Heading Beyond VBS: Rethinking Your Summer Strategy

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The KidzMatter Blog/VBS/Heading Beyond VBS: Rethinking Your Summer Strategy

In the summer of 2015, we hit peak attendance at our summer kid’s camp. The camp was at max capacity with an extensive waiting list. Nearly 800 campers, paying up to $150 per child, filled our church building from morning until late afternoon. It was a hit. One month later we killed the entire event. For the next few years, we didn’t even do a summer outreach. Why would we stop doing something so successful? The short answer is that it’s what we sensed God leading us to do. Why change direction? The answer to that question is what eventually led us to our best summer ever.

Summers are challenging for churches. I get that statement is not exactly a mind-blowing insight. Yet, it’s still true. Families are distracted in the summer. Summer sports dominate free time. Vacations pull families in multiple directions for weeks at a time. Community organizations plan several big events during the summer. Our church is located near a large lake, so that tugs people away as well. I’m sure you could add even more reasons to this list. It’s just plain difficult to keep steady attendance in the summer.

To be fair, churches have tried many options to address the challenge. In my two decades of children’s ministry, I’ve hosted everything from day camps to overnight camps, kid’s crusades, and of course Vacation Bible School. I’ve done them all. You probably have, too. While everyone else is enjoying their lazy summer days, the children’s pastor works herself or himself into exhaustion. We drag across the summer finish line having burned the candle at both ends.

What are we accomplishing with all that busyness? I’m not denying that great ministry has happened in all those events. Lives were impacted, and kids made decisions to follow Jesus. That matters. But we have a responsibility to manage our time and resources effectively, so we must evaluate everything we do. The big question remains: are these events helping us create long-term disciples and reach the entire family?

Think back to your most well attended summer event. If it was a VBS, odds are high that you hosted more kids than what attend on a Sunday morning. How was your attendance in children’s church the following Sunday? How about the Sunday after that? Three Sundays later? I can tell you from my experience with both VBS and day camps that neither one moved the needle on regular children’s church attendance. The fact is that only a tiny percentage ever come back to your church. When we stopped the day camp at our church the parents who were most upset were from the community. They didn’t even attend our church. Their frustration came from losing a week of quality babysitting. Babysitting is a four-letter word in children’s ministry, but it’s how these summer events are often viewed in the wider community. The parents have no intention of coming to your church because they’ve already moved on to the next “sitter.”

We have a greater calling than just childcare. We want to go out and make disciples of kids and their parents. It’s hard to do that when they aren’t regularly attending church. How do you break the cycle? Is it possible to get off the hamster wheel of summer burnout in the pursuit of one killer week of ministry? Are we even allowed to not do a camp or VBS? Heresy? Perhaps it’s time to give ourselves permission to break the mold and try something new. That’s exactly what God did for us.

Sitting in our staff prayer in the winter of 2022, I remember distinctly God giving me a seed of an idea. It was three words: Summer Camp Sundays. I furiously wrote down some notes as we were praying. What if we could bring all of the fun and excitement of our summer camp into a Sunday service? Would it work? I didn’t know. But when I shared it with our children’s ministry team the idea clicked with all of us. We knew this was the new direction for summer ministry. We brainstormed and debated the concept until we finally landed on a brand-new summer outreach called “Summer to the Max.”

It's a simple concept. Instead of having a one-week blowout, we would create nine weeks of fun across June and July. Our services last an hour, and we have two services each Sunday. We had to create events that could be duplicated across multiple services, in both elementary and preschool, within an hour. It was important that we not only create a fun event, but it had to have spiritual impact as well. That was non-negotiable. The format for Summer to the Max consisted of 30 minutes of a venue or activity and 30 minutes of teaching. Every week, the kids sang worship songs, learned a Big Point, heard a story from the Bible, prayed, and discovered how to apply the teaching. I’ll admit that it’s a 30-minute sprint, but it does keep the service active, focused, and cuts the fluff. To allow preschool and elementary to both participate in the venues, we flip-flopped their schedules. Elementary would go to the activity while preschool had service for the first half hour, and then the two areas switched.

The activities varied depending on the theme of that day’s service. For instance, one Sunday we taught about Noah’s Ark, so we brought in a petting zoo. Another service was based on Samson, so we set up a ninja warrior activity outside. We’ve had dog shows, sno cones, and even built a beach in our playground. Multiple churches of varying sizes have used the Summer to the Max structure to rethink their summer. The activities can scale with your budget and the number of kids attending. It can be as simple or large as you want to make it.

To build excitement for the event, we gave the kids a calendar of events so they could know exactly what was happening each week. Parents put the calendars on the fridge and told us how their kids would study the calendar day after day and discuss which day they were looking forward to the most. Several kids and parents used the calendar as an invitation to their friends and neighbors to come join the fun. We also introduced a giving project for the summer. Kids were given a punch card that would be punched each time they brought a dollar. When they filled up their card, they received a prize and got a new card. One of our week’s activities was a serving project. We had a child drag his parents to a Wednesday night service because he did not want to miss an opportunity to help others.

I asked earlier what does a VBS or kid’s camp accomplish, so it’s only fair to ask it about Summer to the Max. In 2022 (our first year), our attendance grew during the summer. We had over 400 first-time visitors. In 2023, we had nearly 400 first-time visitors again. The church had a buzz of excitement throughout June and July. Not only did it help our kid’s church attendance, but it also impacted the entire church’s attendance because finally, the parents couldn’t drop them off and bolt. The parents heard the gospel, too. Our leadership was so excited about the results that they not only greenlit the next year but also asked us to create a winter version (which we did in January and had over 400 first-time kids in one month).

Summer to the Max isn’t about building the children’s ministry. It’s about building the entire church. That’s why our leadership loves the event, and why it became easier to ask for the budget needed. It wasn’t just an investment in kids, but the whole family. Our pastor loves that the rising tide of Summer to the Max raises all the ships.

One particular family invited their neighbors, who didn’t go to church, to come to one of the Summer to the Max events. The parents brought their kids and went to church themselves. Since that day they have regularly attended week after week. Both kids got saved and were baptized. That’s why we all do what we do. Every one of us wants to see families saved. I’m thankful that God used Summer to the Max to do that.

I encourage you to rethink your summer. Don’t do the same things just because it’s what you’ve always done. Don’t be afraid to stop something that seems to be working. Take a chance and try something new. Children’s ministry can be hard sometimes, but God has the help we need. We can meet the challenge and make a difference in this next generation.

Dwayne Riner has been in children’s ministry for over two decades. He currently serves on the children’s ministry team at The Ark Church in Conroe, TX. Dwayne oversees the development of curriculum for birth through 5th grade. Dwayne and his wife, Staci, have been married for almost 25 years and have two children.

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