Saturday, July 11, 2009

VBS: Christ's Convenient Summer Warehouse For Your Children

The signs have popped up everywhere now, in front of nearly every single one of the churches in the area. They're filled with grinning cartoon animals you've never seen before but that tie in to recent movie hits. They offer the promise of catchy, well-produced videos and perky counselors leading your kids through some good Jesus times. This year's crop of Vacation Bible School programs are now crankin' away.

VBS has always been something of an alien thing for me. I grew up going to an urban and very progressive congregation, and they just didn't do the VBS thing. It wasn't that VBS was viewed as unworthy. It was that it wasn't necessarily the best match for my church. First off, the church was downtown, which made getting there difficult. Second, the church ministered to an area that was my youth...known for drug dealing, porn theaters, and prostitution.

After leaving church programs for the homeless, I had to actively run for my life on at least one occasion. As a teen, I found being part of ministry there...edgy. Interesting. Real. Most suburban parents, on the other hand, probably wouldn't have seen this as a big draw.

But then again, I'm not sure VBS was the same critter when I was a kid as it is now. A generation ago, VBS didn't seem like that big a deal. As a Christian phenomenon, it's been kicking around for just a bit over 100 years. Lately, though, my gut is that VBS is a very, very big deal. It's everywhere. It's one of the most visible church products out there. Why? Well, many reasons, but among them are several implicit purposes.

First, it's an "activity." It started as something that rose organically out of the life of churches to reinforce the basics of faith in their kids. It was also used to share the basic elements of the Good News with those for whom faith wasn't quite so well established. It still does that, but now it feels woven up into the culture of making sure our kids never have a single unscheduled moment.

Carefully packaged Jesus moments get scheduled into our children's tightly packed summer, along with swim team, SAT prep, Prep for SAT prep, soccer camp, math camp, scout camp, nature camp, full-day tae kwon do camp, and junior stress-management camp. My kids love that last one. Shaky the Stallion and Twitches the Turtle are seriously two of their favorite camp mascots.

While this is technically fine, and it's good that AmeriChrist Inc. is a presence in the professional parenting marketplace, something in me squirms at the "activity-ness" of it. It feels a wee bit like any other summer child-management option, just with a healthy dollop of ingredient J added in. And it shouldn't. Should it?

Second, there is the flawed assumption that many churches have: this will bring the precious families! The kids will come, and they will love the wonderfully designed program we bought from a publishing house just like all the other churches in a five mile radius. They will tell their parents, and their parents will come to church, and our church will finally, finally grow.

The truth of it is that healthy churches are ones that appeal to people as people, not to people as managers of progeny. If you run a great VBS program and a great program for kids, but your church doesn't resonate with adults who are seeking meaning and purpose in life, then you're not going to thrive. Once the kids grow, the parents will wander off.

Finally, having reviewed a good half-dozen of the slickityest VBS curricula around, I struggle with the idea that they really teach effectively. They're great at faith-o-tainment, and at teaching kids that following Jesus is super fun. This is fine if it's reinforcing the things a kid is already learning in a Christian community about the great sweeping story of the Gospel. It might be fine if it spurs an interest. And kids do like it. Then again, kids would try to subsist entirely on YooHoo and Slim Jims if you let 'em.

If it's a flitting moment, one thing to keep them occupied while spiritually disengaged parents juggle them and work...well...maybe it isn't all we think it is.

The songs sure are catchy, though.