Vacation Bible School is Not for The Kids

At lunch today we were talking about Coble’s post about vacation Bible school (or VBS, for the hip) and NM was asking if it wasn’t just basically a big old baby-sitting thing.

And as she was asking, I realized what it is that VBS is supposed to do, at least for us small town Midwestern girls, and why a woman like Coble might find how VBS is done now disturbing.

In a small town, VBS is certainly not done as mission work, since, in a small town, who goes to what church is already well-established.  So, it’s not about drawing new families into the church, which, in a larger town seems to be the focus of almost every church related activity.

No, when we were growing up VBS was only for the children under the flimsiest of pretexts and specifically did not require expensive doo dads with which to do it because that would have worked against its purpose.

VBS was about training young teenagers to be a part of the life of the church.

We helped with crafts, we handed out cookies and punch, we even, as we got older, taught some of the VBS classes.  It was a trial run for Sunday School teaching and church funeral dinner throwing.  It was a safe, structured way for young people to practice being the church.

Now, I haven’t been to a vacation Bible school in years, bt I’m betting that, if you’re paying tens of thousands of dollars for materials and considering it as a moment to reach new families, you aren’t letting 14 year olds be in charge.  You’ve handed it over to people who already know what they’re doing.

So, the whole moment in which to show your young people that they aren’t just observers, but participants in the life and health of the church–that they have a stake and that they have responsibilities–is gone.

It’s now about indoctrinating the kids who go there and impressing their parents and not about bringing teenagers into the life of the church.

A church is almost always going to lose most of its young people after they hit about 16, maybe 18.  But, if they’ve been made to feel a part of something important, a vital part, they usually come back.

I’m not sure how it works to bring folks back if you don’t do the work to make them seem like they have a place and a role before they go.

5 thoughts on “Vacation Bible School is Not for The Kids

  1. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was teenager training until you pointed it out! I know every church is different but I just realized this was a large part of the plan at the church we attended when I was in high school.

    I feel so slow for not realizing what they were trying to do!

  2. Pingback: Some Thoughts Triggered By Other People’s Thoughts « Life And Then Some

  3. Thanks for posting this, B. Just this week a friend of mine was visiting from out of town, and as my wife and I said our good-byes his wife said something about sending their children to vacation Bible school. It was a very matter-of-fact part of the conversation, but the mention of it set off alarm bells in my head. Maybe it was my upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, or maybe it is my general distrust of what organized religion often has in store for kids.

    Whatever the cause, your analysis reminds me of that brief and tiny moment of horror I felt a couple of days ago. Somehow I don’t think my little one will be going to vacation Bible school anytime soon.

  4. I was going to write another post in response to this but since I have a lot of people from my church who read my blog and may not be interested in home truths I’m keeping this here.

    You’re right. Our VBS was the next step in How To Be A Christian Wife And Mother And Church Member.

    nm is right. Current VBS is a baby-sitting thing. Now that so many mothers are working outside the home, there are alot of kids who do one VBS after another during the summer as an option instead of daycare. The mothers who DO work at VBS now are more interested in socialising and getting in good with the pastor. It’s odd and can make even the most strident feminist misogynistic. Even if only for a week.

    You’re right again–the costliness of VBS materials means that doors are locked in the church (an anathema in my mind) to protect the thousands of dollars worth of craft materiel. The snacks themselves–graham crackers and Kool-Aid in my day–now cost about $5 per kid per day. Plus the time to assemble the elaborate goodies.

    The only way people come back to church now is if they have kids and they want their kids to “grow up in the church.” Otherwise it’s pretty clearly communicated across the board that church doesn’t know quite what to do with you.

  5. YES YES YES! I was a VBS volunteer from age about thirteen on — did the puppet shows (which my now-writing-professor mother wrote, and which were very good as she was channeling all her talent into them), played with the kids, sang songs, the whole bit. Had my first kiss during a tornado warning at the VBS program — the kids were herded into the basement, me and Preteen Paramour hustled off to a tent in one of the camping-themed VBS rooms.

    And now there are big signs on all the churches with these weird corporate theme-y things for VBS. “Indoctrinating” is absolutely the right word for it.

    I’m so glad I’m Jewish now.

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