In the small city of Weatherford, Oklahoma, there are a lot of churches, which means there is no shortage of Vacation Bible School (VBS) programs during the summer. This past summer, our church was able to offer a unique program that stood out in the crowd.
The usual approach in our town, and no doubt in many towns, is for a church to set aside a week in the summer, often in July, for VBS activities. In past summers, the Federated Church has done the same—and maybe will again. But in summer 2018, we elected to offer instead what we called “Vacation Bible Wednesdays.” Building on our established tradition of offering Wednesday evening youth programming, we invited children and youth ages Kindergarten through Sixth Grade to attend our VBS for a succession of four Wednesday evenings. In our advertising, we emphasized that all children from the community were welcome.
To be perfectly honest, part of the reason we chose this unusual schedule was that we were in the middle of a transition with our youth program, which meant that we had a temporary leadership gap. We were slower than usual in organizing our VBS summer program, but we knew we didn’t want the opportunity to slide. And the scheduling challenge proved to have a plus side. Most or perhaps all church VBS programs in our town had already ended by the time ours started. So we were able to attract new families that might otherwise have been committed to other programs or out of town on vacation.
Whereas our youth group had been averaging about 6 or 7 kids during the year, we had 21 children and youth attend our 2017 Vacation Bible Wednesdays! And we also had about 15 adults participating, nearly all of them volunteers, including some who offered to serve supper to our group. It was a real team effort.
Our pastor, David Wheeler, suggested a curriculum that was appealing to all of us. The content seemed fresh, dynamic, flexible, user-friendly—and consistent with our church’s progressive values. Produced by JL Creative, its title was “Yes! Show up, help out, and love like Jesus.” It incorporated themes of social justice and inclusivity. Each evening would begin with a gathering time, led by Reverend Wheeler, followed by four twenty-minute blocks, focusing on Science, Media, Games and Art, and Music and Theater. All the activities were inspired by Bible verses that related to the theme of “saying yes” to Jesus.
The curriculum suggested that each block should be twenty minutes long. In order for us to fit all each week’s program into one hour and a half, we shortened the time of each block to fifteen minutes. We also offered a light supper to start out the evening. The advantage of shortening the block times was that the kids stayed very busy and active. There were no awkward pauses. In retrospect, I think we might have tried to go a little too fast, and some of the leaders ended up having a hard time fitting the entire activity and closing prayer into the short periods. We also found that the kids were a little more scatterbrained and tired after the middle of August, when the school year had begun. This was the down side of scheduling such a late VBS.
As a volunteer helper, I was a co-leader of the Media classes. In these blocks, we studied books about Red Cross founder Clara Barton, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and youth activist Malala Yousafzai. The kids, especially the older ones, were very drawn to these subjects. It was a little hard to design lessons that appealed to children of varying ages, but we did our best. I feel the Media part of this component was ideally suited for children ages 8 and up. The more hands-on activities, such as Science and Art, were more popular with the younger kids.
In order to attract visitors to our VBS program, we advertised on social media. This resulted in new families attending our program. We also continued to promote the program week by week, which raised community awareness about our youth group. We used enrollment forms, so that we could keep track of names and other information—and use this information to stay in touch with visiting families. In the end we gave each child and adult volunteer a special T-shirt featuring our “Yes! Show up, help out, and love like Jesus” motto, the name of our church, and our church logo. And a few of the “visitor” children are now regular members of our youth program. Reaching out with a new approach helped us share in #loveofneighbor and especially #loveofchildren in a way we will continue to nurture. All in all, our Vacation Bible Wednesdays were a great success!