Vacation Bible School and the Fifth Task of Catechesis
Ask a child the question, “How was Vacation Bible School today?” and you’re likely to hear about catchy tunes, lively dance moves, water-soaked clothing from outdoor games, creative art projects, and delicious themed snacks. But on a deeper level — beyond these typical components — VBS programs serve as one of the most long-lasting, highest-impacting outreach and evangelization efforts a parish can offer. Besides a wealth of catechetical opportunities and an inclusive community spirit, Vacation Bible School (or VBS) offers the formation of dynamic relationships with others, as well as the strengthening of participants’ relationships with God.
Veteran VBS crew leader Andrea Balli, a student at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, explains, “At VBS, every child is welcome. You do not have to come from a certain family, a certain parish, or have a special skill to participate. All participants need to do is open their hearts to God. This brings the community together, especially as children who may never interact with other children outside of this camp are encouraged to get to know one another and welcome one another.”
Naturally, children participating in Vacation Bible School are the chief focus, but the VBS experience also reaches and touches young VBS volunteers (and even their families) on a community level. While volunteering for VBS as a teen leader is a great life experience for future college and job applications, VBS can affect young people’s lives for a lifetime.
“Vacation Bible School taught me that faith grows everywhere, not just while sitting in Mass or a service,” Balli said. “I truly do not think there have been many times I was as close to God as I was while volunteering at VBS. I felt like I was witnessing him before my very eyes through the enthusiastic children and the volunteers.”
The community-building power of VBS often involves social elements as well as mentoring opportunities, community relations, bonding via a shared experience, and honing individual gifts that contribute toward a universal purpose.
“Some of the best parish experiences are intergenerational,” says Mary Ellen Mahon, director of pastoral ministry for the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire. “VBS is also a way to reach in and beyond the parish community.”
Community builds from people getting to know each other, and by the end of VBS, most children are excited to have cultivated new friendships. Registering for VBS does not require membership at a specific parish. Many children tend to feel more comfortable — and have even more fun — when they invite their friends to attend VBS too. And sometimes those friends come from different churches (or even no church at all). Children might discover that they attend the same school or live in the same town, and parents who drop off and pick up their children from VBS also have an opportunity to connect. “Some kids invite their friends who are not Catholic,” Mahon said, “and it’s a way to communicate lots of good information about our faith. We also have a VBS closing ceremony at the end of the week, and families join us. The children and teens share about what they learned.”
Teen volunteers also might encourage their friends to help with VBS. Maybe some of those friends are shy about voicing their religious beliefs, would like to learn more about God, or have not previously served in a leadership role. VBS experiences can help with a teen’s personal faith journey.
“I think my absolute favorite part of VBS was seeing how the social dynamics of the campers changed throughout the course of the camp,” Balli explained. “The youth started off shy and sat near the people they knew. By the end of the camp, everybody knew everybody and had made countless friendships they may have not had the opportunity to make outside of VBS.”
Through VBS, younger children get to know older children — and they quickly discover that these teens are formidable leaders in their school, parish, and community. They receive a positive view of teenagers who are not afraid to profess their faith and share their love of God. Young VBS participants also might aspire to become VBS teen leaders when they’re older.
Planning a Vacation Bible School program requires a community effort as well, with months and months of thoughtful planning for the final event. A model of “apprenticeship” usually results, with older teens who are longtime VBS volunteers helping to train and guide the younger helpers.
“VBS helps prepare and strengthen leaders,” Mahon said. “And VBS can also help children make connections with the sacraments in happy and joyful ways.”
Stephanie Young of Little River, Kansas, volunteers weekly throughout the school year with the “Good News Club” at her church as well as a week in the summer at “Camp Good News” in Hutchinson, Kansas. She has also volunteered for VBS in the past.
“I live in a small town with just over 500 people, so community is a very big deal for us,” she said. “You can’t do anything in a town that small without engaging the community.”
In addition to making a church more visible in the community, in a less-formal setting than school, Young feels that VBS also offers children the chance to strengthen their friendships through their faith in Jesus and through learning about him.
“These programs connect kids from different grades who might not normally interact, as well as kids from different social and economic backgrounds who might not be friends at school,” she explained. “They can see each other beyond the labels of age, grade, friend group, etc.”
Building Community Through Service
Incorporating a community-service project into a VBS program encourages children to think beyond themselves, their families, their schools, and even their parishes. Many planning teams choose to organize a community-outreach effort during VBS, such as donating spare change to a charity, collecting personal hygiene items for a shelter, raising money to purchase Bibles for children in poverty, gathering nonperishable items for a local food pantry, or collecting winter items (such as scarves, hats, and mittens) for children in need.
Even the process itself of selecting a VBS service project helps build community spirit and encourages volunteers to think about meeting needs in their communities.
“In Catholic VBS programs, it’s not only about helping but also about advocating and learning about Catholic social teaching,” said Sabrina Magnuson, associate publisher for Our Sunday Visitor Curriculum. “It’s critical to show our youth as well as the children who are participating that being a disciple is all about community. It’s a ‘Jesusand-me’ experience, but in the context of parish and community.
“VBS creates its own community,” Magnuson continued. “The VBS leaders know how to model building community, and children see community building in action. In the process of doing the VBS stations — singing, dancing, playing, being silly, having serious reflection — kids experience community. And it helps show that we, as disciples of Christ, can be missionary disciples … and how critical that is in building community.”
Through VBS, young people get to know others who share their beliefs. In a traditional classroom environment, some children might feel shy about sharing their faith; however, VBS provides a safe, comfortable environment where sharing the love of God, faith, and the Church is highly encouraged. VBS participants are united as a community — the body of Christ — when they share the Gospel message with others.
“At Vacation Bible School, kids are grouped with kids of all different ages and all different backgrounds,” Balli said. “During this camp any differences that students may face in school are put aside as children come together to do things: share their faith and have fun! The fact that students are placed in a welcoming environment where they can voice their faith is very unique — definitely making it the greatest benefit of participating.”
A sense of community spirit builds when young people come together with their own unique talents and knowledge and work toward a larger purpose. They know that their individual efforts are needed and appreciated and serve as valuable contributions to the team. St. Paul speaks about the individual’s contributions to community:
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
Some teens love performing and feel comfortable on stage, so leading the skits, songs, and dances during VBS might be a perfect fit. Young people who enjoy expressing themselves through art might enjoy leading the VBS craft stations. Active teens who love sports and being outside might find that they are natural leaders for the outdoor games.
With each subsequent year of VBS, however, encouraging young people to extend themselves outside their comfort zones — by trying a new activity station that they might not have previously considered — is a positive way of helping them develop their leadership repertoire.
“Though the goal of these programs is to teach children about Jesus, what I have learned is that children will be watching me to see if I follow the things they are learning,” Young said. “Am I patient? Am I kind? Am I showing love? Do I point them and myself back to Jesus as we encounter challenging situations? Do I know the Bible or what I am teaching well enough to answer the questions they have? It is one of the hardest and most wonderful things I have ever done.”
“Everybody here is treated equally as a child of God,” Balli added. “A community sees great benefits anytime a group of people are given the opportunity to come together and celebrate faith.”
LISANNE JENSEN serves as the coordinator of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry at The Church of St. Joseph and as the secondary Faith Formation and Youth Ministry Coordinator at St. James, both in the Diocese of Albany, New York.
PHOTO: Monkey Business Images
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, March 2018.