By Jeff Brumley
Relatively few of the 90 to 100 children who attend vacation Bible school at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church each summer are members of the Jacksonville, Fla., congregation. And that’s just fine with children’s minister Faith McCall.
Offering the June event for free and inviting neighborhood children is in keeping with the congregation’s overall effort to be a spiritual resource to the wider community, she said.
VBS “is a gift to the community … because we are very much a missional church and VBS works into that.”
Hendricks’ experience is a declining one nationwide, according to a new poll released by the Barna Group. It found VBS down in use from 81 percent in 1997 to 68 percent last year. The survey, released last week, cites a number of reasons for the drop, ranging from busy church schedules to lack of financial and facilities resources.
VBS is strongest in Southern Baptist churches, with 91 percent using the annual summer program, and also among churches with annual operating budgets exceeding $500,000 and 250 or more adult worship attendance. It’s also strongest in the South.
But experts and proponents of the missional use of VBS predict continued declines unless congregations look outward with their summer programming for children.
‘No VBS workers’
Church consultant George Bullard says the reasons for the decline reported by Barna are tied to economic and ministry trends sweeping through the nation’s congregations.
Churches with 125 to 135 attendance – which make up 55 percent of all churches – are often made up of middle and lower-middle class families in which everyone works, said Bullard, president of The Columbia Partnership and a consultant and coach for congregations and denominations for more than 35 years.
“All the adults work, so there are no workers” or volunteers to run VBS programs, he said.
VBS also faces increasing competition from other summer programs available to children and their families. “They don’t have time to go to VBS, because they are in sports camps or have a team they’re playing on,” he said.
Bullard said many outward-focused congregations have come to see VBS as a luxury and relic from a time when it was OK to offer activities aimed largely at church members only.
VBS offers “a very low return, because you’re reaching primarily a church culture,” he said. “Neighborhood-based programs are more effective at being missional.”
That’s what Columbia resident and Spring Valley Baptist Church member Christy Gunnell had in mind when she launched Inside Out of South Carolina.
As the name implies, she wanted to take the gospel outside the four walls of the church, which she does by offering backyard Bible clubs in local mobile-home parks.
The clubs run year-round with a break during the summer, but otherwise are like VBS in their offering of stories, Bible verse stations, crafts, games and snacks. They are held at the home of someone in that community Tuesdays and Thursdays after school.
“I take backyard Bible club, or VBS or whatever you call it, outside the church,” she said. “One of the main reasons is that mothers and fathers in those neighborhoods will come … and hear the gospel as well.”
At Hendricks Avenue Baptist, the missional part of VBS doesn’t stop with who is invited but also what they are taught, McCall said. During the week they participate in a misisons project focused on local charities and needs. The idea, she said, is to teach them to serve others.
“My goal isn’t just about getting people to join (the church), but that the kids have a meaningful week so they can go out and be missional where they are at and help others,” she said.