Rather than canceling VBS, many churches change methods
By David Dawson
FRANKLIN — With a mixture of determination, imagination and inspiration, many churches in Tennessee are finding ways to host Vacation Bible School this year.
Despite the challenging circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, many VBS leaders have elected to move forward, even if it means changing the traditional format and veering away from their tried-and-true formulas of the past.
“We never really considered ‘canceling’ VBS,” said Tim Thompson, children’s pastor at First Baptist Church, Morristown. “Our thoughts as a team were to always look for a creative and safe way to do it.”
That was the prevailing attitude across the state, said Tennessee Baptist Mission Board childhood specialist Vicki Hulsey, who noted that churches are finding all kinds of new approaches — such as Neighborhood VBS, Alternative Schedule VBS and Virtual VBS (see list below this story and also see related sidebar HERE). Hulsey said she has been encouraged to see that a large number of churches have adopted a “show-must-go-on” mentality.
“Among the many churches that I’ve talked with during the past three months, the overwhelming focus has not been on if churches will have VBS, but how they can do it,” said Hulsey.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
The long list of restrictions that were put in place three months ago as means of slowing the spread of COVID-19 created the need for church leaders to “think outside the box” in terms of finding ways to avoid canceling VBS.
Inventiveness and resourcefulness moved to the forefront, and many churches quickly began seeking a new vision on how to do VBS.
“I am blessed to have an amazing group of men and women serving on the VBS leadership team who have at their core the desire to share the gospel through VBS,” said Thompson. “Our VBS director immediately sprang into action and we began to work out a plan.”
Thompson said FBC Morristown made several adjustments, including delaying the dates of VBS — pushing it back from the first week of June until the second week of July — and limiting the enrollment among on-campus participants. FBC also made the decision to eliminate the traditional “all-groups assembly” at the start of each day.
“We have had numerous meetings with our VBS leadership team via Zoom,” said Thompson about FBC, which is also hosting an online VBS. “Much of our planning has had to be very ‘fluid.’ We want to do what is best for our church and parents, but most of all for the health and safety of the children who will be attending. Brainstorming ideas is the only way to deal with a situation which none of us have every faced before.”
At First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, the decision was made to organize Backyard Kids Clubs this summer in place of having the normal on-campus VBS that brings more 2,000 Kids to the FBC campus each summer.
“Our VBS team was determined to have VBS,” said Jori Abbot, VBS director for FBC Hendersonville. “Our staff, beginning with our Senior Pastor (and TBC president Bruce Chesser), were completely supportive of ‘shifting gears.’ While our VBS will look nothing like what we are used to having, our staff is excited and embracing the opportunities this change could potentially bring.”
Tulip Grove Baptist Church, Old Hickory, is also doing Backyard Kids Clubs this summer in place on the traditional on-campus event.
“Our pastoral staff and VBS leadership team agreed this was the best option for VBS to happen this year under the reality of COVID-19’s effects,” said Eric Boswell, children’s pastor at Tulip Grove. “Our church loves VBS and many of our core volunteers reached out to our leadership team to let us know they still wanted to help with VBS in whatever shape it would take.”
Although the functionality of VBS has changed, the focus has not. Sharing the good news of Jesus remains at the heart of VBS, said Hulsey.
“When we reflect on the number of children, youth and adults who have accepted Jesus Christ during a VBS, it’s hard not to get excited,” she said, “especially knowing that God can do even more.”
After much discussion and prayer, the staff at Hilldale Baptist Church, Clarksville determined it was best not to host an on-campus VBS this year. The church normally hosts roughly 1,000 children at VBS each summer, and Tim Munoz, children’s pastor at Hilldale, said the decision was “truly gut-wrenching.”
However, Hilldale still has big plans for its children’s outreach this summer.
“We are trying to partner with local churches — be it SBC or not — to do a lofty goal of 50 Backyard Kids Clubs in Clarksville in July,” said Munoz. “We might not get 50 sites, but that’s okay. We understand that things are different right now and folks are still a bit nervous, but we are going to try (to get 50).” Hilldale is partnering with the Cumberland Baptist Association and the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Austin Peay, he said.
Hulsey understands, perhaps better than anyone, that VBS is a beloved tradition at many churches, and that there is a certain amount of nostalgia related to the event.
To that end, she said that the absence of “traditional VBS” on many campuses has caused some heartache. But those emotions have been quickly replaced by feelings of excitement.
“The first week of June is traditionally one of the largest weeks for Vacation Bible School and Backyard Kids Club,” she said, “and I saw Facebook posts from several children’s ministers that expressed sadness as they remembered the sounds of children filling the hallways of their church buildings — and those halls were silent this year.
“But those same children’s ministers quickly began to shift from sadness to an excitement of what lies ahead as they think of the new ways that this year’s VBS is going to reach people that might have never attended a VBS inside a church building,” Hulsey said.
Munoz shares Hulsey’s excitement about the potential for making a major impact for the Lord this summer. “God did not call us to sit on the sidelines,” he said.
Abbott, the VBS director at FBC Hendersonville, said the staff originally decided to push back the dates until mid-July, but eventually felt led to put their efforts into Backyard Kids Clubs instead.
“When it became evident we would not be able to gather with the 2,200 people that we would have on campus each day during our VBS, our team immediately began looking for a way to meet all ‘comfort’ levels during this pandemic season,” she said. “We shifted to off campus sites and chose a curriculum that has the flexibility for parents to be able to lead with their immediate family if they don’t feel comfortable gathering with any group, that parents could lead with a small group of friends and family, or for teams to be able to go out into the community and host small groups.”
