Great Plains churches adjust to keep VBS alive during pandemic

David Burke

6/10/2020

If everything had gone according to plan, about 50 children from 3 years old through fourth grade would have gathered at Prairie Village Asbury UMC for Vacation Bible School next week.

But, like nearly everything else in 2020, nothing has gone according to plan.

Instead, the Johnson County, Kansas, church is making plans for a July virtual VBS, using Illustrated Ministry’s “Compassion Camp” material.

“I liked that it was designed to be at home and done virtually, and that we didn’t have to adapt as much from what we were planning on doing,” Heather Jackson, director of family ministries, said. “Trying to adapt (other lessons) just seemed like so much work, and it was good to see that somebody was putting out a VBS specifically designed to create that virtual experience.”

In mid- to late April, Jackson floated some ideas including delaying VBS or the virtual format.

“My parents were really like, ‘We don’t feel comfortable sending our kids back to a group,’” she said. Some of them even said, “We’re not even sure what we’ll do when school resumes.”

Materials have just arrived, Jackson said, and her vision of virtual VBS includes some prerecorded videos, a gathering time via Zoom and materials that can be sent by either email or regular mail to the children.

Jackson said she never considered the possibility of canceling VBS.

“We didn’t even put that as an option,” she said. “I think VBS is an important aspect of what we do in children’s ministry, and it often allows us to reach people outside of our congregation. It might be the only time we have contact with those kids and those families. It was important to me and I think it was important to the team, to keep VBS in some format.”

At Dodge City First UMC, the spirit of VBS is alive and well with weekly videos by Melyssa Doherty, director of children’s ministries, on the church’s Facebook page for children and youth, which began a week after spring break.

“It’s like going to camp,” said the Rev. Jerre Nolte, the church’s lead pastor. “You go to camp one week and you get a year’s worth of Sunday school. You watch COVID-19 videos of Miss Melyssa, you get two years of Vacation Bible School, basically.”

Material for this year’s VBS had already been ordered by the spring and “it’ll go on the shelf until next year unless Cokesbury gets something even better,” Nolte said.

The videos have received as many as 75 views a day, he said.

It mirrors the growth that the church has seen from livestreaming, which it’s done for the past 3 ½ years. The church’s traditional and contemporary worship services are livestreamed, and its Spanish service has had as many as 250 views – amazing to Nolte since the chapel where the Spanish services take place hold only 100.

“Our numbers are growing astronomically,” he said.

Nolte said changing VBS, like many decisions the church has had to make this year, took a lot of deliberation.

“It was a hard decision to make, but one we had to make,” he said.

Hastings First UMC Christian education and youth director Judy Aspen knew that when plans were being changed that the “V” in VBS would not stand for “Virtual.”

“My youngest is a senior this year – so I didn’t have to deal with the virtual stuff from home,” Aspen said. “But talking to parents of elementary-age kids, they’re sick to death (of virtual learning). When I said, ‘What about virtual Bible school?’ They said, ‘Nope, would not do that.’”

Instead, the church is offering “VBS in a Box,” with all the elements of Vacation Bible School – lesson plans, recreation, crafts, snacks – in one take-home kit. Aspen said 48 preschoolers to fifth-graders were registered before the June 8 deadline, close to the 50-to-70 range of children that had attended in previous years.

Hastings First brought back the 2014 “Workshop of Wonders” VBS material and a volunteer, who is also a schoolteacher, revamped the stories.

“She just made the most wonderful booklets,” Aspen said.

Parents can pick up the kits June 23-24 and the children have the option of completing them when they’d like.

“They can spread it out over the summer, or if they’re coming in to stay with grandma and grandma might want to do some of the things with them, it might look like more of a traditional Bible school and get done in a week,” Aspen said. “It’ll be very much a go-at-your-own pace kind of thing.”

Like many VBSs, she said, about half of the children who attend belong to the church family and half are newcomers. She hopes that trend continues with the new format.

“It’s a first-time thing, so we never know,” she said.

Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.


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