VBS Ponderings

I survived VBS.

What an amazing crew of people that put this together both behind the scenes and on stage, so to speak.  It was amazing to get a glimpse of some of the work (and love) involved in providing 15 hours of VBS experience to over 70 kids.  
Because I don’t have many hobbies, I find myself wondering about VBS.  More specifically, I wonder about the purpose of the Church, and how VBS fits into this definition.  
I have no doubt that the kids had a fantastic time at VBS.  I have no doubt that the parents were very pleased with the event, and several of them were kind enough to take time to relay their satisfaction and appreciation to some of the VBS staff – what a nice blessing that was!  Most of the children seemed to be churched children at some level.  In other words, most of them knew at least of the Bible’s existence, and most of them were familiar with Jesus and God and the fact that Jesus died for us.  Some of the kids demonstrated an incredible knowledge of Biblical stories.  
I ponder VBS in relation to my own congregation.  My understanding is that VBS was set aside here several years back due to a lack of responsiveness among attendees.  A special opportunity for the kids to sing in worship and have a snack or lunch reception afterwards resulted in NONE of the 90-some kids showing up.  A lot of feelings were understandably hurt.  A lot of frustration and resentment was generated.  People were giving a lot of themselves to put on a first-class VBS experience, and the parents didn’t really seem to care.  If there is no response, what’s the point in doing VBS?
I suppose that depends on the purpose you envision for VBS.  One little boy told me this week that this was his fourth VBS this summer.  A member of the congregation shared how the local churches seemed to have learned how to schedule their VBS events so that they didn’t overlap.  This means that a family could move their child from one VBS at one church to another VBS at another church.  On the positive side, it means that families have multiple options to choose from for VBS.  On another positive note, it means that some kids have the opportunity to learn about Jesus over and over again during the course of a summer.  On a more cynical note, it means that parents have a stunning opportunity for free child-care for a few hours every day for weeks on end.  
So what’s the point?  
Hopefully most people would agree that it isn’t the purpose of the Church to provide free child care.  It may be a service a congregation offers for a particular reason, but it isn’t the reason a congregation exists.  If free child care is what is offered, there needs to be a trade-off, something received in return.  Generally, I imagine this is conceived of as building up community appreciation for a church, as well as the opportunity to meet and build relationships with particular families.  The ultimate trade-off would be that the Gospel could be shared with the children being cared for, and that Gospel in turn can infiltrate the larger family unit as kids talk about it with their parents.
Indeed, I know that last year the pastor of the congregation I was helping this year built a relationship and had a series of really exciting conversations with a father because the son had come to VBS and was totally jazzed and excited about Jesus.  That’s what every congregation dreams of, I think.  But I think that most congregations, if pushed to be honest, would say that their hope would not just be the sharing of the Gospel, but that some of those kids and families would return to the congregation on Sunday morning for worship.  VBS might be the launching point for a renewed or invigorated Sunday School program.  If those expectations are there at any level (and again, I think to be honest most congregations would say that they are), it then becomes a matter of numerics.  How many new families attending make VBS a worthwhile investment?  One family?  Two?  
I would love to do VBS, but I’m less jazzed about it being primarily full of Christian kids from families that go to other congregations.  Not so much because I hope that they’ll come to my church, but because I want to be sharing the Gospel with people who still need to hear it.  Yes, Christians need to constantly hear the Gospel over and over and over again – weekly, in fact.  Daily, in fact.  But VBS has become sort of a Christian cultural phenomenon.  
When I was a kid, VBS was for the kids at my church.  Sure, there were friends and others who might tag along, but it was full of kids that I knew.  Some older, some younger, but the ones I was concerned about were my age.  It was a community of faith already.  We were being trained and formed further in that faith.  
This past week’s VBS was graciously hosted by a congregation that has no VBS-aged kids of their own.  It was completely for others – for other kids in the community and their parents.  Is that an awesome thing to do?  Most certainly!  But I wonder about innovation as well.  If a congregation is going to be offering something specifically to others outside of their community of faith, many of whom will be Christian and regular attenders of other congregations, what else could a congregation offer?
My impulse is to come up with something that targets the unchurched – those who either have chosen not to be actively involved in a communal life of faith while still calling themselves Christian, or those who don’t consider themselves to be Christian.  The difficulty with this is that people in those two categories are very, very unlikely to randomly decide to come to a random church program.  In fact, I’d suspect they would be actively inclined to avoid any such thing.  Either they know what church is about and have no desire to be a part of it or anything it offers, or they don’t know what church is and have no reason to ever attend something a church offers.  
That makes coming up with programs aimed at reaching the unchurched or non-Christian very difficult.  More and more, I would describe it as almost impossible, based on increasing cultural hostility to the Church.  What to do, then?  
Ultimately it shifts the focus back to individual relationships.  People forming relationships with people who are non-Christian or not church-goers.  Not artificial relationships with the sole ulterior motive of getting these people to church, but actual relationships.  That requires a lot of effort, though.  It means that Christians have to be willing to intentionally engage themselves in places and activities where they can meet non-Christians and begin to build relationships.  
That’s hard work.  Every bit as hard as VBS.  Perhaps harder.  How does a congregation decide where to focus their energies?  How do we put our people’s gifts and abilities and energies best to use?  I imagine that answer will be different to some degree in every community and congregation.  For some it might mean continuing or restarting a VBS tradition.  For others it might mean trying something different.  
I don’t think I’ve reached any sort of conclusion or insight here.  Still pondering.  Still impressed by the love that was demonstrated this past week by all sorts of people.  Still wondering how that love might reach other people – people who would never think to bring their kids to VBS.  Maybe it becomes a matter of collaboration.  If people are going to
be cycling through a series of VBS’, what if congregations of various stripes worked together to provide a single, cohesive VBS experience?  What if VBS was a multi-congregational month-long opportunity not just for the kids but for the families?  What if moms and dads were invited to not just come and clap for their children (which is wonderful!), but also to engage themselves in learning more about the Bible, about the Christian life?  If VBS is primarily an offering to Christians of all stripes in a community, how could it be amplified to benefit those families the most?  
Interesting questions.  I wish that there were specific answers.  I enjoy ruminating, but I’d prefer to have some clarity at the end of it.  Not there yet.  But if I find that clarity, you’ll be one of the first to know.

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