VBS – Day 1

I wrote this post a year ago, but didn’t want to publish it at the time as I didn’t want to sound critical to anyone who might read it while being involved that week with vacation Bible school (VBS).  I’m not trying to be critical of the people who run VBS, but rather to offer up some food for thought on exactly what it is we’re conveying, and how we’re conveying it, and what the unanticipated outcomes might be.

 

I survived my first day of vacation Bible school.

 

I consider that no small achievement, given the level of hormones and sugar-fueled youthfulness rampant in that beautiful little church campus by the ocean!
This VBS is using curriculum by Group, a major provider of ministry resources and curriculum.  I know many churches in my denomination that rely on their VBS curriculum rather than in-house materials.  The theme for this summer is Kingdom Rock.  We are blessed to have a energetic youth group helping out with the event, in addition to more seasons folks behind the scenes organizing things, making snacks, and generally ensuring that mayhem doesn’t completely break loose.
The day begins with a session where all the kids gather together in the sanctuary as they arrive.  Teens are leading dance moves to the ‘rock’ CD and videos that are playing on the screen in the sanctuary.  The kids get pretty revved up.  The teens try to clue the kids in to the information for the day, interspersing things with more dances and music to sing along to before the kids and their crew leaders head out to the various stations where they will do and learn different things.
Midway through the morning the kids come together again for more singing and dancing to the same rock CD.  There is more teaching interspersed, but it’s hard to keep the kids’ attention as they’re jacked up on the music and dancing.  They they have a snack before gathering again for a few more songs to sing to and then split up for the ministry stations.  At the end of the morning, they spend another 30 minutes singing and dancing and trying to convey a few ministry points in between.  By this point the kids are tired or hyperactive.  Attention spans have shrunk to the nanosecond range.  Parents are hovering around waiting to take their children home.
It struck me how the emphasis in all of the group times together was on high-energy sorts of singing and dancing.  Yes, the music all is Christian in nature, focused on depending on God.  Most of the singers in the videos are kids – though most appear to be junior or senior high aged – considerably older than the kindergarten through sixth grade students attending the VBS.
Don’t get me wrong.  It’s great to sing some fun songs and bounce around and be silly and have a good time.  My kids *love* the VBS CDs, and continue to play the ones from the last two years.  They love to dance around to them and it’s fun to watch them.  Having a good time is cool.
But that seems to be the only focus in the group times together for the VBS.  Sing and dance and get crazy.  I could be cynical and decide that this is in order to ensure maximum sales of the CDs, but I really don’t think that’s what is going on.  I think that there is a deeper theological or psychological program at play.  And I’m kind of confused by it.  And that worries me.
What are we teaching kids about church?  Granted, this is no worship service – at least not in the historical sense of the term.   But VBS is happening in a church, and what is it teaching kids to think about church, and by extension worship?  What do we think kids are capable of doing and understanding in worship?  Are they capable of reverence?  Of silence?  Of thoughtfulness?  Sure, not for more than a few minutes at a time, maybe, but if there’s no time to practice these skills, how do those few minutes grow into a larger span of time?
Are we teaching the kids that we still have in church that church is essentially a concert?  That church should fill their attention in the way that a TV show does?  I’ve written on this topic before.  For churches that retain a historic orientation of the nature and purpose of worship, it might be beneficial to think about how they are training up the fewer and fewer children in their midst to conceive of worship.  That extends to vacation Bible school, or at least it could.  Or should it?
I’m glad the kids are having fun.  I’m glad that kids are hearing that God loves them.  The folks who are putting this all together are wonderfully dedicated to these kids and to Jesus, and I’m glad to be part of it all in at least a small way.   I just wonder if the kids couldn’t be learning more along the way, if nearly an hour of their time each day was spent on more than rockin’ out.  And I can’t help but wonder if learning more and different things might help them stay in church as they get older.
How often do we stress reverence to little kids in church?  Parents do, I hope.  But how often does the Church herself help with this?  It’s not something that kids are inclined towards naturally.  They have to be guided, trained, equipped to understand what is appropriate behavior and why.  That there are times when it might be very appropriate to bounce around and sing and be crazy in joy to our God (certainly adults could re-learn this I suspect).  But there are many more times when what we need to do is be quiet and really listen to what God is saying to us.
Let’s face it – adults don’t generally bounce around like little kids do.   And when things are hard, when we struggle and suffer, then the bouncing and screaming seem so inappropriate.  Not that our culture doesn’t actively encourage us to cover over the pain with more partying, but we need to realize that such things aren’t solutions.  They aren’t hope.
I watch all these beautiful children and pray that they will be in the church all their life.  But it will be a strange transition for them, and when will that transition occur?  If they go to church and Sunday School and youth group are just like VBS, when will they transition?  If they have children’s worship instead of learning to worship with their parents, when will they transition?  Do they just get dumped into the Church once they graduate from high school?  Or maybe they can delay it through a college group.  And then through a young adults group.  And then through a couples group.  And then through a young parents’ group.  And then through family groups and being active in their kids’ youth groups and Sunday school and VBS.  Then through an empty-nester group.  Then a retired group.  Then a widow/widower group.
I suppose it’s possible in some places to identify ourselves solely through the peripheral groups of a church, rather than through worship and the heart of the church itself.  In some places perhaps, that’s because the heart of the church is barely beating.  Or seen as barely beating by people looking for something more.
As if there could possibly be anything more than the Word of the God who created us feeding us with the body and blood of the Son of God who died and rose again for us.
Teaching our kids to worship is so important.  But I fear that long ago we got onto the wrong track with this.  We’re seeing the fruits of it now in churches practically devoid of children and young people, and other churches with smaller numbers of them.  There will always be exceptions – congregations with thriving youth and young adult presences.  But it can’t be denied that these are exceptions to the norm.

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