For more than 125 years, using songs, crafts and games, churches across the country brought Bible stories and lessons to life with vacation Bible schools.
While elements of the outreach ministry changed — 3D sculptures and interactive videos replaced macaroni necklaces and egg tosses — vacation Bible schools have remained an instrumental part of churches’ summer programs.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing recommendations, churches face unique challenges in keeping the staple summer event alive.
“It was never a question of if we were going to have VBS, it was a question of how we were going to be able to do it,” said Katie Braddock, coordinator of preschool and children’s ministries at Central Baptist Church.
Churches tackled the question of “how” to hold VBS in a variety of ways — by creating virtual experiences, adapting in-person programs and organizing small neighborhood meetings.
With a vacation Bible school scheduled for June 7-11, Shoal Creek Baptist in Priceville will be one of the first churches to welcome children through its doors.
“Most children and families have lost so much over the past couple months," said Mahlon LeCroix, senior pastor at Shoal Creek Baptist. "We feel the church should step up and go above and beyond to provide a safe VBS where children and families, as a whole, can have some form of normalcy again."
To adhere to social distancing guidelines, Shoal Creek will divide the children into small groups of less than eight. In place of community meals and shared art supplies, the church will provide the children with pre-packaged snacks and separate craft items into individual cups. Opening and closing gatherings will take place outside, the church’s interior doors will remain open and only VBS workers will touch the exterior doors.
Decatur’s Central Baptist Church, which in a typical year attracts more than 500 children to vacation Bible school, opted for a different strategy. Instead of asking children to gather at the church, the church will bring VBS to the children.
“Telling children about Jesus and sharing the gospel with children is an essential part of who we are. It is part of our DNA,” Braddock said. “We just needed to find a way we could meet together in small groups and take advantage of the situation we’ve been given where everybody is staying at home.”
Embracing a traditional Backyard Bible Club format, Central Baptist plans on holding small group sessions in neighborhoods across Morgan County.
“We are taking VBS to the communities where we are and reaching out to the kids we’ve seen walking down the street and riding their bikes,” Braddock said. “For us, it’s exciting to think about taking the gospel to the streets and really being missionaries in our communities.”
The church tentatively plans to hold the program on July 14, 21 and 28 in Decatur, Priceville, Hartselle, Trinity, Falkville, Danville, Somerville and beyond. Those dates could move depending on the coronavirus.
To reach the community, the United Methodist Church’s North Alabama Conference created a virtual Vacation Bible School.
“Since this is a virtual vacation Bible school, it is not limited to the children in our neighborhood, local churches and households. Indeed, you can share it with grandchildren, nieces and nephews, children of friends and others wherever they live,” said Debra Wallace-Padgett, bishop of the North Alabama Conference.
The free “Little Bugs, Big Impact: Big and Small, God Uses Us All” program focuses on items commonly found in the home and backyard. The program, which includes science projects, bug scavenger hunts, crafts, Bible stories and mission projects, will take place July 13-17.
For churches, holding VBS continues a tradition that started in the late 19th century, expanded to thousands of congregations across the country and reached millions of children.
Credit for developing the inaugural vacation Bible school goes to teacher Martha Miles, who, in 1894, organized summer Bible classes in Illinois. Four years later, Eliza Hawes, children’s director of Epiphany Baptist, adopted Miles’ concept and rented out a beer saloon for classes that combined Bible stories, memory verses, games, crafts and cooking with Christian teaching. She called it “Everyday Bible School.”
“VBS has proven for decades to be one of, if not the most successful outreaches to local communities. People who do not regularly attend church will often allow their children to attend a VBS with their friends,” LeCroix said. “Many will realize for the first time that church is a fun and joyful community of believers and begin attending because of VBS.”