MORE THAN A TRADITION
Vacation Bible School is deeply woven into the fabric of the Baptist culture. The annual event has been a staple of the Baptist curriculum for more almost a century, with origins tracing as far back as the 1920s.
For many Baptists, VBS is a cherished childhood memory, forever linked to sugar cookies, Kool-Aid and Bible-themed activities, along with the mental images of vibrant, colorful flags on display in the sanctuary and newly-designed artwork — created by little hands — hanging on the walls in each classroom of the church.
But there is, of course, far more to VBS than the pageantry of the assemblies and the sweaty faces of the children as they return from the playground. The primary purpose of VBS is share the love of Jesus, and to present the gospel.
And the impact, historically, has been enormous.
Through the years, VBS has proven to be one of the SBC’s most effective gospel-sharing ministries, and the statistics show that VBS continues to be impactful today.
For instance, while the number of baptisms has declined among SBC churches in recent years, the number of salvations at VBS has not declined. Perhaps more impressively, VBS continues to annually account for 25 percent of baptisms in SBC churches nationwide.
Hulsey said she believes those encouraging numbers will continue — and perhaps even increase — this year, despite the new obstacles that churches are facing because of COVID-19.
“I think VBS in 2020 has the potential of seeing the largest number of kids and families involved that we’ve ever seen,” she said. “As we look over the past few months at the churches that have used tools like Facebook Live, YouTube, and Zoom for Sunday morning worship, many pastors have been shocked at the number of views they’re seeing for those services, often multiplied many times over their normal Sunday morning attendance. Seeing that has given many churches the courage to step out and try strategies for VBS that they would have never thought possible.”
Hulsey noted that this is not the first time that SBC churches have had to adjust their strategies regarding VBS. She said that, after doing some research on the topic, she discovered that “during World War II, it became clear that it would not be possible to have a ‘normal’ VBS. But churches did not cancel VBS. They adapted — just as we must do today,” she said.
Thompson the idea of canceling VBS altogether was not even discussed.
“The thought ‘well, we just can’t do it this year’ never crossed my mind,” he said. “There is always a way. Sometimes it just requires that we get out of our comfort zone and discover a way to do it. I do believe that our VBS numbers will be impacted this year due to COVID-19 and the fear and difficulties that it has created, but we are not responsible for the numbers, we are responsible to be faithful.”
While Backyard Kids Clubs are quite different from VBS, the two events have the same primary purpose: Sharing the gospel with children.
“As we learned more about Backyard Kids Clubs, we discovered that BKCs typically reach more unchurched children than the traditional on campus VBS,” said Boswell. “We are excited about introducing more unchurched Kidsto Jesus and connecting our church members with their neighbors. We feel strongly that God is going to do something amazing through our BKCs this year.”
Munoz added that VBS and other events are not about adding numbers to church membership roles.
“I am not trying to grow our church, I am trying to build the Kingdom,” he said. “If someone wants to come to Hilldale because of what we have done, I will welcome them with open arms. If we don’t have what they are looking for then I will be glad to make recommendations based on their family’s needs. … Let’s not worry about who gets top billing. Let’s not care about that.”
It seems likely to assume that, by next summer, large-group gatherings will once again be considered acceptable, and that church events, such as VBS, will return to normal.
But Hulsey believes that this summer’s unusual circumstances can actually lead to some lasting changes in regard to how churches approach VBS in the future.
“I envision so many good things coming out of this time,” Hulsey said.
Although Hulsey expects many churches to hold VBS on their campuses again in the future, she believes many will continue to offer alternate options, which will “allow for even more people to be reached with the gospel,” she said.
She said she also thinks the church will “see new leaders rise up that may have never been willing to lead in a traditional VBS setting.” She said she is excited about seeing parents have the opportunities to share the Gospel with their children at home and lead them to Christ.
“Yes, this is a very challenging time,” Hulsey said, “but it’s my prayer that we never go back totally to doing VBS the way it’s always been done. I believe there will be many positive things we see through creative ways of doing VBS, that we will learn from and carry over into our plans for future years.” B&R
CHANGING THINGS UP
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on VBS this year, as social distancing restrictions have created the need for new methods to be used. Here are four ways in which churches are doing VBS this year:
• Traditional VBS: The churches who are employing this strategy are generally smaller churches that are able to meet social distancing recommendations. A few larger churches that have ample classroom space (and can divide the attendees into smaller groups) are also hosting traditional, on-campus VBS.
• Alternative Schedule VBS: Rather than hosting VBS in early June, some churches are choosing an alternate date — either later in the summer or even during fall break — to have VBS on their campus. Other modified schedules include churches that are doing a one-day or weekend VBS. Some churches are hosting one-day VBS for five consecutive weeks, thereby allowing the attendees to get a “full-week” experience.
• Neighborhood VBS: This strategy involves taking VBS into “host homes” in multiple neighborhoods within a community. By doing this, churches can more easily manage large group sizes and comply with social distancing guidelines. Although the concept of Neighborhood VBS is not new — many churches launched Backyard Kids Clubs more than a dozen years ago — the current circumstances will likely lead to more of these type events than ever before.
• Virtual VBS or At Home VBS: This strategy is being approached in a wide variety of ways. Some churches are supplying content for parents to do VBS with their family, while others are streaming a virtual worship rally to kick off each day and providing materials for families to work through together. Some other churches are having leaders record daily Bible stories, missions studies, crafts, music and games. In some cases, churches are providing a prepackaged VBS box for each child or family that includes items like theme-related snacks, craft supplies, VBS music on CD and more.