Learning to hate VBS

By Cindy Koch

Yes, that’s right. I know it’s that time of year when we all send our kids off to a week-long adventure in loosely related Bible themes. I also know that is close to a mortal sin to not participate in at least one VBS a year, at least in my community. But every year at this time I begin to write this blog, then reconsider and delete the whole thing. It’s been building for quite a while now: I have learned to hate VBS.

For those of you who are not up on the hip lingo, VBS stands for Vacation Bible School. Churches of every denomination compete for children’s time and attention during a single week of the summer. It is no small endeavor; this is a big budget item for churches. There are whole committees and outreach organizations committed to this VBS ordeal. Thousands of dollars, carefully placed volunteers, months of planning, and the great VBS event reaches out to the greater community to draw people to the Word of God.

But for those of you who really know me, I don’t hate any of the things that should be VBS. I absolutely love children. I love expressing the Gospel of Jesus in a tangible way that the youngest of minds can understand. I love sharing the love and forgiveness of Jesus with everyone, especially families—young and old—who have never heard it before. I love thematic, dramatic storytelling and teaching that captivates the imagination, often found in the many creative expressions of VBS. I love snacks and props and games and songs that teach the truth of God’s word in a way that we touch hear smell and taste. I love VBS.

But teaching the pure, clear Gospel is not always what VBS seeks to accomplish. No, often VBS tries to be just another camp, a week of entertainment to keep the kids occupied while school is out of session. There is a relatively small selection of pre-packaged themes that all generally talk about Jesus. So it often doesn’t matter if the Lutheran, Catholic, and Baptist church does the very same VBS curriculum. Most lesson plans are careful not to really say anything or offend anyone. Because it turns out, teaching significant confessions of God’s Word is not what a VBS tries to do. It’s really just about having good, non-specific fun. And yet, it comes at the expense of the free gift of salvation.

Because, more than anything, I love the pure clear Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is not often found in the broad brushes of VBS. So, instead of the shocking revelation that we are completely dead, in dire need of a Savior, kids listen to stories that groom our righteousness. Instead of gifts of mercy freely given only by Jesus Christ, our children sing about the gifts that God demands from us. Instead of a Jesus given and shed for the forgiveness of our sin, we end up teaching a Jesus that only inspires us to do better next time.

And sad as I am to admit it, I have learned to hate VBS. Because this has proven to be the mission opportunity that happily throws everything we hold dear into the blender. VBS has shown itself to not be a thoughtful confession of Christ alone in our community, rather an endeavor for glory in numbers and popularity. VBS has not been a platform for distinctive truth in our confused world of sin. Rather, it boasts in complacent cookie-cutter Christianity.

This year, my own church has had to step back from offering a VBS to the community, not for any of the reasons I rant about today. But in the absence of assembling craft projects and printing off nametags, I now have the summer to consider the direction of our future mission outreach projects to our local families. Maybe it is time to correct our VBS teachings and focus. Maybe it is time to use our resources elsewhere to proclaim the Gospel. Maybe, at very least, it’s time to be a little more critical of what we have always done with VBS.