Small Town (Small Budget) VBS

Some time around the last Sunday of my second grade year, I went to church, excited about the start of summer, when I read a poster propped up in the foyer of our church announcing “Vacation Bible School.”  I was too young to know the term “oxymoron,” but I did know two things: that the words “vacation” and “school” don’t go together and that I didn’t want to go.

My mom and dad did make me go, and to my astonishment, my friend Bryan, who didn’t go to church, agreed to go, too, for the last couple of days once I was challenged to “bring a friend.”  As far as I remember, the theme was “Vacation Bible School” (meaning it had no theme).  We read Bible stories, sang songs, played games, and ate snow cones.  And at the end, I raised my hand when they asked who wanted to invite Jesus into their heart (one of many times I invited Him that year before being baptized the following spring).

VBS is a lot different now.  Churches use curriculum that provide an immersive experience for the children, and expectations are high.  My kids have been to a VBS that built its own “subway” (I’m sure it was above ground, but you never know these days).  Everything, from the time that the kids arrive–through assembly, music, snacks, games and story–to the time they leave, is on theme and “spectacular.

What is a small church to do?  We can’t afford to provide the incredible experience of other churches.  Even the “starter kits” for these programs, once you include all ages and all sections of VBS, add up to hundreds of dollars very quickly.  VBS is a critical ministry to kids in the church and in the community, so we can’t abandon VBS altogether, but we do have have to abandon the compulsion toward “bigger and better” and remember the heart of why we do VBS.

We do VBS because so many kids are introduced to Jesus, consider what it means to follow Him, and even make life-changing decisions during this short week of concentrated ministry.  How do we provide an attractive, fun experience for the kids that clearly presents biblical truth and doesn’t overwhelm or budget or our volunteers?  For us, the answer has been to write our own curriculum.

Here are five advantages we’ve discovered to writing our own VBS…

It’s easy to do.  I fear that I might have lost a lot of you on “write your own VBS,” but it’s really not all that hard.  We have a Sunday-Wednesday schedule, so there are three days of lessons and then parent night.  So it’s essentially a (kid-friendly) three-point sermon, spread out over three days.  That’s where you start.  What is God’s message to your kids? With prayer, God will reveal over the course of the year what you need to teach.  We have learned over the last couple of years that it’s best to work through one story over the course of the week.

It’s completely customized.  We started writing our own curriculum out of necessity.  We needed something that was easily transferable from small-town Arkansas to bush Alaska.  Something that was highly dependent on a theme or that required a lot of decorations simply would not work.  Writing your own VBS allows you to adjust for your setting, number of volunteers, budget, culture, and most importantly, the message you believe God has for the kids of your church and community.

It’s cost-effective.  A customized VBS means that you buy only what you need.  Larger churches may be able to utilize everything that comes in those prepackaged kits, but for the small church, there’s a lot of bloat.  You don’t have to buy teaching books.  You can go as big or as small as your budget allows on decorations.  Most of our expense is snacks.

Music you can use all year.  Music in prepackaged kits are so highly themed that, as catchy as the tunes may be, they are completely useless once the week is over.  Instead of singing about something like taking a roller coaster adventure with Jesus (whatever that means), you can teach your kids fun songs with substance that you can continue to use in your year-long ministry to your students.  Our Alaska kids look forward to singing some of the same songs year after year, and we provide a copy to the local missionaries for them to use all year, just as we use the music on Wednesday nights in our town.

It keeps first things first.  When it comes to VBS, it’s a challenge not to make it all about the theme so that kids remember that they went to New York or Australia or the beach, but they don’t remember anything you really wanted to teach them.  Writing your own material makes you start with the message and build the theme from there.  A theme is useful to make it fun, but we need to work hard so that the theme helps them to remember the message rather than lose it in the hype.

Remembering my first encounter with VBS, I can’t think of a worse theme than telling an eight-year-old boy that he was going to go to “school” during summer vacation, but look at the results: I invited a friend to church, and I invited Jesus into my life.  As long as we are faithful to love kids and teach them the gospel, God doesn’t need a big budget to do His work.

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