Hold on loyal VBSers. Before you chalk me up as spouting blasphemy, hear me out. As a "general rule," not 100% of the time, I don't think that VBS is particularly effective where it is mostly done and how it is typically done. Vacation Bible School runs rampant in the south. To be particular, in the Bible Belt.
I know the Bible Belt. I was born and raised in Alabama and lived there until I was 23 year old, at which time I moved west to Texas. My husband went to seminary and Texas, served his first full-time church in southwestern Missouri, at the northern edge of the Belt, and then we moved to Louisiana. Up until almost four years ago, my life had been totally lived in the Bible Belt. Then we moved to Wisconsin--the land of Catholics and Lutherans and most assuredly, strangely devoid of Southern Baptist churches with very few evangelical churches of any flavor. In the Bible Belt, every church (and there is a church on every corner) has a summer VBS and many children take turns going around the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Assembly of God VBS circuit with their friends. Here in central Wisconsin I know of one Evangelical Free church and one Lutheran church that has a VBS. It's just not done very much here. And here...it just might work.
So here's my beef. There are incredible amounts of time and money that go into coordinating and putting on a good Vacation Bible School. It takes tons of volunteers to teach the classes, make the cookies, plan recreation, get the kids from point a to point b, rock the babies of the worker, etc. The first flaw in the system was noticed about 15 years ago when churches realized that not all moms are stay-at-home moms and they were suddenly having trouble finding enough workers. Instead of rethinking the whole model, which has been around since the late 1800s, churches merely moved VBS from weekday mornings to the evenings. This way people can put in a full day's work and still come to church every night for a week to participate in VBS for three hours per night. Yes, it's only for one week, but that is creating exhaustion and taking away from family time. I would be so grouchy and exhausted to work 8+ hours, then lead VBS for 3 hours (not including set up, clean-up, and getting me and my family fed at some point), before collapsing into bed and doing it all over again the next day. People who do this deserve to be sainted.
If you read this article about the history of VBS, you will note that it was started as a way to meet a community need, notably unsupervised children running the streets of New York City. (FYI, Sesame Street was started for reasons along the same line, albeit many years later). Our culture, our communities, family structure, and the demands on our time have all changed radically since the advent of VBS. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and think about
What is the purpose of Vacation Bible School?
I think most churches would probably cite evangelism, outreach/church growth, exposure to the Bible, and worship as the key purposes of VBS. Those are all worthy and wonderful things. However, I was rather disheartened to find this article that suggests that the purpose is to advance church culture. Last time I checked, Jesus didn't walk this earth and die a horrific death to promote church culture. I digress. Anyway, if we want to do outreach and share the love of Christ with others, how about we get OUT of the church building? The other method of drawing unchurched and/or non-believers into the sanctuary for warm Kool-Aid, macaroni crafts, and songs with hand motions isn't very compelling or realistic.
As my alter ego speech pathologist/professor self, I have worked with many people who live below the federal poverty line. A lot of times they don't have transportation to get to VBS. Some churches have buses, but that doesn't necessarily solve the problem either when compounded by childcare and other issues for single working moms. I think we should go into the community---parks on the wrong side of town, housing projects, and Section 8 housing still have unsupervised children running around who may not have heard of a loving Savior. Those children often have single mothers who would love to catch their breath, or have an adult conversation, or just have someone look them in the eye and tell them that they matter. Some of those children have dads who feel beaten up by the fact that they can't provide for their families like they wish they could or they could be caught in a vicious cycle of anger and abuse because they don't know how to manage their anger. Some of those children have loving parents in stable marriages who just can't catch a financial break and the stress is overwhelming them. They feel defeated and alone. Some of these families are in middle class subdivisions at the clubhouse pool. Some of these families are in gated communities on the tennis courts or in the park. These are our neighbors, our co-workers, and the people on the wrong side of the tracks that we've never bothered to know.
My home church in college, Spring Hill Baptist Church, began a community VBS in a local park after I had graduated and left. From what my former roommate told me, it was a wonderful undertaking, with new children arriving each day. Many of these children had never held a Bible, heard of Jesus, or darkened the door of a church. When I was a summer missionary in California, way back in 1987, we did a lot of Backyard Bible Clubs, which is basically just a small neighborhood VBS. It's not a huge, mass-marketing campaign for the church. It's about getting to know kids and their families while teaching them about Jesus. There are still games, crafts, snacks, and Bible stories, but it's smaller and more personal. It's also much, much less expensive.
I tried to Google and find out how much churches are spending on VBS to no avail. I'm sure that large (e.g., 300+ member) churches are spending thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars on VBS. Taking a quick look at the Lifeway VBS Catalog, I found that I can purchase the Big Apple Super Sampler for $199.99, the $9.99 book telling me how to decorate, and then all of the decorations (tablecloths, Times Square backdrop, giant inflatable Statue of Liberty, taxi floor prints), materials (teacher books, student books, overheads, power points, music books, CDs, DVDs, take home handouts, craft supplies), snacks, advertisement (large signs, radio/newspaper ads, mailouts), and maybe even transportation and registration fees for worker training. I suspect that it's pretty big business for Lifeway, Group, and other companies that are producing VBS materials.
I suspect that the overwhelming percentage of children who attend VBS are already involved in a church. There is always a contingency of children who attend who are unchurched as well. However, I think we could be reaching so much more of that population if we went outside of the church walls. There are always salvation decisions at VBS which seems wonderful. However, with the emotion of the event and the inevitable "mob mentality" and peer pressure of children going forward or asked to raise their hands if they prayed THE prayer, I wonder (1) how authentic these young conversion experiences are, (2) how well they are followed up on, and (3) whether most of them would have occurred anyway without VBS---through a Sunday school class, talking with a parent, or meeting with the pastor or children's minister. The same emotion driven, peer-pressured thing happens with youth at camp and big events. Again, please hear what I am saying: I wholeheartedly believe that children can make salvation decisions and I totally believe in the concept of ministry geared to children. However, I don't think VBS is the way to do it.
I think having a fun week, but scaled-down time and finances-wise, to do kind of a kid's revival or something might be a good idea. On her blog, my friend Dusty, wrote lovingly of her experiences with VBS and she gave me pause as she wrote of the beauty of young children worshiping in innocence and with abandon. I thank her for pointing that out to me, because that kind of got overlooked in my rant. I don't think we should begrudge our church kids of a special time to be kids, learn about Jesus, and sing to Him. However, I still question the money, time, and effort put into it the way we do it currently. And I still think relational neighborhood ministry and Backyard Bible Clubs are a less expensive and more meaningful way to take the gospel to the community.
Just something to think about...