Vacation Bible School has evolved, has many benefits

June 25, 2013 

“Tell me about the night I was born.

“Tell me again about when you and Daddy met.”

“Was it Uncle Bob or Aunt Sue who fell in the river and Grandpa had to go rescue them?”

Although our children loved to be read to when they were young, and they liked made up stories, it was the family stories that really caught their attention. Those were the ones they wanted to hear over and over again. Sometimes they would be characters in the family stories and sometimes the stories happened years or generations before they were born, but they wanted to know those stories. The stories helped our children understand more about themselves and their place in the family.

That’s what Bible stories do in God’s family. We hear the stories in worship services and for generations-centuries-millennia the stories of the people of God have been told around campfires and kitchen tables. Stories of love and betrayal, of peace and of war, faithfulness and running away, the human story of the family of God unfolds. Those stories were told as comfortably and as often as any family stories.

Over time, people began to realize both that some children didn’t hear the stories at home, and child labor laws (or the lack thereof) created high rates of illiteracy. So, about 230 years ago, the Sunday school movement started when the stories of faith were used as the basis for teaching reading and writing. In the 1950s, Sunday school attendance in the United States reached its peak. For a variety of reasons, it now continues to wane. Sleeping in, family time, sports, the digital age, freedom to travel – all contribute to the decline, and many folks don’t even know the most basic Bible stories. Numerous congregations struggle with how to reverse that decline.

But 120 years ago, Sunday school was just one hour a week and some teachers decided that wasn’t enough. Rather than wanting to use the Bible stories for general literacy, they wanted more time to teach the stories themselves, and maybe have some fun doing it. And thus began the tradition of Vacation Bible School. It grew as a movement, and 90 years ago, Standard Publishing came out with the first VBS curriculum.

It takes different forms now. Many congregations have switched to a weeklong evening format. Some congregations have a once-a-week evening program over a longer period of time, but many congregations in Fort Mill, including my own, still hold the traditional format of five mornings in a row. Vacation Bible School offers churches the opportunity to tell the family stories using drama, music, outdoor play, crafts and more. With more time to tell the stories, and more ways to reinforce them, sometimes they actually stick!

Lest you think I’m using this column to try to populate our Vacation Bible School program, our registrations maxed out several weeks ago with 100 students. Most of these kids are from the community. It’s no secret that Vacation Bible School programs are cheap (or free) childcare. Lots of children who have no church home will attend one or several VBS programs during the summer. Sometimes members of congregations get a little grumpy about that (not in my congregation, but maybe in yours…) But you know what? I think it’s great! Because what we’re doing is telling the family stories. Telling the stories of the family of God… sometimes to kids who don’t even know they’re part of the family.

The Rev. Dr. Joanne Sizoo is pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Mill. Contact her at jsizoo@gracewired.org.

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