Vacation Bible School, Pandemic-Style
By Jaymie Dieterle
Vacation Bible School is a summer staple in churches around the country. Whether a discipleship activity for church families, an outreach event to communities, or some combination of the two, churches invest in curricula, recruit volunteers, purchase craft supplies, gather snack donations, and plan worship for up to five days in order to introduce elementary-aged children to life with Jesus.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has changed this summer staple. Some states started the summer operating under stay-at-home orders or with gathering restrictions. This left churches wondering what to do with their VBS plans for the summer of 2020. Some churches cancelled. Others instead looked for creative ways to still meet the needs of children and families while being as safe as possible.
First Church of God in St. Joseph, Michigan, would normally host an evening VBS for a week with more than two hundred volunteers. This year they chose to use a Vacation Bible School curriculum as usual, but shifted the sessions online. Children’s pastor Bill Shepard said the church prepared video content with their own volunteers, posting the pieces on their YouTube channel where families could tune in each day. The church hosted a drive-through celebration to kick off their 2020 VBS, complete with worship music. Families picked up a kit for participating in the VBS activities for the week, which included snacks, crafts, activity sheets, a parent resource guide, and a shirt.
Pastor Shepard said one of the best things about this format was the ways parents were able to get involved: “We talk about parents being spiritual leaders. This format allowed parents to engage in the activities with their kids rather than put their kids in front of a video. The closing session will give parents the opportunity—and the resources—to lead their kids to Christ.”
South Meridian Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, shifted their VBS online, as well. South Meridian partners with Sherman Street Church of God and The Church Upon the Rock, a local Baptist congregation, to host VBS every year. Their 2020 preparations included a two-week food drive prior to VBS so they could gather meals for the families who would normally have been fed each night of the neighborhood outreach. The churches adapted their curriculum, recording videos with volunteers that were uploaded to a website, and distributing kits to families. Each day, the kids would watch the videos and interact online with questions and discussions while completing the craft activities at home.
Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., used the Champions in Life VBS curriculum from Abingdon Press because it is created with African American culture in mind. This year, Abingdon provided suggestions for churches to adapt their curriculum to a virtual option. Pastor Cheryl Sanders said Third Street took those recommendations and hosted their Vacation Bible School on four consecutive Tuesdays. This format allowed families to make a smaller weekly commitment in light of the other pressures due to the pandemic. Using Zoom, the church was able to incorporate breakout rooms, as well as some sports trivia quizzes that they created to go with the curriculum. And the Champions course, created months before the recent spotlight on racial injustice, allowed the church to tie contemporary events to the curriculum for their participants. Pastor Sanders said one of the highlights of their event was the participation of a family from the West Coast who heard about their VBS through a family member who is part of the Third Street congregation. The virtual format made something possible that could not have happened in a “normal” year.
This was children’s director Stacy Kroeker’s third year doing VBS for Hope Chapel in Olathe, Kansas. After two years of foundation-building, she had planned to place the emphasis this year on outreach to the surrounding neighborhoods. When the pandemic hit, it became evident that community families would be reluctant to send their kids into an unknown church with the risks of COVID-19. Ms. Kroeker said she cried out to God for a way to meet the unique needs of their families. “With an event scheduled in early-June, we had a number of challenges in front of us. We knew our kids were tired of Zoom, and parents were fresh off of doing so much work to handle school from home that many of them would not have been ready to jump immediately back into handling VBS at home, too.” So Hope Chapel shifted from the usual week-long VBS to an in-person, but socially distanced, weekend VBS. Hope Chapel teens and their families helped lead the sessions. Children and their families brought picnic blankets and spread out in the church parking lot. Families received a kit including supplies to decorate a t-shirt for the weekend. The church provided worship and planned games. On Saturday, families moved between stations set up under tents for shade. Parents led their own kids in the small-group discussions with materials supplied by the church.
One of the highlights of this format was the kids being able to have their own parents as their small group leaders. This was intentional family time, outside, focused on Jesus. This format also created space for the youth of the congregation to teach and lead and discover their gifts as they served the kids of Hope Chapel. Ms. Kroeker said, “It’s so easy to be consumed with figuring out ‘best practices’ for children’s ministry. You can get overwhelmed with ideas. It was so freeing to step outside all that and turn to God and say, ‘What would You have us do for our context and our community?’”
And for each of these churches, God answered in a big way.
Help churches like these respond to urgent needs in their communities as a result of COVID-19:
Jaymie Dieterle is a freelance writer with a passion for books, reading, and life-long learning. She enjoys writing adult small group and Sunday school curriculum for Warner Christian Resources (formerly Warner Press). Jaymie and her family live in Anderson, Indiana, and they are actively involved at Madison Park Church of God.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.
*Feature (top) photo: Members of the South Meridian VBS team.