Forget the flannel-board Bible stories, Popsicle stick figures, a paper cup of grape Kool-Aid and a cookie.
The 122-year-old summer tradition known as Vacation Bible School has transformed with the times, but its mission remains true.
Before the month of May bid adieu, colorful cardboard signs were sprouting in church yards and front yards across Wilson County. They announced the coming of VBS.
Today, the majority of churches use professional curriculum, and the snacks have grown into something more, but the message VBS delivers to multitudes of youngsters is the same: Jesus loves you.
Hillcrest Baptist brings in hundreds
Last week at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Lebanon, a congregation with an average Sunday attendance of 1,100, the VBS theme was "Submerged: Finding Truth Below the Surface," and averaged 600 students, ranging from 4-year-olds to high school seniors, in the weekday morning program.
Co-leading the VBS were Rachel Presley, the church's children's and preschool ministry director, and associate pastor Mike Shelby, while about 130 members of the congregation helped teach classes, guided craft projects, prepared meals and provided recreational activities and security.
Presley said the primary purpose of their VBS program was in "seeing boys and girls come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior."
The "Submerged" curriculum, published by Lifeway, presented students an opportunity to dive deeper into God's Word and encouraged them to look beyond the surface via examples of how Jesus saw beyond the outside of a person and looked instead to what was deeper, on the inside.
Even the songs, such as "ABC Submarine" and "Bubblin' Up," meshed with the VBS theme.
Bible study comes first
Hillcrest has offered VBS for more than 30 years, and while the curriculum is new and large video screens are used with the music, Presley, who has been involved with the VBS here for eight years, said they have not attempted to make the message more contemporary.
"We have not slacked up on the Bible. We believe that's what it's all about," she said. "We're not trying to change to the times. We want to reach the children with the truth of Jesus. They have more classroom time than they do anything else. They spend 45 minutes to an hour in getting Bible."
She said that her VBS experience in the late 1980s and early '90s consisted of a Bible lesson, snacks, crafts and music.
"We used to get two cookies and some Kool-Aid, and crafts were more like Popsicle sticks glued together and coloring sheets. Now we have elaborate crafts, and the music has changed. It makes it more relatable to the children with the theme, where we used to sing random songs."
The refreshments have moved up a notch or two as well.
"We try to serve a very good snack. One day we have pizza, one day nachos, one day chicken tenders and potato sticks, one day mac and cheese. Friday is our biggest day when everyone will enjoy sandwiches, chips, cupcakes and Cokes."
Hillcrest runs four 15-passenger vans in furnishing rides for some of their guests, and an estimated 50 percent of the children attending VBS are not members of their church.
Market Street Church bridges the gap
The 65-member Market Street Church of Christ, one of Lebanon's historic African-American congregations, held its VBS last week with the theme, "The Voyage of the Alpha and Omega."
Associate minister Anthony White, in his 12th year as director of the church's VBS, said, "Our goal is to reach out to the community of kids, the youth, trying to teach them about Christ and give them some hope. We're trying to bridge that gap between the world and the church.
"Last year we averaged almost a hundred kids a night, a lot of them inner-city kids. We've tried something new this year, doing ours in the evening between 6 and 8 p.m.
"We have a great teaching and kitchen staff. It takes everybody to come together; it involves about 30 of our members and we have members from Peyton Road Church of Christ and Harris Chapel Church of Christ that help teach," said White, whose father Perry O. White Sr. directed Market Street's VBS for many years.
The church has produced a VBS for the past 60 to 70 years, and this year had classes for 2-year-olds up to adults. Typically, they have created their own curriculum but over the last few years have purchased material from 21st Century Christian.
Like many VBS programs, Market Street begins with the entire group together in the sanctuary where they enjoy 15 minutes of singing with such standards as "Jesus Loves Me," "This Little Light of Mine" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children."
Feeding the children
Compared to White's childhood VBS days back 45 years or so, he said, "Today, the feeding is a lot bigger. Back then, it was maybe cookies and punch. Jesus told us to love one another, and we took the concept of the feeding of the 5,000, so at first we got to get their attention.
"We use that concept and prepare a meal every night ranging from hot dogs and hamburgers to sandwiches and spaghetti."
The other change he noted from yesteryear to today is the method of getting the word out. "We used to get out and walk and knock on doors, but now we're using social media."
Commerce Presbyterian holds 'Roundup'
In rural Commerce on the eastern edge of Wilson County, Commerce Cumberland Presbyterian Church enjoyed its VBS in a single day, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., last Friday. More than half of its 60 members helped make it happen as they hosted children from age 3 through the sixth grade. VBS has been a tradition here for over 50 years.
