COLUMBIA — In an era when television, video games and the Internet are popular pastimes for children and youths, Columbia churches are using Vacation Bible Schools as a means of encouraging activity and sharing lessons about faith.
At Victory Christian Church, the flurry of activity begins in the "Praisin' Preschoolers" classroom with its underwater theme. The sea of children appears to be swimming in motion like the sea creatures painted on the classroom walls.
Jessie Spellman, 32, has lived in Columbia since 1990. After attending Vacation Bible School as a young girl and volunteering with such programs for over a decade, Spellman now coordinates VBS at Forum Christian Church, where she has served as VBS co-director since 2005. She also is the church’s Nursery/Preschool Director.
Q: What distinguishes Vacation Bible School from weekly worship services?
A: I think they (VBS leaders) know that this will provide a different environment than the Sunday morning services. We want to meet kids’ needs, teach them about the Bible and get to know them. When I was little and went to Vacation Bible School, you sat in a seat, you did a craft. But they’re very different from when I was a kid. They’re crazier and louder, with more lights and bells and whistles. Vacation Bible School allows kids to get up and move.
Q: Is there an appeal of Vacation Bible School over a regular summer camp?
A: I think the advantage is, it’s only a couple hours a day. It’s not a huge time commitment. The focus here isn’t to go have fun with random children or anything like that. I don’t think people would bring their kids here if they weren’t interested in teaching them about the Bible. So parents have that as their focus, but they love for the kids to have fun while they’re doing it.
Q: What tools might kids be given that will help them become more spiritually focused as adults?
A: Vacation Bible School is one aspect of that journey. If I had to distill Vacation Bible School, I would never take away Bible teaching or the fellowship of youth. I don’t know if as an adult there was one specific tool I used (from childhood VBS experience), but I think there’s a lot to the fellowship with other believers that stays with you in your adult life.
Volunteers try to direct the preschoolers to a table for their next activity — bobbing in a plate of whipped cream for a hidden piece of bubble gum. Nobody cares much about the mess; they're just hoping for a good time.
A female volunteer gently challenges a child to recite the day's Scripture passage.
Outside, the energy is palpable as children throw water balloons back and forth. Visitors overhear that some science experiments are in store for later — who knows how "elephant toothpaste" is made?
Across the room, a group of children are trying on black rubber boots and readying for a race.
Rita Jackson sped from activity to activity, trying to keep up with the group of six children waiting impatiently to gobble up whipped cream. Even though she was out of breath at the end of the day, Jackson's volunteer work was an essential element of Vacation Bible School.
"It's the kids who really benefit," Jackson said. "They get to go home and tell their friends and family everything they learned."
Dozens of Columbia churches will hold VBS programs this summer; it's a staple of summer children's programming for many congregations. While some churches have already finished with VBS, others will begin later in the summer. Regardless, hundreds of children will attend, and adult volunteers work to make the programs come together. Even in an economic recession, few churches are willing to skimp on programs with such a community impact.
Trinity Lutheran Church spent double on its program in light of the economic downturn, VBS director Jennifer Carson said.
“We have a budget, and we’ve never worried too much about spending because Vacation Bible School is something that’s really important to our church,” Carson said.
Carson has been a part of the VBS program at Trinity Lutheran Church for almost a decade. As the director, she was pleased to see about 150 children attend this summer’s “Gadget’s Garage.” The acronym “GADGET” encouraged kids to remember that "God’s Always Doing Great, Exciting Things."
The theme reinforced the idea that Jesus creates new life in people, Carson said.
Lessons in Bible literacy are one component of VBS programs, which tend to rely on curriculum that can be adapted to each congregation's needs. Teaching children about Jesus, Christian values and Scripture is key in all the programs.
Although it is a staple in today's Christian culture, Vacation Bible School has murky origins. Although there is not much documentation about its beginning, Steven Gertz, editorial coordinator of "Christian History," thinks it likely began in the 19th century. Today, congregations are learning how to adapt the programs in the 21st century and beyond. Technology, current events and pop culture references now make their way into the lessons.
Katelyn Morris, children's director at Forum Christian Church, said the church wanted to take on the theme of family unity with a VBS program to encourage a strong foundation among families and to offer them a great experience rather than a mere trinket to take home.
Their theme "Worship Is..." explored elements of action, prayer, service and praise in sessions for both children and adults.
The church wanted to help resolve what it observed as a disconnect between the spiritual lives of parents and their children. “And we tried to offer a program that was basic but still biblically deep. Kids might be thinking, ‘I’m too young,’ but they should know that God is needing them now,” Morris said.
Vacation Bible School programs vary by congregation, but most include a half-day's worth of Bible lessons, songs, crafts, snacks and games centered around the week's theme. Some meet in the daytime, usually mornings, and others in the early evening.
The Crossing, which held an evening program, transformed itself into a medieval castle and a crew built a stage for its VBS program, "Quest." Older youth worked in the "Servant’s Quarters" and finished two different service projects, operations director Jim Beaty said in an e-mail interview.
Younger children painted the Jamaican flag on white canvas backpacks that high school students will deliver to children in Harmons, Jamaica, "a community in desperate need of assistance," Beaty said in the e-mail. The second project involved making soup and cookie mixes that will be delivered to families near the Douglass Park area of Columbia.
