This last week I recently began the fun journey of chaos, noise, debauchery, and often inter-child violence that churches all across the United States inaccurately deem “vacation” Bible school. If you have ever volunteered at a VBS you know that there is nothing about it that reminds you of a vacation. I had the particular pleasure of working with the 5th graders, who I expected to be better behaved because they were the oldest group, but I quickly learned how wrong I was about that presumption. My 5th graders, 29 of them, were boisterous in every sense of the word, there were the saving graces in the group, the ones that helped and tried their best to behave...but I would never describe VBS as a vacation save to describe it as a vacation for my patience.
Why do churches across the nation do this? If you cast aside the obvious answer: babysitting for the parents; you are left with typical surface answers, “To teach kids about Jesus”, “To draw in families”, blah blah blah. We can teach kids about Jesus any Sunday, and drawing in families can happen many other ways, there is something about Vacation Bible School that seems to be very important across denominations, across racial lines, VBS is very all-encompassing. On one hand it can be used as a metaphor for the Church at large, one giant production that sugar coats and fluffs up a simple truth, that God loves us and wants relationship with us. Or it could be a sign that churches everywhere are trying their best to reach out to their communities and society at large. Why do you think churches continue this yearly tradition?
At our VBS this year the kids had a “penny-war” to raise money for a local homeless ministry, they raised over $800 in 5 days. But fundraising is not the reason for VBS. They were taught stories about Noah’s wife, Naaman’s servant girl, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul. They sang songs, that most of my 5th graders complained were “lame”, “boring”, and “stupid”. They did arts and crafts, science, and recreation. But what really stuck out to me was their drama sessions. At one point the leader of this activity asked the kids “What is it we can do that pleases God?”. I expected the kids to reply with stereotypical Sunday school answers like “pray”, “be nice”, “listen to our parents”; but these kids threw me off with answers like “volunteer to help others”, “donate money to the homeless”, “recycle”. At 5th grade these kids were already connecting their faith to serving the world.
And I think back when my kiddo who has difficulty processing social situations, who is terribly shy and was even for a time was assigned a “special buddy”, volunteered to pray for another one of our 5th graders who was sick that day. I was moved to tears because it. I wondered then if VBS was more for the volunteers than it was for the children. But it really is not more for either group. It really is all about the Church, not individual churches, but the Church universal, because it teaches kids about what church is. Vacation Bible School’s messages are very general; there is no deep theology or philosophy that would confuse children or worry adults; but there are simple truths that are taught that improve the understanding of these children. My little kiddo learned that even though he is not the most popular of kids, he is still a part of their community and that it is his responsibility to care for others when they are sick. My other kids realized that the earth is a gift from God and that gift needs to be treated with respect; they learned that the homeless are God’s children too, and that we need to love the homeless like God loves us, because God loves them too.
Through VBS kids are taught not how to be better people, or better Christians, they are taught about why the Church is here. The Church is here to be Jesus for the world, to sacrifice itself so that others might live. These kids are learning through those “stupid” and “lame” songs, to “dare to care” for others, to “depend on God” not money to supply for our needs, to go out and “change the world”. Change it not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of those less fortunate, to the glory of God.