Is VBS Worth It?

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The KidzMatter Blog/Is VBS Worth It?

My earliest memory of VBS is a brief, visual snapshot. As a preschooler, I’m standing outside Second Baptist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas, with my dad, the associate pastor. I’m too young to go inside when the other children soon will begin marching into the worship center, so my dad gives me a VBS attendance pin before attending to his duties as the VBS Director. That’s it. That’s all I remember, but the memory is forever imprinted in my mind.

What is your VBS story? Are you among the 60% of adults who attended VBS while growing up? If so, you’d be in the minority if you remember VBS negatively. Nine out of 10 American adults who attended VBS while growing up report having positive memories of those experiences. And, if you did attend VBS, chances are that you went because your immediate family, relatives, neighbors, or friends took you or invited you.

Such is the case of a member of my own church. A couple of summers ago, I taught six- and seven-year-olds in VBS with a young mother whose primary memory of VBS was as a child about that same age. Had a friend not invited her to VBS, she would have not attended. According LifeWay Research, her experience is not unique. In fact, 69% American parents will encourage their child to participate in VBS if they are personally invited by a friend.

Are you still wondering why your church should host VBS? Are you asking if it’s worth it to continue VBS in your church and in your community? After all, aren’t there other good things–maybe better things–that we can do as local churches to reach our communities? Let’s start with the problem, first, then answer that question.

The problem is that we are in a two-fold crisis. First, our churches are in a crisis of evangelism. As a whole, we are not doing a good job of reaching our communities with the gospel. Forty-eight percent of us are not inviting unchurched people to visit our church, and 61% of us are not sharing how to become a Christian.

Second, we are in a crisis of loneliness. Our kids have never known the world without the internet or smartphones. “They are on their phones, tablets, and gaming devices,” states Jana Magruder, Director of LifeWay Kids. “They are photographing their food, their friends, themselves (hello selfies), and posting everything going on in their lives without actually living real-life experiences. They are more concerned about followers and likes than true relationships. They text or snapchat more than they call on the phone or see each other in person. They watch Netflix or YouTube videos more than they participate in events and experiences, with real people and social relationships.”

What does all this time on digital devices make kids—and the adults around them? Lonely. Research tells us that kids and teens who have Christian friendships at church have healthier spiritual lives as adults. VBS can provide the opportunity to meet and develop friendships through fun and real-life experiences. Similarly, kids and teens who connect with godly men and women at church have healthier spiritual lives into adulthood. God did not create us to be lonely—he made us to live in community. There are very few times in the rhythm of church calendars that provide a whole week of human and multi-generational interaction for the sake of the kingdom of God.

The crisis that we as churches and individuals find ourselves in today is not new. The crisis of evangelism is rooted in history. Jonah resisted and got on a boat rather than journey to Nineveh. Judas chose 30 pieces of silver over participating in Jesus' eternal mission. People needed to hear God's redemptive plan, yet Jesus Himself declared, "The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38, CSB)

Neither is the reality of individual loneliness only a contemporary crisis. Adam was lonely in the garden of Eden. Elijah felt isolated on Mount Horeb. Jesus experienced ultimate loneliness when He cried out His last words on the cross. However, because of Jesus' horrific moment of complete and absolute loneliness, you and I do not have to be alone, ever. Crisis averted.

So, if the dual crisis of evangelism and loneliness is the problem, what is the solution? VBS began in a moment of crisis, not so different from the one we face today—churches needed to spread the gospel, and individuals longed for meaningful community. Enter Virginia Hawes, a godly woman who noticed the problem in a section of New York City’s East Side and began searching for a solution. In 1898, Virginia Hawes opened what has become known as the most prominent precursor of today’s VBS, in a beer parlor. “We felt that the Bible is not taught in homes as it used to be, nor as it should be, and it is not taught in the public schools. So we opened… a school in which we made the Bible our only text book,” Hawes said.

By 1934, approximately 700 Bible schools reached as many as 100,000 children. And those numbers continued to grow—through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the turbulent 60’s—to today. I truly believe that God desires to continue to use VBS as a tool of the church to reach babies through adults with the gospel. And, I'm convinced that the solution to loneliness is found in the Jesus taught in VBS, and the community Jesus provides through the church.

VBS is worth it—all the effort, all the expense, all the hours, all the tears. Why? Because VBS is the one week that mobilizes the entire church to reach the community with the gospel, while simultaneously providing a unique discipleship experience for the individual child and volunteer. Every year more than 20,000 churches in the United States decide it’s worth it to host a VBS in their communities, and over 2.5 million people are enrolled. That doesn’t count the thousands of kids around the globe who participate in VBS.

The question remains, however, “Why are some churches walking away from something that so effectively evangelizes and disciples?” According LifeWay’s It’s Worth It research, churches give the following reasons for abandoning VBS:
61%—Too difficult to recruit teachers and volunteers
42%—Other churches in our area meet this need
31%—Our church doesn’t have enough kids
25%—Low return on investment
23%—No longer seemed relevant in our context
21%—Attendance dropped
19%—Programming doesn't fit DNA of the church
17%—Cost is too high
16%—Kids too busy during the summer
16%—Too high of a time commitment

Among American adults who attended VBS growing up, 30% indicate learning from teachers and volunteers as one of their strongest memories of VBS. Knowing this, I invite you to join me in leaping to a conclusion. Forty-two percent of the churches we surveyed say they don't host a VBS because other churches in their area meet this need. If this fact is true—and it is certainly a prevalent perception—then the decision not to conduct VBS may deprive a child from engaging with the one adult who would've introduced him or her to Jesus.

