For decades, vacation Bible school has been among the most effective church tools for reinforcing biblical lessons among youth and engaging in community outreach and evangelism. But over the past few years of extraordinary challenges, as some churches have stopped offering VBS altogether, others have begun exploring new ways to deliver the content.
The traditional VBS model for educating youth, typically during the summers, was founded on a concept that dates back at least to 1898. But VBS may be undergoing significant changes that were accelerated by the pandemic, according to a multifaceted five-year study, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 (EPIC).
As recently as 2019, 36% of churches offered VBS and/or church day camps during the summer, according to EPIC findings. By 2020, that number had dropped to 17% of congregations. Although the number of churches offering VBS climbed back to 36% in 2021, that level of participation did not appear to be sustainable. Only 31% of the 615 church respondents said they planned to offer VBS in 2022, the last year for which the EPIC study had available numbers.
These trends with VBS seem to be directly tied to declining rates of volunteerism in churches. As of March 2022, about 20% of church members overall were volunteering — down from 40% in early 2020, the EPIC report revealed.
And 57% of churches in the 2022 survey reported volunteer challenges in their education programs during the previous two years. Since volunteers are primarily responsible for children’s education in nearly 60% of churches, those programs, including VBS, have been significantly affected.
“Traditional models of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School may no longer be feasible in many congregations either because of the lack of volunteers or the lack of participants,” the study’s April 2022 report on religious education said.
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Exploring new ways of hosting VBS
Many church leaders currently are grappling with how to continue offering VBS programs that can accommodate limitations like declining volunteerism, according to Melita Thomas, team leader of training and events at Lifeway Christian Resources. Each year, Lifeway supports VBS training for more than 60,000 participants across the country.
“People are getting creative about how VBS looks. They’re breathing fresh life into it by doing it in nontraditional ways and in nontraditional settings,” Thomas said. “The pandemic helped, because it broke the mold of VBS for a certain number of hours of the day during a specific number of days in a week at the church. And the idea that you need to have crafts, music and recreational activities went out the door with COVID.”
However, the process of switching to new formats isn’t always easy.
Thomas said many church leaders have expressed reluctance about moving away from the more traditional model of VBS, in which churches host daylong activities as part of a summer camp experience.
“VBS doesn’t have to be what it used to be,” Thomas said. “Leaders must be realistic about what they can offer. VBS can consist of what you’re able to do now. That means you may not be able to do it in the same way as before, but it’s still worth doing.”
Church educational programs like VBS, no matter the format, can provide critical support for youth — especially during challenging times like those caused by the pandemic, Thomas said.
“We’re seeing epidemic levels of anxiety, disconnectedness and loneliness among a generation that’s more connected to technology than ever before,” she said. “VBS becomes a very practical solution to that. Children can unplug from their devices and plug in with caring adults who build relationships with them and show them Christ in all they do.”
Equipping your VBS team for success
Church education leaders preparing to move forward in these new times with a successful VBS model must look at three essential areas — adjusting capacity, instilling a sense of mission and equipping the VBS team through training, Thomas said.
Leaders can start by determining the bare minimum of what they can offer. For instance, if a church has three to six key volunteers, they can assess the team’s overall strengths. It might be that one person can supervise crafts but no one has volunteered to lead music. If that’s the case, the program can be built to focus on crafts and lessons but eliminate music as a component, Thomas said.
“Church leaders need to acknowledge their restrictions, limitations and budgets, and take into account what works best for the children they serve,” she said, noting that they can use VBS resources to craft their own programs.
For example, church leaders have experimented with short VBS sessions in the evenings, after more volunteers are available to support the program, Thomas said.
Second, it is important to instill a sense of mission for everyone participating in VBS, whether it is passing out snacks or overseeing activities. “It shouldn’t be this thing that we feel obligated to do because we’ve always done it,” she said. “It’s important that people grasp the ‘why’ behind VBS. And it needs to be communicated in a way that it becomes a revolutionary force in the church.
“So even if you’re the snack lady, you should have a sense that your purpose is to reflect the light of Christ, watch for gospel opportunities and build relationships with the children,” she said. “They need to see that what they’re doing is much bigger than the task they were assigned.”
With that sense of purpose, volunteers are more inclined to participate, Thomas said.
Last, training and support provided on the front end — before VBS starts — increases the likelihood of VBS teams being successful and being willing to return for future programs.
Thomas also encourages church leaders to be mentally prepared to make shifts with different types of educational church programs.
“It may be hard to let go of what you did in the past,” she said. “There’s always a bit of grief adapting to the reality of what you’ve lost. But if you can turn your attention to what you can do and what it can be, embrace the success in that.”
Thomas said that these changes with VBS may be temporary. “It doesn’t mean that what we had pre-pandemic will never return again,” she said. “We just have to take a couple of steps back and rebuild based on what’s available to us.”