I distinctly remember the first time I noticed the sign in front of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. My mom and I were in the car together when I saw the banner: Vacation Bible School.
“What’s that?” I asked. My mom explained that it was sort of like an extended Sunday School class. Sounded horrific to me. I felt sorry for those kids.
Several years later as a teen, I assisted with our church’s VBS by leading a pack of elementary age children from station to station. It allowed me to see VBS up close for the first time. I remember there being lots of dumb crafts, snacks, and songs.
As a pastor, I’ve been a part of a church conducting one of these things, but it did nothing to improve my opinion of them. Honestly, there is nothing vacation-like going on. The adults in charge have been slaving for weeks or even months to prepare. Bible? There might be a “theme verse,” maybe even one per day. There are also bathrooms, but we don’t call it vacation bathroom school.
Which brings us to school. School implies learning and education. School implies study—at least to me. VBS is glorified child care. Children learn nothing, at least not anything you want them to. They may discover how to weaponize your craft project. They will learn how to do something disgusting with at least one of the snacks.
I am a VBS Grinch. The time and money annually poured into these seems a complete waste. Oh, sure, we get the parents in on the last day for the “program” and it “attracts them to our church”—because nothing makes parents of small children want to come back like watching scores of them try to remember the words to the theme song of the week while wearing matching T-shirts.
As a VBS Grinch, I have a VBS fantasy. I dream of something that would actually be a vacation and would actually include the Bible and school. Something like a week-long study retreat at a monastery. I would sign up for that. No stuffed animals, popsicle sticks, or Kool Aid. Instead, maybe some incense, chanting, and lectio divina.
I can hear you say, “Fine, but we’re not going to reach kids that way.” I think VBS is part of the reason churches don’t “reach” kids. It’s part of a larger “segregate and entertain” philosophy that has infiltrated the church.
In most churches, children are born into a nursery and move through levels of children’s church and Sunday school. Then there is youth group and maybe even youth worship. In some churches, it is possible for parent and child to never do anything together for 18 years or more. Then, one day this teen is too old for youth group and they walk into a sanctuary that is foreign and much less “fun” than what they have been fed up until now. They can certainly find something more entertaining than this to fill their Sunday morning with, so they do.
In my dream world, there is no children’s church, there is just church. Church where families can worship together. Where parents can instruct about what is going on and why. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) If we want them to fill the pews, they need to be raised there, not in front of Veggie Tales with animal crackers and coloring pages.