Using Vacation Bible School to reach your community
By Sara Shelton
“I’ve never been good at inviting people to church. Something about extending that invitation has always been uncomfortable for me.”
This sentiment from Atlanta-area churchgoer Lindsey Neal is not uncommon among believers. A lifelong Christian, Neal struggled with finding a way to share that part of her life with others in her community. All of that changed, however, when she became a mom.
“The first time I dropped my son off at our church’s Vacation Bible School it hit me,” Neal explains. “People are always looking for positive activities for their children, and VBS is just that. It gives me a less intimidating way to talk to people about church and extend the invitation to their families.”
And she’s not the only one.
More and more churchgoers are realizing what a powerful tool for invitation and evangelism Vacation Bible School can be. Jerry Wooley, Lifeway’s VBS ministry specialist, says congregations around the country consistently see a tremendous response to Vacation Bible School.
“Churches have had a lot of success in bringing new families into their congregations through VBS,” Wooley explains. “The program really opens the door to church in a nontraditional way.”
In 2014, churches that used Lifeway VBS material reported more than 2.5 million people enrolled in VBS, with reports of 73,192 new professions of faith. Some 177,721 of the children who attended these VBS events were previously unchurched. However, Wooley also points out that when factoring in adults and older siblings who attend alongside those children, the number rises to an estimated 1 million unchurched individuals reached through VBS.
While Wooley and his team are thrilled with these reports, they are encouraging churches to think outside the box—or, more accurately, outside their walls—when it comes to VBS this year.
“There are still millions of kids out there who aren’t going to respond to a traditional on-campus Bible school,” Wooley explains. “If we’re going to reach the unchurched, we have to go where they are.”
Putting VBS on the map
That’s exactly what children’s ministry leaders like Tim Munoz are doing. In his early years as pastor of children’s and preschool ministries at Hilldale Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, Munoz saw great success in reaching families in his own congregation through VBS. But after nearly seven years of putting on a successful on-campus program, he felt the distinct call to move the program into the community.
“About three years ago I was at a conference where a man got up to share about his past experience with the church,” Munoz recalls. “He grew up down the street from three or four churches, yet nobody from any of those churches ever came to his family. He was steps away from access to the gospel, but those churches never went outside their walls to bring it to him. And it hit me right then: I’m that church that refuses to go to the child down the street.”
Immediately, Munoz set to work revamping Hilldale’s VBS program with his team.
“I told them, ‘Guys, we’re not just opening our doors for VBS; we’re taking it into the community, too.’”
That year, Hilldale put on five VBS programs, only one of which was held at the church’s campus. Four others met at local schools, in community parks, and in the front yards of families in low-income housing areas. The following year, the team continued that model, hosting 10 total VBS programs with nine meeting at locations around the community. Last year, Hilldale grew that number to 27.
“I have a huge map of our city hanging in my office, and I’ve flagged on it where all our VBS programs have met,” Munoz says. “It gives me a visual representation of not only where we’ve served but also all of the places we still have to go.”
Both Munoz and Wooley are passionate about helping other churches adopt a similar model, encouraging them to take VBS into their communities.
“VBS provides a huge opportunity for community outreach,” Wooley explains. “Every member of your congregation has a neighbor or a place in their community that needs to be reached, and we want all our churches to embrace the idea that VBS could be the tool that reaches them.”
From the first stages of planning to the final follow-up, Wooley and his team want to encourage churches to consider community evangelism and outreach in every step of the process when it comes to VBS this year.
As you plan your VBS, consider your community, too. Think through the makeup of the community and how you can construct a VBS program that is accessible to most everyone around you.
“Before you can successfully reach your community, you have to know your community,” Munoz advises. “We spent time getting to know the people and the places in our city where we eventually took VBS. We learned where the needs were and then spent time putting together programs that best served the people right where they were.”
Do you already partner with a local school? Talk to the principal about hosting a program there. Is there a busy shopping center in your community? Ask the owner about hosting a VBS-style event in the parking lot for a day.
Developing a community-minded team is essential. It will be increasingly difficult to reach your community if your volunteers don’t have a heart for more than just the children and families in your own church.
“I couldn’t do what I do in terms of VBS without my team,” Munoz explains. “Their understanding and obedience to God’s call to reach other people has been vital.”
To help train volunteers, look for resources that provide practical help as well as spiritual encouragement.
“We provide training materials on everything from recruiting volunteers to giving them the spiritual resources they need to have a conversation with a child or family about Christ,” Wooley says of Lifeway’s VBS. “Our goal is not only to equip your team for VBS but also to excite and inspire them to serve.”
Whether you’re hosting a traditional on-campus VBS this year or taking the program to your community, consider how you can best get the word out. Get permission to send home flyers at your local schools. Use social media to let followers know when the program will take place. Host a VBS preview night in the community to attract interest.
“We talk to schools, we hang signs in parks and community centers, we put banners in front yards,” Munoz says. “We want to do whatever we can do to make it easy for people to find out who we are, what we’re doing, and how they can take part.”
LifeWay’s 2016 VBS program, “Submerged: Finding Truth Below the Surface,” gives attendees the opportunity to dive deeper into God’s Word. The material encourages children and families to look beyond the surface, providing biblical examples of how Jesus saw beyond the outside of a person and looked instead to what was deeper, on the inside.
According to Wooley, Lifeway provides teaching material for babies all the way up to adults, including Spanish-language curriculum and material for children with special needs.
At the core of any VBS program is the heart to see people come to Christ. Look for material that focuses specifically on opportunities for evangelism, guiding leaders through ways to share the gospel.
To make sure your leaders are prepared, Lifeway provides guidance on giving a gospel presentation to any age group in each of the leader guides.
“Because evangelism is so valuable to us,” says Wooley, “we want to do whatever we can to make sure the week doesn’t end without everyone hearing the gospel and having the chance to respond.”
As your VBS ends, it’s important to remember your ministry to those in attendance has just begun. Following up with those who participated—especially those who are new to church—is a great way to continue to reach your community.
“VBS laid the foundation upon which we’ve been able to build an even bigger ministry to our community,” Munoz explains. “And we’ve seen a lot of life change happen in the follow-up ministry we’ve done post-VBS.”
Consider how you can continue to minister to your community after VBS. Did you host your VBS at a local school? Maybe plan a school supply drive or a back-to-school bash for them in the fall. Did you bring VBS to a local park or neighborhood? Throw a block party or provide a day of cleanup to continue to serve the people there.
Vacation Bible School provides an open door to new areas of your community. As your church prepares for VBS this season, consider how you can go not only to the families in your church but also to those in the schools, parks, and neighborhoods that make up your community. And, as Munoz explains, God will show up when you show up.
“All you have to do is get it to the people,” he says, “and then let God do the rest.”
SARA SHELTON is a freelance writer in Atlanta, Georgia.