Now, I realize that I just made several assumptions, but can we afford to gamble with the lives of kids when eternity is at stake? Before we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water and walk away from VBS, let’s attempt to bust the following six myths that my friend Rhonda VanCleave, VBS Publishing Team Leader at LifeWay, articulates:

Myth #1: People are just using us for free child care. First, according to LifeWay research, only 12 percent said they were interested in VBS as a form of free child care. However, the good news is—THEY CAME! And, they heard the gospel.

Myth #2: We don't have enough workers. No one volunteers. First, How many key leaders do you have? Consider designing your VBS with just those leaders in position. Then, begin to incorporate less experienced leaders and teenagers as "leaders in training.” Second, how are you enlisting volunteers? Ask God to point out people to you, then talk with them one-on-one. Give them simple but clear expectations of the role and give them a specific time to think and pray before responding.

Myth #3: Every church in town is doing that VBS. No one will come to ours. There’s nothing wrong with planning ministries that uniquely fit the context of your church and community. Maybe, the solution involves just a bit of rethinking. Kids learn best through repetition. Kids never tire of singing songs they love. Except for the sign out front, your VBS will be unique to you because the people leading it are different.

Myth #4: VBS is too expensive! We have to buy too much stuff. Start with the basics, as you would if shopping for groceries. Just because the items are in the store doesn’t mean you have to buy them. Choose what’s most important: quality curriculum (teaching guides and student pieces). The content should be carefully crafted to share the gospel and help kids grow in their faith. Next, decide what other items are most important to you and purchase them.

Myth #5: The only kids who come are our church kids. What if no one comes but "our church kids"? Aren't they worth it? The fact, however, is that about half of the participants in our VBSs either do not attend a church or attend a church other than yours. What better way to teach your kids and kids in the community the gospel, knowing that the gospel you teach is true!

Myth #6: All our kids are already Christians (VBS is not about discipleship). Kids who are already Christians affirm their faith. Each time believers review the plan of salvation, their foundation of faith is strengthened and they are better equipped to share that message with others. Bible study is a key component of discipleship. During VBS, participants of all ages are tutored in using their Bibles and challenged to make Bible reading a part of their daily lives. Teaching, sharing the gospel, and helping kids know more about Jesus is true discipleship.

In the modern classic Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella hears a voice whisper to him, “If you build it, he will come.” Churches are notorious for “building” events and expecting people to just show up. That’s not quite enough. Remember what the research shows? If we personally invite people, they are more likely to come to VBS than what we may suppose.

Nonetheless, I realize that you may still be asking if VBS is really worth it? Is VBS just a program with a long legacy that needs to be put out to pasture? To answer that question, think about that voice in the Iowa cornfield, whispering in ear of the character portrayed by Kevin Costner. I think you and I often hear a voice whisper in our ear, but it's not the friendly voice that fictional farmer Ray Kinsella's hears:
- As you cut 50 pieces of construction paper, the enemy whispers, "Is it worth it?"
- After you burn yourself with hot glue, the enemy whispers, "Is it worth it?"
- When the three-year-old with authority issues punches and kicks you, the enemy whispers, "Is it worth it?"
- When the seven-year-old has a meltdown on the last day of VBS, the enemy whispers, "Is it worth it?"
- As you reassure the stressed-out preteen that she is made in God's image, the enemy whispers, "Is it worth it?"
- When the alarm goes off at five in the morning on the third day of VBS and you know what's waiting for you at the office in the afternoon, the enemy whispers, "Is it worth it?”

When I directed my first VBS as a young seminary graduate, my dad told me, “Your first VBS as a church staff member may be your best because you’ll lead it by the book.” He was correct, it was my best VBS experience. But, I definitely had my "Is it worth it?" moments that summer. My wife was six-months pregnant with our first child, and I was in the middle of 49 radiation treatments for cancer. VBS couldn't have come at a worse time, yet God showed me that my first VBS 30 years ago—and every VBS I've participated in since then—was worth it.

What about you and your church? For over 120 years, God has used VBS to impact the eternity of millions of people, all over the globe. If we stop using VBS as a tool for evangelism and discipleship, where will our churches be 10, 20, 30 years from now? Knowing that 22 percent of children who participate in VBS do not attend any church, what will take the place of VBS to reach kids and families for the sake of the gospel? VBS is not a program to save, it's a ministry tool with a future. My prayer is that when faced with the question, "Is VBS worth it?" we'll all clearly hear, "Yes, it's worth it, because eternity is worth it.”

Landry Holmes began serving churches as a teen volunteer, and his earliest memory of VBS precedes being old enough to actually attend. He is the author of It’s Worth It: Uncovering How One Week Can Transform Your Church. A graduate of Howard Payne University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Landry served on church staffs in Texas and is a church leader, writer, workshop facilitator, and publisher. He currently leads the LifeWay Kids Publishing team in Nashville, Tennessee, and teaches kids at his church in Middle Tennessee. Landry and his wife Janetta enjoy spending time with their two adult sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren.

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