little Light of Mine,” “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock.” I don’t know if our children will remember the music, but they will remember the church family and friends that gave them kindness and taught them about God’s love. That has not changed.”
While today’s music isn’t traditional, today’s children still enjoy the songs and music perhaps more than any other element, said Wesley Bird.
“My favorite part of VBS is the music,” he said. “It’s fun to learn Bible stories put to music, and I like the dances too.”
Regardless of the theme, songs, crafts or elaborate sets, the focus of VBS remains the same, says Paige Cate, children’s ministry associate at Geyer Springs First Baptist Church, Little Rock.
“As much as I love to organize and plan large events, all of that is nothing compared to knowing that each year boys and girls, and sometimes their families, come to a relationship with Christ,” said Cate.