Vacation bible school seems to be dying. I do not have any empirical data to back this up. I get this impression from my experience in the local church, and this impression has been backed up by colleagues in ministry who have had similar experiences. Now I am fully aware that there are churches that continue to have amazing VBS programs that are well supported by the church and continue to draw in vast numbers of children. However, it does feel the majority experience is that VBS does not have the draw or community appeal it once did. It seems struggles with VBS are felt more strongly in smaller churches and communities. At the church I served, despite our best efforts, we watched VBS participation dwindle. In response to that we attempted something new.
The primary focus of this blog is connecting the things we love with the God who loves us. At the church I serve we took that ideas and we applied it to summer children’s ministry. This led to the creation of the Creative Skills Camp. It has ran for two years now and has been considered by the church as a success both years. This is a “it worked for us” style article, so it may not work as well in your context. However, we do hope you find this helpful and a potential resource for your local ministry.
What We Did
Every faith community is full of people who are passionate about being creative and have incredible skills in their area of passion. We approached these people and asked them to share these skills with children. Over the two years we have offered a wide variety of skills such as wood working, painting, cooking, cake decorating, drama, story-telling, dance, and crafts. In each of these areas we had an adult who had years of experience, and sometimes professional training, in the area. We also recruited additional adults who provided assistance. This was done at a small church and we were able to run the event with ten to twelve adults. We settled on a half week event that we called Creative Skills Camp, and during this half week the adult leaders led the participants through projects in the creative skill.
It was important for us to keep a faith component. Each evening began with a children’s devotion. These devotions had a focus on creativity. For example the first evening dwelled on how God is creative by nature, and so are people because we are created in the image of God. The end of each evening also had a recap of the devotion and ended in prayer.
How We Did It
One of the elements that we wanted to incorporate was choice. We wanted the children to want to be part of our event, and we thought giving them agency was a good way to do that. We offered multiple creative skills and each child got to pick the three they wanted to do. Over the course of two hours the children would rotate between the three classes to learn the skills they chose. This means that each teacher would potentially teach their creative skill three times throughout the evening.
We also gave the teachers agency to pick their projects. Over the course of the program, teachers would have each class for a total of about an hour, so they had to pick a project that could fit in that time period. As an example, one year the wood working class made bird houses. As much as possible, we tried to incorporate the week into that weekend’s Sunday morning service. For instance, the drama group learned a skit that was then performed as part of the worship service.
Why We Did it
As previously mentioned the Creative Skills Camp emerged as a replacement to a traditional VBS. Originally the church held a VBS as an outreach to the community. The program’s mission was to engage unchurched kids in the life of the church. However, in this day and age unchurched parents are not going to bring kids to a church for explicitly religious programming. We learned they will bring their children to a church to learn painting.
We also did this to provide a service to the community. Parents, especially ones not involved in sports, are in need of enriching activities for their children to participate in. In the context this was implemented in, many of the parents also needed this option to be free. The church offered the creative skills camp to meet a need in the community.
The vast majority of the children who participated were from the larger community and not the congregation, so the creative skills camp allowed the church members to begin to form relationships with children in the community. This may or may not convert into Sunday morning attendance from the family, but it gave members of the church to practice the very Jesus-like attitude of noticing the little children and having compassion for another.
It was our experience that a creative skills based program was an effective way to make inroads with the children of the local community. It provided a venue to share aspects of the faith with children while adult teachers got to also share a thing they loved and were passionate about. It worked well in a specific small town context, but I do believe it is easily reproducible and could work in a variety of ministry settings.