Danny E. Olinger
From the earliest days of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, vacation Bible school (VBS) has been a challenge. In the days before New Horizons magazine, a number of articles appeared in the Presbyterian Guardian encouraging churches not to give up holding VBS, despite the difficulty of getting people to say yes when asked to teach or serve. Everyone acknowledged that the time and effort put into VBS were enormous, not to mention the nervous exhaustion of teachers and volunteers who were already busy with life.
In recent years, many wives and mothers-historically the backbone of VBS-have worked at jobs outside of the home to help support their families. They struggle to find time for VBS. The perennial question then and now is, "Should we have a summer Bible school?" Many churches have decided that the difficulties outweigh the rewards and have cancelled VBS.
Meanwhile, Faith OPC in Pole Tavern, New Jersey, has embraced VBS with tremendous results. The adults see VBS as a blessing to the church and the surrounding community. The children love participating in VBS. Together, all agree that VBS promotes the spiritual nourishment of the covenant children, encourages teenagers and young adults to consider how they may serve others, helps adults work together in harmony as they use their gifts for everyone's good, and provides an opportunity for outreach in the community.
This ministry is not haphazard. Months of planning and prayer go into preparing for VBS at Faith OPC. The VBS week comes with eager anticipation, changes made on the fly, and an end-of-the-week program. But, even then, VBS at Faith OPC is not concluded. Follow-up contact is made with visitors who attended and seeds are planted for future fellowship activities.
Pastor Cummings's article on the previous page expresses well the blessings involved in holding VBS. This article will examine the "ins and outs" of what goes into VBS at Faith OPC and how it has positively affected this congregation. Those who already conduct VBS may glean ideas that they too can implement. Those who do not have VBS may reconsider its value.
Preparation for the 2005 VBS at Faith OPC officially starts on March 9, when job interest sheets penned by Pastor Cummings are handed out. The sheets list tasks that need to be done-such as teaching and helping, kitchen and nursery work, and transportation-and ask volunteers to number their preferences for service. If VBS participation is not possible, a line says, "I am sorry, but I am not able to help in VBS this year." The letter also announces the inaugural organizational meeting on March 20 after the evening worship service to determine the best dates to hold VBS.
Nearly fifty people attend the March 20 meeting led by Pastor Cummings. He announces that students in the public schools in the area will not be finished until June 17. Consequently, he suggests that the best time for VBS would be June 20-24. He also informs those gathered that a group from Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church in Mount Airy, North Carolina, will also participate in VBS. They want to show their appreciation for Faith OPC's help the previous year, when they sent people to Mount Airy to help establish VBS there, and gain further training to take back to Mount Airy.
Pastor Cummings leads the first staff meeting on April 13. The theme for the year is chosen: "All the treasures of wisdom are found in Jesus." Pastor Cummings tells those gathered, "Christ is what our covenant children need; Christ is what we need as we prepare; Christ is what non-Christian children need. We have something for everyone." Pastor Cummings informs the group that Daphne Matlock will serve as his right arm for the upcoming VBS, and she will be the contact person if questions arise. Head teachers are given their teaching lessons, which are a combination of new and old Great Commission Publications VBS material.
Those doing this for the first time are given an information sheet detailing the schedule and explaining the demands of each class. Head teachers are also informed what common bulk craft materials will be available for each class's use. An allowance is set at forty dollars for teachers who need to purchase materials for crafts unique to that class. Attendance records from 2004 are passed out, so that teachers can get an estimate of how large their class might be and the quantity of materials to be purchased. The records indicate class sizes as small as eight (preschool threes) and as large as thirty-four (seventh- through ninth-grade girls). In 2004, 215 children were enrolled, with an average attendance of 185 and an average staff attendance of 55. In light of anticipated class sizes, a map of the building is distributed and room assignments are determined.
A large part of the meeting concerns assigning helpers. The March 9 job interest sheets are used to try to place individuals in roles that they prefer and for which they have the needed gifts. Assignments are made for general helpers, music helpers, and craft helpers. A deliberate attempt is made to spread the young men throughout the classes. After this meeting, it is the job of the head teachers to confirm the availability of the helpers.
The second staff meeting is held on May 10. Details concerning the start of each day are discussed, and outside monitors who will assist at that time are assigned. Song selections for each class are reported, so that there will be no duplication for the final program. Younger students will be picked up by parents or a sibling in the classroom or brought to a designated area to be transported by a church vehicle.
The third staff meeting is on June 1. Pastor Cummings informs everyone that a news release will be sent out by the end of the week to the local radio stations and newspapers announcing the upcoming VBS and registration details. Drivers for transporting the children are listed. The church will reimburse those who use their own vans.
During the next week, plans are also made for distributing VBS brochures and information about Faith OPC in the community. Maps outlining streets and houses are systematically divided up for door-to-door canvassing. Instructions are provided: Where there are children at the home, personally invite them to VBS. Let them know that Faith OPC plans to offer transportation from Woodstown. Where there are no children, leave a brochure about the church. When no one is present at a house, fold and leave the brochure in the door handle. Do not put the brochure in the mailbox. For those who are new to the task of canvassing, a sample introduction is provided: "Hello, I'm John Smith from Faith Church in Pole Tavern. We're inviting children to our half-day vacation Bible school from June 20 to 24. It is for children three years old through those entering ninth grade. Would you be interested in registering your children?"
