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Extended vacation: 5 ways VBS advances church culture

A vibrant VBS program can enhance the core values and mission of your church.

By Larry Shallenberger

Vacation Bible School (VBS) has come a long way from its humble flannelgraph beginnings. VBS programs have moved out of the church basement and into worship centers, bringing along slick dramas, robust music, multimedia clips and sophisticated crafts. Chances are you’ve witnessed VBS’s ability to attract crowds of children and families into your church or a neighboring one.

However, most church management teams view VBS as a departmental event. This mindset causes most churches to overlook the ability of VBS to advance the core values and mission of the entire church. What if you could leverage your church’s already existing VBS program to advance your church culture with the same impact of a “40-Days” campaign?

An organization’s culture is the sum of its vision, values, behavior, customs and norms. Every time the people of your church gather together culture is shaped or reinforced. The excellence of a program isn’t measured in its ability to build a crowd, but to transform that crowd. Every time a leader designs a program he or she is creating an experience that shapes church culture.

The scale of a VBS’ volunteer base, budget and mission lends itself to be one of the most potent church culture expanding opportunities on your church calendar. With intentional cultural architecting you can use VBS as part of your broader efforts to create a compelling ethos. As a case study, let’s examine purpose-by-purpose how VBS can advance the culture prescribed by the Purpose Driven Model created by Rick Warren and Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, CA.

Purpose: Fellowship

Fellowship emphasizes the need for Christ-followers to operate in the context of community to give and receive support. However, the traditional VBS structure of a single coordinator promotes solitary command and not a community of leaders. The leadership burdens placed on the typical VBS director are staggering.

These leaders are expected to choose and purchase the curriculum, market, recruit and decorate among other things. Liberate your “Lone Ranger” leader by breaking the job description down into this foursome of friends: preschool coordinator, elementary coordinator, marketing director and decorating director. This team approach makes project management doable and promotes healthy teamwork.

Fellowship can be advanced on a child level by choosing a VBS curriculum that organizes children into small groups and gets them talking to each other about the Bible story. Learning comprehension will increase and children will create friendships that last even after the decorations are off the walls packed away.

Purpose: Outreach

Outreach is a core value of the church that embodies evangelism, both in the church’s neighborhood and throughout the world. VBS advances the evangelism value in two manners. First, VBS attracts unchurched children into the church by providing structured and fun activities for children, as well as meeting a daycare need for working parents.

According to LifeWay Christian Resources, VBS has been the most effective evangelistic program for the Southern Baptist Convention churches this last decade, accounting for 26 percent of the denomination’s baptisms. VBS also advances evangelism by giving children meaningful service projects that share God’s love with missionaries or children from other countries.

Consider these ideas to increase the evangelistic culture of your congregation:

  • Visit ok2k.org for simple service project ideas that work for churches of any size.
  • Work with your church’s mission board to incorporate the VBS service project with an effort that your church is already invested in.
  • Mine the VBS registration forms for new contacts and enter them into the church database.
  • Make sure that the new families are invited to ministries such as MOM’s groups, parenting classes and other children’s programming.

Purpose: Growth

The value of growth reminds us that every believer participates in the work of God within them, being conformed to the likeness of Jesus. Don’t assume that just because your teams are presenting Bible stories each day that spiritual growth is occurring. Spiritual growth is a matter of transformation, not just information. It’s crucial that you help volunteers and children encounter Jesus through the Scriptures presented so life change occurs.

Incorporate these four ideas to accelerate the spiritual growth quotient of your VBS:

  1. Open every planning meeting with an opportunity for volunteers to pray together.
  2. Have the volunteers huddle in the lobby for a devotional while the children are singing with the worship leader.
  3. Create a sermon series leading up to VBS that teaches the daily Bible stories on an adult level.
  4. Send the children home with an application activity to do at home. If the point of the lesson was “Jesus Loves Everyone,” send them home with a card to give a friend inviting them to attend the next day. This gives children a simple and concrete way to immediately begin applying the Bible story.

Purpose: Ministry

Ministry affirms that every believer has been supernaturally equipped with the capacity to strengthen the church. One of the greatest untapped opportunities of VBS is the potential to increase the servanthood of your congregation. A VBS production is a monumental task which requires countless volunteers with diverse talents and gifts. Each volunteer position has a short-termed tenure ranging from one week to six months. This makes VBS a fantastic learning-lab for church members to discover their spiritual gifts and talents.

Check your VBS job descriptions against your church’s spiritual gifts curriculum to create a consistent language of empowerment across all departments. Make sure that every job description contains a list of the spiritual gifts most likely to be associated with that task. For example, registration table volunteers would benefit from having hospitality gifts while small group leaders should have shepherding or teaching gifts.

Once VBS is over, the volunteer has had a hands-on experience that helps him or her better understand one of their spiritual gifts. One volunteer might realize that he feels deeply satisfied when he’s teaching a classroom full of children. Another volunteer might discover that she’s too introverted to enjoy being on a welcoming team.

Increase your volunteers self awareness with an exit interview or a satisfaction survey. Capture this information in the church database and share it with your church’s ministry connector coordinator. This will increase the likelihood of the volunteer being successfully placed in future opportunities that will benefit both the volunteer and the church.

Purpose: Worship

This core value emphasizes believers’ need to exalt God. Communities with a strong worship culture nourish themselves by adoring God’s holy nature. By aligning VBS’ worship with the adult worship efforts, you can reenergize a worship service that risked growing stale.

Consider recruiting an energetic member of the adult worship team to join the VBS worship team. Or incorporate that leader into an opening session to briefly and simply explain the difference between worshipping and merely singing. Choose a few songs from VBS to incorporate into adult worship in the weeks leading up to VBS.

This case study gives churches powered by the Purpose Driven Model ideas for maximizing VBS’ culture expanding potential. However, with intentional planning a church leader can work with the children’s ministry department to leverage VBS to promote the culture of any church model.

Larry Shallenberger is the pastor of children and student ministries at Grace Church in Erie, PA, and is the author of Divine Intention: How God’s Work in the Early Church Empowers Us Today (Victor Books, 2007). [grace-erie.org]

Build a leadership culture in children’s ministry

Too often, the leadership demands of running a children’s ministry are overlooked by large churches. In Lead the Way God Made You: Discovering Your Leadership Style in Children’s Ministry (Group Publishing, 2005), veteran children’s pastor Larry Shallenberger offers practical advice and a leadership assessment test to help children’s ministry staff and volunteers discover their leadership voice to enhance their team and to advance the mission of the church.

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