My earliest memory of VBS is a brief, visual snapshot. As a preschooler, I’m standing outside Second Baptist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas, with my dad, the associate pastor. I’m too young to go inside when the other children soon will begin marching into the worship center, so my dad gives me a VBS attendance pin before attending to his duties as the VBS Director. That’s it. That’s all I remember, but the memory is forever imprinted in my mind. Another memory was captured on actual film when, as a 16-year-old, I carried my glass beehive to VBS and talked to a group of children about God’s busy, buzzing creatures.
What’s your VBS story? Are you among the 60% of adults who attended VBS while growing up? What memories do you have? New research from LifeWay that will be released on January 1st, 2019 reports that 9 out of 10 American adults who attended VBS while growing up report having positive memories of those experiences. What’s more—the perception of VBS is overwhelming positive even among those who never attended themselves. There really isn’t a stigma against. It’s something the vast majority of Americans have experience with, it’s something they view as positive overall, and it’s got the brand recognition a Fortune 500 company would pay big bucks to achieve. That’s great news for churches! When we do VBS, we don’t have to explain to our community what it is or why people should come. We don’t have to convince people it’s going to be fun for kids. We don’t have to sell people on its merits. We’re sitting in a really good place!
Are you still wondering why your church should host VBS? Are you asking if it’s worth it to continue VBS in your church and in your community? After all, aren’t there other good things—maybe even better things—that we can do as local churches to reach our communities? Let’s start with the problem, first, then answer that question.
The problem is that we are in a two-fold crisis. First, our churches are in a crisis of evangelism. As a whole, we are not doing a good job of reaching our communities with the gospel. Forty-eight percent of us are not inviting unchurched people to visit our church, and 61% of us are not sharing how to become a Christian.
Second, we are in a crisis of loneliness. Our kids have never known the world without the internet or smartphones. “They are on their phones, tablets, and gaming devices,” states Jana Magruder, Director of LifeWay Kids. “They are photographing their food, their friends, themselves (hello selfies), and posting everything going on in their lives without actually living real-life experiences. They are more concerned about followers and likes than true relationships. They text or Snapchat more than they call on the phone or see each other in person. They watch Netflix or YouTube videos more than they participate in events and experiences, with real people and social relationships.”
What does all this time on digital devices make kids—and the adults around them? Lonely. Research tells us that kids and teens who have Christian friendships at church have healthier spiritual lives as adults. VBS can provide the opportunity to meet and develop friendships through fun and real-life experiences. Similarly, kids and teens who connect with godly men and women at church have healthier spiritual lives into adulthood. God did not create us to be lonely—he made us to live in community. There are very few times in the rhythm of church calendars that provide a whole week of human and multi-generational interaction for the sake of the kingdom of God.
The crisis that we as churches and individuals find ourselves in today is not new. The crisis of evangelism is rooted in history. Jonah resisted and got on a boat rather than journey to Nineveh. People needed to hear God’s redemptive plan, yet Jesus Himself declared, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38).
Neither is the reality of individual loneliness only a contemporary crisis. Elijah felt isolated on Mount Horeb. Jesus experienced ultimate loneliness when He cried out His last words on the cross. However, because of Jesus’ horrific moment of complete and absolute loneliness, you and I do not have to be alone, ever. Crisis averted.
So, if the dual crisis of evangelism and loneliness is the problem, what is the solution? VBS began in a moment of crisis, not so different from the one we face today—churches needed to spread the gospel, and individuals longed for meaningful community. Enter Virginia Hawes, a godly woman who noticed the problem in a section of New York City’s East Side and began searching for a solution. In 1898, Virginia Hawes opened what has become known as the most prominent precursor of today’s VBS, in a beer parlor. “We felt that the Bible is not taught in homes as it used to be, nor as it should be, and it is not taught in the public schools. So we opened … a school in which we made the Bible our only text book,” Hawes said.
By 1934, approximately 700 Bible schools reached as many as 100,000 children. And those numbers continued to grow—through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the turbulent 60’s—to today. I truly believe that God desires to continue to use VBS as a tool of the church to reach babies through adults with the gospel. And, I’m convinced that the solution to loneliness is found in the Jesus taught in VBS, and the community Jesus provides through the church.
VBS is worth it—all the effort, all the expense, all the hours, all the tears. Why? Because VBS is the one week that mobilizes the entire church to reach the community with the gospel, while simultaneously providing a unique discipleship experience for the individual child and volunteer. The 2017 numbers reported to LifeWay by churches attest to the fact that VBS is worth it:
- 21,376 churches reported a VBS
- 2,494,059 people enrolled in VBS
- 65,301 salvation decisions from VBS
- 835 decisions made for vocational ministry at VBS
- 160,926 prospects discovered through VBS
- $7,012,010 given to missions during VBS
I’m excited to tell you that in January 2019 a new book will be available from the LifeWay VBS team. It’s called “It’s Worth It” and it will look, not only at the latest research and trends, but also at why VBS is still one of the most effective tools we have as kids ministry leaders. It’s the perfect resource for pastors and practitioners alike. It offers a counterpoint to the VBS skeptic and encouragement to the beleaguered VBS leader. It helps us take a realistic view of the current cultural landscape and as a result to double down on our efforts to reach kids and families through a time-tested, proven effective strategy.
So what about you and your church? For over 120 years, God has used VBS to impact the eternity of millions of people, all over the globe. If we stop using VBS as a tool for evangelism and discipleship, where will our churches be 10, 20, 30 years from now? Knowing that 22 percent of children who participate in VBS do not attend any church, what will take the place of VBS to reach kids and families for the sake of the gospel? VBS is not a program to save, it’s a ministry tool with a future. My prayer is that when faced with the question, “Is VBS worth it?” we’ll all clearly hear, “Yes, it’s worth it, because eternity is worth it.”