Patricia E. Clawson
Summertime in the church means more than church picnics and swatting mosquitoes in the parking lot after evening services. It also means VBS—vacation Bible school. Many Orthodox Presbyterian churches have their planning down to flow charts with folks volunteering for the same job year after year.
For new congregations, however, planning for VBS is a challenge. Many members come from unchurched backgrounds and are unfamiliar with VBS programs. Pastors often need to take bigger roles in organizing the program than with experienced congregations. Mission churches who rent facilities for Sunday worship often can’t use the building during the weekdays or the cost is prohibitive.
Providence OPC in Bradenton, Fla., is planning their first VBS program, but the facility they rent in a commercial district is not suitable for children. They decided instead to host VBS where they hold a baseball outreach program—at a member's home that backs up to a community park with a pavilion. That gives members an opportunity to "rub shoulders" with the unchurched in their neighborhoods.
"VBS is a great means to continue the momentum of the baseball outreach," said Pastor David Smiley. "We have a heart for the unchurched families who are teachable. We trust Him to illumine the hearts of kids."
They plan to use Great Commission Publications' curriculum, although they will condense the lessons to three days instead of the traditional five. GCP is the joint publisher of the OPC and the Presbyterian Church of America. "We're confident and thankful for the Reformed and Biblical emphasis found there—the centrality of Christ found there."
To help steer the program, GCP provides a director's guide which helps churches set goals for VBS as well as learn how to set up the rooms, schedule the activities, give assignments to helpers, decide what to do for the opening and closing programs, discover ways to advertise, and make suggestions for how to train the staff.
"We want to make it as interesting, exciting, and hands-on as possible," said Smiley. The pastor plans three half-day training seminars for the volunteers. The first would focus on deciding who will be responsible for snacks, advertising, crafts, and recreational activities. The second will look at the Biblical texts and decide what they want the kids to take away from each lesson. Thirdly, they will bring it all together, uniting the activities and the teaching blocks. "We want the gospel to be front and center in the kids' lives."
Providence OPC in Aiken, S.C., also is planning their first VBS program. The church decided to hold the program in the evening to help parents who work. Pastor Kevin Medcalf saw how well-run VBS programs work when he was an intern at Faith OPC in Pole Tavern, N.J. and while he attended Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, S.C. He decided to use the Little Pilgrim's Progress curriculum after witnessing it at Woodruff Road PCA during his seminary days. "We needed to reach out to the surrounding community and we think this is a good way to do outreach," said Medcalf.
VBS benefits both the community and the congregation. "It gives people in the congregation an opportunity to come into contact with new people and brings new people into contact with the gospel in church," said Medcalf. "The people get to work alongside each other in the trenches. It brings people out of their shells, their comfort zones."
Ross Graham, general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, encourages new congregations to host VBS. "It identifies a new church as being interested in its community and the people in the community rather than just using a building," said Graham. "It puts you in a community and makes you a permanent part of it. Then people turn to you when they have a need for a funeral or have marriage problems."
Reaching out to the community, however, may be time consuming, work intensive, and costly to a small church, especially if they rent the facility, said Graham. With VBS, the congregation often has to pay for five days of additional rental. "It's a huge investment," he said. "Virtually every person in the mission work has to be involved to get the work done."
That's where larger churches can be of tremendous service. Graham suggests experienced churches which have completed their VBS program offer to do it again at smaller churches and mission works. "That works really well," said Graham. "That's a great outreach for a church to offer a mission group."
Experience also is a great educator. Immanuel Presbyterian Church of Medford, N. J., is gearing up for their third VBS program this summer. In the past two years, an average of 28 kids came, all but ten of whom were newcomers to the church. Pastor David Harr spearheads the staff of more than a dozen volunteers, slightly less than half of the congregation’s communicant members. This year they will host VBS in a clubhouse on weekday mornings and a Friday night closing program.
"It's a great way to get to know people in the community and to get the gospel out to kids and their parents," said Harr. "It keeps the vision of evangelism before the (church) people and provides a concrete way to do it."
Beyond the outreach, hosting a VBS program helps to solidify the core group with a single goal, gets new people involved in a church activity, and gives members an opportunity to exercise different gifts, said Harr. "It's one of our first big projects to do ourselves," he said. "It gives us a sense of excitement. It's good for our morale and encouragement."
If your church has an opportunity, take up Graham’s suggestion to help a struggling work or a starting congregation within a half hour from where you live. Volunteer your services to help their VBS program or transport your successful program to the smaller church. Sometimes the best summer vacation—despite the mosquitoes—is vacation Bible school.