VBS Ridealong: My Vacation Bible School conversion story
VBS Ridealong: My Vacation Bible School conversion story

St. Peter's VBSers

I never thought I’d become one of those VBS cheerleaders.

Sure, I’m pro-VBS in principle. I’m for any faith-forming experience that mobilizes a whole church to love and care for and teach children in a focused way when they’re particularly receptive to it (“it’s summer: I’m bored”).

I agree with my colleagues that VBS is a tremendous evangelism opportunity. And it’s a not-so-distant cousin to camping ministries, my love of which is well documented.

Plus, full disclosure: I also need to be pro-VBS because supporting this ministry is a huge part of my employer’s ministry.

Once again, the Center for the Ministry of Teaching had our full VBS review resources (2015, 2014) downloaded more than 6,000 times this year. Even assuming multiple downloads per church and per minister, that’s a huge impact.

But there’s “on board” and there’s ambassadorial. There’s supportive and there’s wanting to shout “you guys, I think this is one of the four or five most important things the church does, period.”

Last week, I became that guy. I was converted in the midst of a “VBS Ridealong,” helping out all week with the program at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Port Chester, NY. (More disclosure: my wife is the curate there and was in charge of the program.)

I’m now an unabashed VBS über-vangelist. Here’s why, why I wasn’t before, and what we might learn from that.

Curriculum

Let’s just get this out of the way: some of those kits are bad, and a few are awful. The CMT spends so much time (and money!) reviewing VBS curricula because we’re trying to help people separate the wheat from the chaff.

And implementing any kit “as is” can lead to a sort of corporate, pre-packaged vibe that members of many mainline churches (myself included) wish to avoid in all aspects of ministry.

If you get twitchy at the mere mention of a music track that seemed to be recorded by an aspiring C-list boy band with a punishing theology and a 1994 Casio keyboard + drum machine, then you know what I mean.

But diddo for a catchy, theologically sensitive track that could have been produced by Quincy Jones, is my point. Pre-packaged often means inauthentic when it comes to music, decorations, activity ideas, etc.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t purchase kits, even lean very heavily on them. If a kit empowers this ministry in your congregation, and especially if you couldn’t do VBS without one, please keep doing what you’re doing.

Of course, the best purchased curricula are built on solid pedagogical and developmental insights, insights I know we could have benefited from last week had a culturally appropriate kit been available for our context (first-generation Latino immigrant community, volunteers mostly Spanish-speaking, kids mostly English-speaking, full workday program).

But we didn’t have a kit, and that meant our deep dive into the story of Moses could take full advantage of the considerable gifts, creativity, and passion of the kids, volunteers, and staff of St. Peter’s.

So if the kits and all that comes with them are a stumbling block for you, just remember: It doesn’t have to be that way!

Yes, DIY VBS can be a ton of work, especially if you start entirely from scratch rather than simply hacking a kit you purchased.

But the rewards are great as well.

Authority

Here’s how I remember the VBS programs of my youth: Like Sunday school, only more of it.

And that meant, in particular, a continuation of the usual power dynamics of instruction.

The teachers were right. The teachers told us what to do. The teachers were not just The Authority but also The Experts. We weren’t.

I can’t speak for how our participants felt about the power dynamics and rapport between themselves and the leaders. But I can share a list of things that adults (adults well beyond college age, mind you) did this week that I can’t imagine my childhood VBS leaders doing:

  • appear on stage, in costume, for the final theatrical production;
  • sit in the back of the bus amid a sea of kids, sharing the snacks they’d smuggled on board and checking out photos of their family and friends via their mobile devices;
  • build boats and pyramids and marshmallow catapults out of craft supplies and junk, right alongside their charges; and
  • slide down an inflatable water slide in response to children’s various directions, including head first on both stomach and back (OK, this one was me, and it was definitely worth the spinal discomfort).

I think what I’m talking about is the difference between counselors and Teachers. Adult volunteers can be counselors, I learned this week.

I think the kids experienced that as gift. And I know we did.

Perfection

OK, one last quick one, very much related to the previous. If there’s one message that stayed with me from the “implied curricula” of the VBS programs of the church I grew up in, it’s that the Christian life (or at least life at church) is about perfection.

Perfect order. Perfect decorations. Perfect snacks, for heaven’s sake.

I don’t think that’s the message we sent last week. Imperfections abounded, and while we could (and should) have avoided some of them, most gave the kids a pretty accurate picture of who we leaders were:

  • Understaffed but abounding in love.
  • Underprepared but open to the Spirit.
  • Often tired, cranky, and overwhelmed but present to them nevertheless because God has made us all one family.

So go figure: My conversion experience came from learning first-hand that the caricature of VBS I’ve been carrying with me since childhood—and that I probably invented or projected as much as observed—was wrong, or could be.

Like and ministry, Vacation Bible School will be what your community makes of it. However you implement it, it should bear the mark of your church’s particular way of being the body of Christ.

In other words, don’t hate the model. Own it.

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is digital missioner and instructor in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. You can peek his adventures last week via the #vbsridealong hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks Kyle for an excellent blog post!

    I suppose I too am a über-vangelist. Been doing this a while and this past summer, I really appreciated how profound it is spending a week with children, teens, and adults exploring the gospel message together. Truly life changing!

    I am grateful for your ministry and really appreciated this articulate post. BTW, we need to have you come out and do a ridealong with us someday! 🙂

    Blessings,
    –Mark

    PS. Thanks for linking us. I am humbled that you thought of us.

    1. Thanks, Mark. Yes, it is a special time and really gets to the core of our faith (or can do, at least).

      Would love to come out for a ridealong sometime! Let’s watch for an opportune year.

      And I will definitely continue to link to your work every chance I get. So impressed by and grateful for what you all do.

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