Friday, June 12, 2009

Blue Jell-O represented the Jordan River one summer at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Northwest. The memory stuck with vacation Bible school participants.

“The kids just ate that up, literally and figuratively,” said Lisa Wackler. She sends her children - ages 4, 10 and 13 - to vacation Bible school every year.

With school out in summer, churches - across denominations and across the nation - jump on the opportunity to minister to children. Vacation Bible school (VBS), dating back to the early 20th century, differs from church to church but often uses hands-on activities, songs, snacks, skits and recreation to educate youngsters in the Christian faith.

Sherry Waldrep, chairwoman for VBS at National Presbyterian Church on Nebraska Avenue Northwest, said her 8-year-old triplets usually talk about the skit after coming home. Other kids look forward to the songs.

“One mom told me she’s looking forward to getting the new music because they continually listen to last year’s music,” Ms. Waldrep said. “People who have gone to VBS who are young adults now will tell you they remember the songs.”

“And they remember the stories,” said Mary Theresa Heneghan, director of Religious Education at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Rockville. “If you ask them about it a year later, they still remember.”

The interactive, hands-on aspect of vacation Bible school is relatively new in its long history. Programs of the past were more traditional.

“They were more like a Sunday school lesson back [in the 1920s], just very churchlike. I think now the focus is more on fun, with a Christian background,” said Marcy Levering, an editor of VBS curriculum for Standard Publishing.

VBS became more widespread and elaborate in the 1980s as churches began realizing they needed to offer more to children, she said.

Most modern VBS activities present Bible stories, such as Moses and the burning bush, within a weekly theme. “Crocodile Dock, where fearless kids shine God’s light,” and “SunRock Kids Camp, where kids build their lives on the rock: Jesus,” among other themes, will debut this summer in the D.C. area. Because churches purchase curricula from a limited number of publishers, many share themes.

The Rev. Meredith Lovell, associate pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran, said VBS curricula are very adaptable to particular churches.

“We further adapt it to match our theology, our teaching. … For us, in our Lutheran tradition, the big thing that we try to teach kids is about God’s grace, that God loves them, no matter what they do and where they go. And because of God’s love for them, they will always be connected with God,” she said.

Miss Heneghan said VBS has caught on recently in the Catholic Church, so much so that Catholic publishers are teaming up with VBS publishers to produce curricula specifically geared toward Catholic communities. The themes and much of the material remain the same as for the Protestants.

“We’re Bible-based, as opposed to Catholic Church-based,” she said.

She called that element another plus to VBS - that it can bridge the divide between Protestant and Catholic. Many non-Catholics come to St. Elizabeth’s VBS, and in the past, the church even teamed up with the Methodist church across the street to offer VBS.

Some churches, including St. Elizabeth and St. Paul’s Lutheran use VBS not just as Bible education, but as outreach to the community.

“For kids who might not ordinarily go to church on a weekly basis or might not go to our church or might be a different religion, it’s a good way of introducing them to Christianity,” Mrs. Wackler said. About half of her church’s VBS participants come from outside the congregation.

Diane Smith, children’s ministry strategist for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, said most children spend just 37 hours a year in church. VBS usually hosts children for 20 hours - more than half of their exposure to Bible teaching, she said.

Some churches also incorporate a focus on missions into the teaching. National Presbyterian Church will collect backpacks this year for urban missions and hats for a mission to Haiti, Ms. Waldrep said.

And many churches, including National Presbyterian, also just want to have a good time.

“Some people think, ‘Oh religion, oh that’s boring,’ ” Ms. Waldrep said. “But we have fun.”

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