For some, like sixteen-year-old Caleb Elwell, handing out invitations for VBS is something "I can't remember not doing." He marks off the houses covered on the maps and gives helpful instruction to his two younger companions, his brother Abel and Sam Caldwell, as they walk together down the streets of Woodstown, handing out flyers.
The long-anticipated first day of VBS opens for the staff at 8:45 a.m with Scripture and prayer. Outside the building in the roped-off parking area, students line up in their respective classes until the starting time of 9:00 a.m. arrives. Monitors start leading the students inside the building, where everyone hears Pastor Cummings singing with cheer and gusto "I've Found the Pearl of Greatest Price." The monitors escort their assigned students to their designated seating places, where their teachers wait for them.
Pastor Cummings thanks everyone for coming and immediately tells them that they will learn this song this week. Within minutes, the students have already memorized the first stanza. Pastor Cummings then starts the second song to be learned, "Christ Is My Prophet, Priest, and King." He has the children read it in unison first, then has the girls sing it, then has the boys sing it, and finally has the children sing it in sections. The last song taught is "You Are Beautiful Beyond Description." For each song, Pastor Cummings explains what the words are saying about Jesus Christ and the salvation that is in his name. The time ends with prayer, and the students are dismissed to their classes. They march out single file behind their teachers the same way they entered, while Pastor Cummings sings "I Stand in Awe."
Once the students reach their classroom, the teachers enthusiastically begin the Bible lessons. They quickly learn the names of the students and engage them in a caring manner about the treasures of wisdom found in Jesus. The classrooms reflect the styles of the teachers and the ages of the students, but the common emphasis is on teaching what the Bible has to say about Jesus Christ.
A new craft is worked on every day. The children also play games particularly designed for their age group. There is also time for music, when individual class songs for the upcoming program are learned. Rehearsals take place daily for the closing program. These gain momentum with each passing day.
A letter from Pastor Cummings is sent home after the second day, thanking the parents for sending their children and giving them advance notice of the closing program on Friday evening. The letter also provides a registration form, if their child would like to invite a friend to accompany him or her for the rest of the week. During the week, VBS staffers also call the homes of those students who registered but have not attended or have ceased attending. Is there a transportation problem? Is your child sick? Is there anything that we can do to help?
On Wednesday, there is groaning from the children about all the hard work going into the production of the program. But by Friday the complaints have evaporated and there is the heightened anticipation of showing friends and family what has been learned during the week.
When Friday night arrives, Pastor Cummings welcomes everyone to the VBS program. Then the classes, from youngest to the oldest, take their place on the stage. They recite memorized portions of Scripture and sing the songs they have been taught. Then Pastor Cummings gives a short gospel message and the program concludes with the entire Bible school singing the songs learned in the opening exercises. Afterwards, sweet fellowship around refreshments takes place among the children, teachers, parents, and friends.
The constant prayer of Pastor David Cummings is that Faith OPC would reach whole households through VBS. One important element in reaching out is the follow-up visit to families. Families are thanked for sending their children and asked if they were able to attend the closing exercises. If they answer yes, the members share with the families how good it was to hear from children the good news of Jesus dying for sinners who trust him. If they answer no, members share the message that was presented at VBS concerning Jesus Christ. They are asked if they have a church home and are cordially welcomed to visit Faith OPC.
After leaving the house, notes are taken on the back of the attendance cards. Were they interested in things about God? Do they attend church? Did they say they would come to Sunday school or church? Would you recommend that the pastor visit?
The Williams family is one example of a family drawn to Faith OPC through VBS. Bev Williams recalls that she and her husband heard about VBS through friends. They sent their children and were impressed at how scripturally oriented the entire week had been. They were also getting to know the church better through the closing programs and the follow-up visits. They remained members in the United Presbyterian Church, but felt that they were not being fed the Bible. After the third year of their children attending VBS, they began attending Faith OPC "because it taught the Bible," and they became members of the church. Bev now teaches a VBS class every year.
Another ministry connected to VBS is the Woodstown Bible Club, which Regina Colon pioneered for children. Regina came to Faith OPC through her aunt, Bertha Hyman, and became involved in VBS. Wanting to help the children in her neighborhood, Regina began holding a Bible study for first graders in her apartment. With the help of Faith OPC member Tim Cummings's reaching out in the community, the study expanded to include children from age three to age fifteen. It is held at a local elementary school, with ten to twenty children attending. Most of the children who participate in the Bible Club also participate in VBS. Regina's husband, John, provides transportation for the children to VBS and the yearlong Bible Club.
Admittedly, not every church has the resources, such as Faith OPC's large facility and sizable congregation, to conduct VBS in this manner. Nor should the impression be given that Faith OPC has provided the final word on VBS. That is not the point of this account, and the members of Faith OPC would recoil at the suggestion. Rather, this report about VBS at Faith OPC is meant to encourage others who question whether VBS is still worth having. Faith OPC is a church that answers that question with a resounding yes.
The author is the general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2006.