Their goal, according to member Nell McKinney, who taught the 3- to 4-year-olds, "to get children to come, who probably don't attend church, to allow them to enjoy a good day of Bible study, crafts, music, fun and games, and as they get older they'll remember coming... and hopefully some of them will want to come back to church."
She noted that last year their VBS attracted about 100 children, and more than 80 percent were not a part of their church family.
Commerce Presbyterian also purchased their VBS curriculum for this summer, and the theme was "Barnyard Roundup."
"That's quite a theme for being out in the country. We were tickled to death when we found out," McKinney laughed.
"I've prepared my Bible stories, and the first one is the good shepherd, all about taking care of the sheep and how if one gets lost the shepherd finds it. It's those kind of stories we relate to the children. As a child you're never lost. When you become a Christian, God is gonna take care of you no matter what."
As for the favorite VBS songs here, she ticked off the titles, "Jesus Loves Me," "Jesus Loves the Little Children" and "Zacchaeus (Was a Wee Little Man)."
Among extracurricular activities, the youngsters played in a bouncy house, nibbled on snow cones and created craft items.
Making good memories
"One thing we've done for years is let each child paint a stepping stone. They get to put on a paint shirt and the sky's the limit. They can paint whatever they want," said McKinney. "They take the stepping stones with them, and the paint is permanent. We have adults who have told us, 'I remember painting my stone when I was a little girl.'
"And each child does a dye-tie T-shirt, and it's so fun, because a week or two later, we see them in town wearing the shirt."
As for lunch, the menu featured chicken tenders and all the side items. Dessert was cupcakes decorated by the kids themselves.
McKinney said the biggest change in her church's VBS was making the switch from one week to one day, a step they made five or six years ago.
"When I was young there were not so many summer camps, so everybody participated. Changing VBS to one day works great and has made it more relevant. Everybody is so busy."
For these three churches and many more, Jesus' words prove to be the literal truth: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
Vacation Bible schools coming up
Mt. Olivet Baptist Church
Runs June 15-18. 6:30-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Register online at mtolivetbaptist.com or call (615) 444-2390. Families are invited to closing rally and cookout meal at 3 p.m. Saturday. 7463 Hickory Ridge Road in Mt. Juliet.
Bartons Creek Baptist Church
Runs June 20-24. 6-8:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Ages 2 through adults. 1530 Bartons Creek Road in Lebanon. (615) 444-4881.
First United Methodist Church
Runs July 10-14. For ages 3 through sixth grade. Come by the church to register, 415 West Main St. in Lebanon. (615) 444-3315.
A brief look at the humble beginnings of VBS
According to a variety of sources, the world's first vacation Bible school originated in Hopedale, Illinois, where in May and June of 1894, 24-year-old Mattie Pritchard Miles, wife of the local Methodist minister, held classes.
The Sunday school teacher, who also was a public school teacher, felt limited by time constraints in teaching Bible class to children, thus she initiated a daily Bible school to teach youngsters in the summer. That first VBS drew 37 students and ran four weeks. Classes were conducted in a local school, and recess took place in an adjoining park.
In 1898, Eliza Hawes, director of the children's department at Epiphany Baptist Church in New York City, began "Everyday Bible School" for slum children at a rented beer parlor in New York's East Side.
That Bible school ran for six weeks during the summer in 1898 and featured music, Bible stories, memory verses, games, crafts, drawing and cooking. She operated the program for seven years.
After Dr. Robert Boville of the Baptist Mission Society found out about Hawes' summer program, he recommended it to other Baptist churches, and in 1922, he founded the World Association of Daily Vacation Bible School.
In 1923, Standard Publishing published the first printed VBS curriculum, created enough material for a five-week course each for kindergarten, primary and junior classes.
To VBS or not to VBS?
- According to a Barna Group study commissioned by Gospel Light, more than two out of three churches in America (68%) offered Vacation Bible School during 2012. In recent years, this level of involvement has remained fairly stable, but is slightly lower than the high of 81 percent of American churches in 1997.
- Nine out of 10 Southern Baptist churches hosted VBS in 2012. The South produces more VBS programs than any other region of the country, and nearly three-fourths of all Southern churches hold VBS.
- Among the main factors churches have given for not offering VBS: not having enough adult volunteers to lead the program, not having enough time, not having enough children in the congregation and the age of the senior pastor.
Barna Group, a research organization based in Ventura, California, interviewed 602 senior pastors of Protestant churches in the continental U.S. for their study, The State of Vacation Bible School.