The program boasted more than 300 volunteers and more than 400 children in its five-day run. The level of camaraderie shown by the volunteers stunned Kids Club coordinator Rachel Tiemeyer.
“The thing that always amazes me is that these people work full time and many have kids and busy lives, and they show up from 5:15 to 8:30 every day. I’m blown away,” Tiemeyer said.
While keeping children active isn't the primary goal for Vacation Bible Schools, it is certainly a crucial part of the plan. "The kids are in such a media-saturated environment anyway, so this is more interactive," said Jessie Spellman of Forum Christian Church.
"I think it’s a great outreach for kids and involves a longer time period than we get on Sunday mornings," she said. "We hope it’s a treat for kids who come, or that it opens the door for un-churched kids to get the Bible foundation to help them be that follower of Christ in their adult life."
VBS is an introduction to the Christian faith for many children; churches often use these programs as a means of proselytizing. Congregations choose themes with scriptural relevance and biblical literacy.
For instance, "SonRock" used a camping theme for its lessons, and "Gadget's Garage" stressed that Jesus creates new life in people. "Discovery Canyon," "It's a Jungle Out There" and "SonZone Discovery Center" also made appearances.
Victory Christian Church wrote a script based loosely on the concept of time travel in the 1980s movie "Back to the Future." The final night of Vacation Bible School concluded a script that children's pastor Donna Palmeter began writing about two months earlier.
“I wanted to include this idea that all things are possible with God. All things have been here on earth since the beginning of time, and God gave man wisdom to discover them,” Palmeter said, still wearing the enormous purple spectacles and pigtails for her costume as “Donna DoRight.”
This was the church’s first formal Vacation Bible School program since its formation in 1992. Church members transformed a cardboard refrigerator box with a fog machine, silver paint, metallic curtains and lights to create a “time machine.” Grant DeShon, a volunteer who played “The Wacky Scientist” character, was decked out in a wild white wig to resemble the film’s Doc Brown.
Various historical figures were “brought back” for the children to see, including the Wright brothers and George Washington Carver. Biblical characters Peter and Paul also paid a visit. The figures were chosen because they acknowledged God’s influence on their abilities and discoveries, said Palmeter and DeShon.
Most churches select a VBS curriculum from independent or denominational publishing houses such as Gospel Light, Concordia Publishing and Cokesbury. Churches can order packets that include songs, theme-related activities and Scripture choices.
Lucy Lee, VBS director at New Horizons United Methodist Church, said the congregation has used both Cokesbury and Gospel Light material in the past. Lee said the church liked the "SonZone" theme from Gospel Light so much that they brought it back again this year.
"They're such great programs, it's a shame not to use them again," she said. "And the kids will be singing 'God's Plan for You' all next year."
Reusing already purchased materials can help churches save money in their budget, but few Columbia congregations worried about the costs this year. The budgets for VBS programming varied from $100 to about $4,000.
New Horizons Church budgeted $850 for the week's expenses and expected to spend about $750 of that amount. At Parkade Baptist Church, a somewhat larger congregation than New Horizons, the budget was $4,000 for its "SonRock" themed event.
Forum Christian Church also budgeted $4,000 for its family and children hybrid program "Worship Is ..." earlier this summer, Morris said. Trinity Lutheran Church estimated $3,000 would be spent on its "Gadget's Garage"-themed Vacation Bible School.
Almost all of the churches extended free registration for parents and children. Enticing children to attend VBS is a means of community outreach for many churches. In addition, each church includes some philanthropic effort in its programs through collections of money or volunteer labor.
Forum Christian Church raised about $2,600 for the Central India Christian Mission, an organization that ministers to about 175,000 people in 660 churches, senior minister Scott Sutherland said. Members of the church were asked to sponsor a child for $15 a month.
The VBS children brought in a collective 300 pounds of food for the Central Missouri Food Bank; the church gave clothes and soap to the Salvation Army and worked with Harbor House. Groups such as the Humane Society also came to speak with the children about their work in the community.
Like Forum Christian Church, Trinity Lutheran selects a different mission each year to aid. This year, proceeds from Vacation Bible School went toward the Baby Bottle Boomerang Fund Drive, which is advocated by Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri. As of June 23, the total offering was about $600, Carson said.
Children at Victory Christian collected thousands of pennies for Casa Angelina, an orphanage in Guatemala. The girls competed against the boys and tied.
"Vacation Bible School involves learning about extending your heart to others," parent Melinda Adams said. "In an environment like this, it isn't about where you live or your socioeconomic background, it's about respect and how to treat others."
Adams, whose family attends New Horizons Church, said she feels that her children get more from VBS than a typical summer camp. She said she thinks both are good options for promoting positive youth development.
Pam Metcalf of Parkade Baptist Church said she particularly loves the VBS program because it offers the church a chance to attract children who perhaps don’t go to church at all. This could be the only time they hear stories from the Bible, she said.
Tears began to form in her eyes when she recalled the day that meant the most to her during this year’s program. It took place when pastor Chris Cook shared the plan of salvation on Thursday with the older children. Some children, with no clear previous commitment to faith, had prayed to receive Christ as their savior, Metcalf said. Such prayers symbolize the children's intent to understand Christ and to study his teachings with humility.
“To me, that’s what it’s all about. Even if it’s just one, it’s worth it all.”