- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It used to be glorified baby-sitting — a few hours of quiet for Mom while the kiddies got some good Christian education, or at least sang some songs and made a pair of praying hands out of plaster.

But Vacation Bible School has become an industry in its own right, with VBS materials accounting for a major part of the Christian publishing industry's sales. Changing with the times has kept these summer seminars in kiddie Christianity very much in business.

"Other materials like textbooks have a long shelf life, but VBS material is new every summer," says Cindy Wheeler, senior editor of VBS materials for Concordia Publishing House, a Lutheran publisher. "That's a real challenge for scheduling and creativity. We want to be fresh and new every year so it never gets boring."

The bar of boring has been raised in recent years as churches try to reach and hold a generation raised on interactive toys and constant visual stimulation.

"Our VBS materials used to be more like our Sunday school materials," says Rob Sanders, VBS editor for Lifeway Press in Nashville. "It was a very good, solid Bible study but maybe didn't have as many bells and whistles. As kids have TV and computer games, their lives are just so visual and so active It was probably time to do something that was attractive to boys and girls today."

This year for Lifeway, that means "Truth Trackers and the Secret of the Stone Tablets," an archaeological adventure in which students search for the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

It comes with lots of those bells and whistles: music, dances, craft projects, games and decorations, including stand-up props and even inflatable geckos to give the room that desert feel.

At Concordia, it's a Mystery Mansion theme, launched after editors saw the popularity of the Harry Potter children's books. The program offers a similar range of extras to accompany teaching guides, including those all-important decorations.

"People have a real interest in making those environments happen," Miss Wheeler says. "They want to make a real strong impression with kids."

That's because most VBS programs, as they did in the beginning, still primarily serve children who live near the church, members and non-members. What has changed are the hours (more than half are conducted in the evenings because that's when people are available to teach or participate) and the prevalence of adult programs (almost all publishers now provide adult materials, too).

"Vacation Bible School isn't just for kids anymore," Mr. Sanders says.

Vacation Bible School started in the late 1800s when, according to historians, a doctor's wife in New York City decided the children whom her husband was treating needed a safe activity to keep them off the streets. According to the story, in 1898 Mrs. Walker Aylett Hawes started a summer Christian program in a beer hall on the city's East Side. Other historians credit Mattie Miles, the wife of a Methodist minister, with starting a four-week summer program in 1894. Either way, by the 1920s, Vacation Bible Schools were common.

They remain the backbone of many a church's summer programs, sometimes serving as informal evangelism gimmicks to woo the parents of children who attend despite not belonging to a particular church. Many churches target their programs to the irreligious.

At Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Betty Frederick ran a VBS program last month for about 100 children ranging in age from 2 to 18. She used a program called Power Up With Jesus, from Urban Ministries, an independent black Christian publishing company. Urban Ministries is a relative newcomer to the VBS publishing field, having started in the late 1980s. (Lifeway began in the '20s, Concordia in the '40s.)

Miss Frederick, VBS director and Sunday school superintendent for Tabernacle, calls Power Up With Jesus a more comprehensive program than the ones she recalls from her days at VBS at Tabernacle. Its lessons encourage students to dedicate their lives to Jesus, but art, music and physical activity are also incorporated into the three-hour curriculum.

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