This week is Vacation Bible School (VBS), and let’s be honest. VBS has a lot of things going against it. Take the name for instance. A vacation? Hardly. For many of us summers are anything but a vacation! And kids have tons of stuff going on anyway. Summers are busier than any other time of the year. Who has the time to pack in another week for something extra? And who wants to attend anything with the word “school” in it? That hardly sounds like a vacation! In addition, some of us might even be tempted to think that VBS is just an outdated tradition churches take part in only because we’ve done it every summer for the last hundred years. If that’s all that’s going on, then why bother? When you combine that with the preparation that the event requires, the money it takes from a local church to put a week long mini-camp together, and the time it consumes asking parents and teachers to give up every evening (or every morning)of an entire week, it would seem like the cards are stacked against it.
But I don’t think so.
I believe in Vacation Bible School, and I still believe that this exhausting and exhilarating week of games, songs, Bible stories, crafts, and refreshments is still the most important week in a church’s yearly calendar. Why do I think so? Maybe it’s nostalgia. I attended my first VBS in the womb a few weeks before I was born. And I literally haven’t missed a VBS since, as a child, a worker, and now as a pastor. Thirty weeks of my life have been spent in VBS, and I’ve loved every minute of it. So yes, I suppose that part of it comes from my fond memories of childhood, but I think it’s more than that. I think there are really good reasons to be passionate for VBS, and I think there are important reasons for local churches to pour themselves into this week long event:
1. VBS provides children with some of their earliest (and sometimes only) exposure to the Bible. We’ve all read pieces that are usually titled something along the lines of “everything I needed to know about life I learned in kindergarten.” Well, everything I’ve ever learned about the Bible I first heard in Vacation Bible School in our little Southern Baptist Church in south Mississippi. No, none of the teachers were Bible scholars. None had prominent degrees from distinguished seminaries. But those ladies who taught my classes in VBS loved God, and they loved the Bible, and so they taught me. They told the stories. They faithfully pulled out the flannel graph pictures of Bible characters, made copies of coloring sheets, and played the cassette tapes of children’s music. Karl Barth was once asked what the greatest theological truth he ever discovered was. He supposedly replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I first heard that in VBS, and it made all the difference in the world.
2. VBS portrays the gospel as the central truth of all reality. We did a lot of things in VBS. I remember painting rocks in preschool, nature walks, field trips to the pastor’s office (which wasn’t a big deal since he was my dad), lots of “Simon-Says” and “Mother, May I?” and fun refreshments of cookies and Kool-Aid. Yet with all the activities and variety within a normal week in VBS there was no doubt what the heart of the message was. It was all about Jesus. Regardless of what the theme was for the year or what Bible stories were taught, the week always came back to the message of Jesus who because of his great love for us died on the cross so that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.
3. VBS places children in the grand story of God – what he has done and what he has called his people to be and do. Not only did the teachers in VBS teach us stories and have us memorize verses, but they also drove home the point that what we were learning in VBS was vastly different and far more important than anything else in the world. And the message of the gospel was different because it impacted our lives today, two thousand years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The gospel demanded a response. It wasn’t enough to sing the songs and say the verses. I was a sinner, and I needed a savior, and so I was called to repent and believe. And so I did. On a Saturday night after a week of VBS I talked to my parents about what it means to be a Christian and they led me to faith in Christ as we sat on the floor next to an old brown couch. God invaded my life in the summer of 1990 after a week of Vacation Bible School, and I haven’t gotten over that summer since.
And not only did God use that week to call me to himself, but he also used those weeks in VBS to call me to obey his call for the gospel. I learned about missionaries in VBS. I learned about the great need of the gospel to the world in VBS. I learned that God had a plan and purpose for my life in VBS. I learned about the Great Commission in VBS. I remember being taught as a kindergartner by Penni Brown (now Tilton) who had been a college summer missionary to South Korea. She sparked a passion for missions and sparked a fire for being caught up in God’s work in the world.
4. VBS presents the local church as a center for love, grace, and joy. It is a sad reality that children’s homes and families aren’t always places of love, laughter, and security. Mine was, but in too many homes children feel the sting of neglect, abuse, loneliness, abandonment, or anger. Yet when children are exposed to the love of Christ in the lives of believers in local churches they find a place where life is different than anything they have ever known. That’s something VBS does in a concentrated way. For an entire week children are reminded that God loves them and so do we, and in presenting that message we are showcasing the vibrancy and smiles of a loving God who is also a happy God.
5. VBS promotes gospel-fueled ministry to entire families. Fifth, VBS is never just about the kids. It may primarily be about the kids, but VBS’ mission is to infiltrate whole families with the good news of the gospel. We want VBS to be a launching pad, a catalyst for our church’s ministry to families in our community. We want them to know we care about them and their kids. We want them to know we love them and their kids. We want to serve them and their kids. We want the words we say, the songs we sing, and the stories we tell to become rooted like an anchor into the hearts of their homes. VBS is strangely and gloriously subversive. It is gospel-shrewd-gold. We want to be involved in the lives of kids and parents, and we want the gospel to radically take hold of their lives. VBS helps us fulfill our mission of “glorifying God in all things, by proclaiming the gospel of Christ to all people, so their lives are transformed for all time.”
6. VBS prepares adults for teaching and ministry through and for the local church. Finally, VBS is a ministry and discipleship workshop that is unequaled in the life of the church. I learned what it was to serve as a youth helping with small children in VBS. I learned how to teach by explaining the Bible stories to five year olds. In fact, I believe that no man should be trained for the pulpit if they haven’t first sat in a semi-circle and told the good news of Jesus to second-graders. And it’s not just pastors who are trained to serve the local church in VBS. Lots of adults who would love to serve and just haven’t had the opportunity or training to do so find their first entrance into ministry through VBS. Ministry begins by pouring Kool-Aid into Styrofoam cups. It starts with taking out dirty diapers from the nursery. It’s seen in lining kids up and walking them down the hallways. It’s demonstrated in a thousand acts of ordinary service by thousands of VBS workers each year. Do you want to display the love of Christ and serve the local church? Come get your hands stained with finger-paint in the craft rooms. That’s a good starting place.
All of these six reasons and perhaps dozens more are reasons why I passionately believe in the ongoing ministry of Vacation Bible School. I know what it did in my own life, and I know that even now somewhere in some tiny unknown church in some tiny out of sight community there is a child singing and making hand motions who God is going to take and use in ways that would reduce us to shock and awe before the sovereign plans of his purpose. I believe that. And I believe it just might be here in FBC Henryville.
So I affirm the words of Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ERLC when he said at this year’s SBC annual meeting in Houston that, “In the weeks to come, a small gathering of influential people will decide the future of life and culture as we know it. I’m not talking about the Supreme Court. I’m not talking about the White House cabinet table. I’m not talking about the congressional leadership. I’m talking about Vacation Bible School. And that’s why I’m here today” That’s why I’m here today too, and that’s why tonight and tomorrow, and for as long as God gives me life I’ll look forward to the summer months so I can go back to Bible school. I’d love for you to come with me.