Editorial: Children’s ministry could return to VBS roots

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You’ve seen reports about the steep decline in church attendance among younger generations—Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha. You’ve witnessed with your own eyes the graying of worship services and the shrinking of Sunday school.

You’ve felt the ache of fewer children in the church.

And then there’s Vacation Bible School, that wonderful week that almost makes us forget we’re seeing fewer children in church. What if we could experience more VBS during more of the year?

VBS—happening in many churches right now—might benefit our children’s ministry more than we think. If we take a cue from its history.

VBS is popular

VBS has an obvious and immediate short-term benefit for our children’s ministries—high attendance.

First Baptist Church in Amarillo reported 1,753 children and adults for its first day of VBS. First Baptist Church in Waxahachie reported several hundred children and a waiting list. First Baptist Church in Muleshoe had 200 children. First Baptist Church in Plano had more than 300 children and volunteers.

That’s just four of thousands of Baptist churches—not to mention Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and others—conducting VBS this month in Texas.

VBS is so popular, some churches are even charging for it. For example, Cornerstone Global Methodist Church in Houston is charging $25 per child for its June 19-22 VBS. Each child receives a t-shirt, drawstring bag, snacks and supplies.

Despite its marketability, VBS has humble roots.


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VBS roots

VBS started as the idea of Virginia Hawes, “a compassionate doctor’s wife who sensed a need to get children off the streets of New York during the summertime.”

Children had few places to go and little supervision during summers in New York City. Hawes’ husband treated many of them for injuries sustained while playing in the streets. To provide a safer alternative, Hawes rented a beer hall on New York City’s East Side in 1898 and 1899, where she conducted Everyday Bible School.

In 1900, her pastor insisted she move Everyday Bible School to Epiphany Baptist Church, just a mile from the beer hall.

“After two weeks of meeting at the church, it became clear to Mrs. Hawes that children from the East Side would not attend at the church. She returned the school to a location near the beer hall for the rest of the summer.”

I didn’t know about Virginia Hawes or VBS’ history, until Abby Manes, preschool and children’s minister at First Baptist Church in Muleshoe, brought Hawes to my attention with her opinion article we will publish later this week. I am grateful.

When VBS started, it was every day for an entire summer. And it started in a beer hall.

What if our VBS returned to those roots? Or our entire children’s ministry?

Some things change

One thing that has changed significantly is VBS’s duration. Over time, VBS shrank—for practical reasons—“from the entire summer, to four weeks, to two weeks, and now one week.” VBS in some churches is a couple of days or a weekend.

Something else that’s probably changed: I’m pretty sure VBS is sillier than it was in 1900.

VBS started as an interdenominational effort. Though denominations began developing their own curriculum during the 1920s, VBS still holds interdenominational appeal and in some places still is shared across denominations.

Another thing that hasn’t changed: VBS is still about engaging children with the Bible to teach them about Jesus and how to follow him.

But what if the location hadn’t changed? As good as VBS has been all these years, what if the last 100 years of VBS have been more like the two weeks at Epiphany Baptist Church than the months in and near the beer hall?

What if, instead of holding VBS in our buildings a few days out of the year, we took VBS back to where the kids are the rest of the time and offered it as often as we had people to lead it? One place is doing just that—Mission Arlington.

VBS where the kids are

During spring break and throughout each summer, thousands of volunteers from around the United States help Mission Arlington conduct Rainbow Express Bible schools in almost 300 locations between Dallas and Fort Worth.

I’ve been one of those volunteers. I’ve helped Mission Arlington conduct Rainbow Express at several locations in Arlington, Fort Worth and Grand Prairie. Many of those locations were tough places. They didn’t look or feel like the church where I was a pastor. Some of them were closer to “beer hall” than “Epiphany Baptist Church.” Jesus was in each one of them.

What if not just our VBS but our entire children’s ministry followed this model—taking Bible school to the kids where they are instead of expecting their parents or guardians to get them to us?

Something else about Rainbow Express: No bells and whistles.

Could simply being with kids where they are, caring for them as they are, telling them about Jesus simply and straightforwardly without all the fanfare—could that be enough? Mission Arlington’s track record says it can.

In 2023, Mission Arlington counted 17,846 students attending Rainbow Express and 326 people accepting Christ. More than 150 people have made decisions for Christ during Rainbow Express in just the last two weeks, Tillie Burgin, executive director of Mission Arlington, told me this morning.

Returning to our roots

VBS is wonderful. I’m all for it. I also know if we tried to pull off VBS with all the bells and whistles all summer long, we’d wear out our staff and volunteers, we’d increase our cost and liability, and it wouldn’t be as special.

So, what if we brought it down a notch—or two or three—so we could make VBS portable? What if we took our children’s (and youth) ministry to kids where they are instead of expecting them always to come to us? What if we went back to our roots—our New Testament and Gospel roots?

It would involve the whole church and would require a significant ongoing investment. It also would grow the whole church—numerically and spiritually.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the author.


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