Songs, games, Bible stories, treats and an all-around great time is the way I remember my childhood Vacation Bible Schools. With my creative mother as director, each year presented a different themed adventure in which we played roles like jungle explorers, astronauts or pirates. Our family arrived at church, with a battalion of other volunteers, an hour early each day to refill glue bottles, mix up Kool-Aid, set up the registration tables and care for all the other details which made the VBS machine wheel roll.
Fast forward 25 years and I’m a young pastor’s wife and VBS director, spending hours on the phone pleading with people to serve in the summer VBS program. I’m not even asking them to perform the huge task my home church did of running a two week, 9 to noon program, which meant volunteers donated about 5 hours a day. I’m asking people to spend 2 to 2 ½ hours for five evenings, and I can’t fill half the slots.
“Well, that’s today’s generation, no commitment. Selfish with their time.” Many more comments like these floated my way when the older generation of my church heard about the VBS struggles. The funny thing is, many of them were retired, healthy, with flexible schedules and more available free time than our young church families. However, they didn’t want to serve either, saying things like, “I did my time,” as if they were describing a prison sentence. Ultimately, the younger families, who I arm-wrestled into serving, ironically complained about their elder’s low participation rate. “They are so selfish with their time.” Yikes!!
A few years and several more exhausting VBS ordeals later, our church formed a task group to examine all of our children’s education ministries and decide what worked and what didn’t. Our goals were two-fold: spiritual education for the church’s children and outreach to unchurched children. VBS went under the microscope with every other ministry and we discovered some surprising things.
First, the program attracted very few unbelievers. At least ten other churches in our area did VBS at the beginning of the summer, just like us. Through conversations and a community survey we discovered that the majority of those from outside our church who participated, were regular attenders or members of other fellowships.
Secondly, because most VBS material at that time was designed to be evangelistic, our own church children were not challenged spiritually. They enjoyed the crafts, games and skits but we were spending quite a bit of financial and people resource without achieving either of our goals.
We voted unanimously to allow VBS to be part of our treasured past but to channel future resources towards different ideas. We invited unchurched families to join us on Wednesday evenings for free dinners and our Wednesday night classes. In the summer we equipped families with resources to host backyard Bible clubs in their own backyards for children in their neighborhoods. Both of these programs met with solid success.
Our critics expressed shock and disappointment that we “gave up” on VBS. How could we let this time honored tradition fall to the ground? Ironically, much of the criticism came from folks who hadn’t volunteered for VBS for years.
At times, we in church leadership spend our resources on ministries that once produced great fruit but are no longer. We are afraid of critics who will condemn our decisions or worse yet, we’ve made ourselves so busy “running programs,” we don’t leave time to evaluate or notice the effectiveness of what we are doing. The sign of a healthy church, fulfilling its God-ordained purpose, to reach the lost and make disciples of Christ, cannot be measured by how many different ministries you advertise on your website.
As my pastor, Sam Rijfkogel says, “The message of the gospel never changes, but our methods must.” In some churches, VBS still engages the lost while educating kingdom children. Many churches enjoy vibrant, fruit-bearing choir ministries while others have shifted to strictly worship teams. Wednesday night prayer services are well attended and powerful in some local bodies while others chose to shift to a format offering various classes for the ages.
The question each church must face is this: Are we investing our resources in fulfilling the vision God has placed before our church? Are our ministries bearing fruit which lines up with our mission? The people in your church’s neighborhood are very different from mine. A rousing success in your congregation could be a major flop in mine. Each local body must discover the reason God has placed them where they are, geographically and culturally.
In the next post I’ll share a few warning signs which indicate your ministry might be maintaining traditions at the price of fulfilling your God-given destiny.