On a recent summer day, the Church at Severn Run was overrun by juvenile spies dashing about the sprawling religious center in a race against time.
At stake was the faith of the world. With the help of top-secret teamwork, all biblical mysteries had been solved by lunchtime and the young sleuths were headed home, the newest graduates of LifeWay's Agency D3 2014 Vacation Bible School.
The nearly 400 children enrolled in the Bible school represent a fraction of the thousands of young people who attended a faith-based camp this summer. A study from the Barna Group shows attendance rates at summer religious schools have remained relatively constant for the past 15 years, but analysts and church leaders said these programs are in the midst of major change.
"It's more of a smorgasbord," said Clint Jenkin, vice president of research at the Barna Group. "When I was a kid, you'd just go to whatever [church] you attended, or you'd go to the closest one. We're seeing more people branching kind of shopping around. It's based more on convenience of time, having what parents need, and what a parent's schedule is."
Barna surveyed about 600 Protestant pastors and compiled the results midsummer last year. Mr. Jenkin said the results reflect what is happening in churches and other houses of worship across the country.
According to the survey, 81 percent of U.S. churches offered vacation Bible school in 1997, compared with 68 percent in 2012. The most common reason for dropping summer school was a lack of volunteers.
Of the churches that hosted Bible school, more than 90 percent were Southern Baptist and had operating budgets of more than $500,000. The majority of the churches also had large congregations, often more than 250 people, and leaders who were younger than 50.
If the Church at Severn Run in Maryland's Anne Arundel County is missing anything in its summer program, money and volunteers are not part of it.
Steve Houston, children's pastor at Severn Run, said the program has enough volunteers to allow for a regular rotation through a break room while helping 390 students through lessons in the 42,000-square-foot facility.
Mr. Houston said the camp costs $7,000 to $8,000 and is offered at no charge.
"It's expensive, it's a dedication for the congregation putting into the budget," he said. "But when you're looking at our database, our goal is to reach out into the community."
Walking with his daughter on the last day of Severn Run's Bible school, Chris Holcomb said 10-year-old Rebeca hadn't attended Bible school in a while but wanted to go this year.
"It breaks up the summer," he said. "They do a good job of combining fun and learning."
Sandra Santiago said her 7-year-old son, Hector, has been attending the Bible school for many years. Both liked how the lessons taught "more ways to be kind to others."
Teaching children how to apply faith lessons to their lives is the goal of Camp Kibbutz at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in the District of Columbia.
The synagogue offers day camp, adventure camp and sleep-away camp.
The synagogue has hosted Camp Kibbutz for four summers, said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.
He said the camp is a great way "to connect the kids of our congregation in an informal setting."
Mr. Herzfeld said about 130 children enrolled in the synagogue's summer program this year.
"We're pretty new, so right now we're still in the growing and developing stages," he said. "We're not inventing the wheel. There's a lot of resources out there for Jewish summer camps. We study them and [choose] what fits our needs the best."
The Church of the Epiphany in Herndon, Virginia, also has embraced adaptability.
Michael Guernsey, associate minister for discipleship, said the Anglican Church moved a year and a half ago from its original location a few miles south.
"Our old location tended to be in a wealthier neighborhood," he said. "Now we're in a heavily nonwhite and not wealthy neighborhood."
With a new home and fewer children attending church, leaders decided last summer to host a soccer sports camp rather than a traditional Bible school, Mr. Guernsey said.
About 65 children showed up, and almost all of them were from outside the congregation.
"We really are focusing on trying to minister to the new community," Mr. Guernsey said. "The kids learned some soccer, and they got to play soccer in addition to it being focused on the basics of Christianity."
The camp was so successful that another has been scheduled for this month.
"It was a conscious choice we made," Mr. Guernsey said of the camp. "This is not a neighborhood for arts camp. This is a neighborhood for sports camp."
The Church at Severn Run also has listened.
The Baptist church started some 60 years ago but has been in its sprawling home for seven years.
"Since we moved into the building here, it's taken on a different format," Mr. Houston said. "What we've noticed over the last couple years, just with our area, we lose about half our children on a Friday. It's not just the children that we lose; a lot of volunteers can't serve that day."
Because of the church's proximity to Fort Meade, Mr. Houston said, about 30 percent of the congregation comprises military families and transient families with ties to the Defense Department and the National Security Agency. Mr. Houston said low-income neighborhoods also are near the church.
Mr. Houston said this year's Bible school was held Monday through Thursday mornings.
"We added more time with small groups, meeting with leaders," Mr. Houston said. "We really like that small group time, to be with six to 10 kids and one or two leaders. Kids want to be able to look at what the Bible story is, they want to be able to engage in the Bible, and the most important part, kids nowadays want to know how they can apply this to their lives."
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