I recently read a blog entitled, How Vacation Bible School Drove Millennials Away from Church, by Peter Burfeind. (http://thefederalist.com/2017/06/28/vacation-bible-school-drove-millennials-away-church/) The blog post argues that by “glizting up” the gospel through vacation Bible school themes such as “Getting S’more of Jesus…Galactic Starveyors: Discovering the God of the Universe… SonTreasure Island…”, etc., churches have minimalized the substance of the Gospel message in a way that has been rejected by many in my generation. The author argues that there is inevitably something phony about the bait n’ switch methods of employing fun themes to our summer studies, to only then turn around and throw a little dose of our boring church doctrine in on the back end. Millennials are known for despising anything seen as inauthentic or phony, so the author argues that creative strategies employed in vacation Bible school programs are a reason why Millennials are rejecting the church as a whole.
When I first saw this headline last week, on the eve of partnering with the Mission Valley UMC congregation to host vacation Bible school this week (Monday through Thursday from 5-8 pm!), my interest was peaked. I have not always been excited about the many, many VBS programs I have been a part of over the years, but have these VBS programs really driven people away from the church? It is clear that many of these programs have failed to grow churches, but are they actually a cause of church decline?
If anyone is pinning their hopes for the future of the church on a single week of music, games, crafts and a little bit of scripture study, then you will probably be disappointed with the results. If VBS is an outreach strategy intended to foster church growth, then we are misguided. On this point, I agree with the blog’s author: “as an outreach strategy, VBS is usually a flop, but still the chorus echoes across the country, “At least we planted the seed.”” Though we are in the business of planting seeds through our vacation Bible school programs, we should not expect these seeds to blossom from our week-long programs into adult church goers. Vacation Bible school programs are intended to provide a time and place for kids to have fun at church and spend their free time over the summer in Christian fellowship. They do not translate directly into making future pastors, church council presidents, or even regular church attenders. Just like how the first week of elementary school does not make a high school graduate, nor does a week of programming at a church over the summer make for a lifelong, committed Christian.
However, I am a little insulted that the author of this blog post thinks that kitchy themed vacation Bible school programming has played a central role in driving Millennials away from the church. Does he really think that we are so fickle and petty that people my age are leaving the church just because VBS is not all that it should be? Do you really think that if only VBS had been different then young adults would still be going to church? Do you really think that Millennial doubts about the existence of the God, critiques of religious institutions, shifts in cultural values, etc., all came about because the church took creative liberties for a single week each summer? Maybe, but I think saying that VBS drove Millennials away from the church is a bit much.
On the other hand, if the outreach the church does through our VBS programming is truly missional, then it has value, significance and meaning regardless of church growth or decline. Whatever vacation Bible school might have been intended to accomplish in the past, it has great value in this day and age if it provides any opportunity for any child to hear the Good News that they are eternally loved. Gone are the days when the value of our ministry programs is gauged by the numbers that flock to them. Returned are the days when we understand the value of our work by the power of God’s love and how that love is shared through our efforts. The seeds we plant are not to make the church strong. The seeds we plant are teaching the smallest among us that their lives have value and meaning because they are formed and redeemed in the love of Jesus Christ.
My wife just pointed out to me that one great thing about VBS is that it is programming which values children and shows that the church values them. It is no easy task to put on a vacation Bible school. Great coordination is required between churches, publishers, volunteers, teachers, students, parents, and pastors. Hundreds of hours of combined planning and volunteer work go into each week. Usually, the church spares no expense in blessing communities with free events in which children are the focus. We give them this experience because they matter to us and it is important to provide children in our faith communities with fun opportunities to actually show them they matter to us. By this, we are welcoming not only our children in the church, but also the Christ who saves them. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…” (Mark 9:37, NRSV).
Rev. Seth Nelson is a pastor and author of the book, The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He lives in western Montana with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.