Modern messages

Vacation Bible Schools have a 21st century look but teachings are centuries old

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By Lynn Stout
Blount Today

The last time I attended a Vacation Bible School it was held in the basement of the church. We sang songs while someone played a piano. We watched a scratchy movie on a projector with bad sound, and we ate the popsicles whose sticks ]provided the craft for the next day. The glue was runny.

Vacation Bible Schools have changed since I was a kid. Now there are media presentations with soundtracks and choreographed dancers on DVD. Volunteers wear costumes. There are water games, air conditioning, theme-oriented snacks and glue sticks.

Local churches have learned to embrace changes in society and recognize they must compete with video games, iPods, and the ever-present TV. The curriculum has to be exciting and engaging but without compromising the values and teachings behind the fun. As the days heat up, Blount County’s local churches are offering an alternative to beat the heat and learn a little something about Jesus at the same time.

Jennifer Walker, interim children’s director at Fairview United Methodist Church, knows about changing curriculums for today’s kids.

"They are definitely changing. They are more geared toward meeting different learning styles. Kids get experience using all senses. Plus there are science experiments, art projects, games and interactive stories. They even use their sense of smell," she said.

Carol Britton, VBS director at First Baptist Church Alcoa agrees. "Technology has come into play with using the big screen for music and actions to songs, a video with activities to follow and Bible lessons are interactive."

In his six years as Broadway United Methodist Church’s coordinator of children and youth ministries, Charlie Wimmer said one thing hasn’t changed. "We still have those vanilla crème cookies. I had a volunteer bring some in and tell me we can’t have VBS without them!"

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the message.

River Oaks Community Church’s theme this year is "To the Ends of the Earth" and is based on Acts 1:8. "It teaches that Jesus is so great, He’s worth being proclaimed whatever the cost," said Chris Kalwa, pastor to families at River Oaks.

But you can’t just tell kids about Christ’s love, you have to show them, say VBS coordinators. To make their teaching meaningful, River Oaks is putting a face to their words. As children learn about missionaries to other countries, they will also learn about different cultures. Then they get to meet missionaries who have served in the country they are studying. Kalwa says having a person there, speaking from experience, makes it real to them.

The message of Vacation Bible School isn’t just for the kids who attend church. With 300 children anticipated at Fairview VBS, Walker said about 30 to 40 percent of them are from the community. "We’ve found what works best is to give our kids fliers that they can take to their friends." It just makes sense that kids want to share with their friends the message behind VBS.

Britton said First Baptist Church Alcoa anticipates that 50 percent of their attendees will be from the community. "I think sometimes people don’t realize they are welcome here. It’s not just for the people who go to the church."

Of course, all the fun and excitement couldn’t happen without a great number of volunteers. It takes about six months to really gear up for VBS so volunteers begin early in the year. They fill roles like snack preparation, curriculum organization, first aid attendant, teacher and assistant. There is something for everyone to do.

Britton said, "The volunteers really go all out for it and make it a special week for the children. The leaders enjoy it as much as the children do." Volunteering is not just for those who want to teach the children. At Broadway UMC the entire church gets involved as each adult Sunday school class takes an evening to serve dinner to the crowd and most end up staying to help out in some way.

With shorter summers, increased activities for children and more homes where both parents work, many churches have gone to evening VBS. It is cooler then and the children are awake. The evening hours also encourage entire families to get involved. Wimmer says he’s noticed an increased focus on families at Vacation Bible School. Rather than parents dropping their kids off for a few hours every day, many parents stay, and it becomes an activity for the whole family. Even the younger kids take part in VBS with scaled-down versions of the same activities and crafts the big kids are doing.

Broadway United Methodist is keeping to the theme of family as they also welcome infants to a fully-staffed nursery. But what about parents who just want to get some time alone? Wimmer says, "I tell them, you got a date night!"

While Vacation Bible Schools have evolved to creative themes, fancy games, yummy snacks and entertainment, the message has remained the same for all churches. "We still have VBS because we want to share with children and everyone the message of God’s redeeming love for us," said Britton. "We want children to know that the Christian walk is not dull and boring but a relationship with Christ is life. We want them to feel the love of Christ while they are with us the week of VBS and to remember VBS and church as a place they can turn to, that God’s love and grace is for all."

First Baptist Alcoa’s "Avalanche Ranch" is June 18-22 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. with family night on June 20 from 6 to 8 p.m. Activities include singing, games, crafts and chuck wagon chow.

Britton wants everyone to know, "It will be a really fun week for your children, and you are very welcome here." For more information, call 865-982-2661.

Fairview United Methodist Church is planning to catch kids’ attention with "The Miraculous Catch," during Sunday school on June 17. Then, from 6 to 8 p.m., June 18 through 21, kids will experience stories, lively worship, mission projects and crafts with the theme "Take the Plunge: Make a Splash with Jesus." The fun ends on Friday with a pool party for the kids and their parents. For more information, visit www.fairview-umc.org or call 865-983-2080.

River Oaks Community Church isn’t doing a typical Vacation Bible School. For the last two years they’ve offered "Sonday" Camp each Sunday in July from 9 a.m. to noon. "To the Ends of the Earth" focuses on a different continent each day and teaches the kids about different cultures through activities, crafts and stories. The continents of focus are Europe, Asia, Africa, North America and South America.

"They will hear how the gospel is supreme over all religions and instill a love for all people," said Kalwa. For more information, visit www.therocc.org or call 865-980-9088.

For those who would like to see a church transformed into a seaside village, visit Broadway United Methodist Church’s "Galilee by the Sea" from 5:30 to 8:15 p.m., June 25 through 29. Every one will become a member of a tribe of Israel and visit the marketplace for hands-on activities, such as making bread, sandals, rope and carpentry. For more information, visit www.broadwayumc.net or call 865-982-6192.

Most area churches have VBS weeks or camps that are similar. Contact the church of your choice or in your neighborhood to see when Vacation Bible School will be held. None of the churches Blount Today contacted restrict their Bible school to
church members only, so your children will be welcomed at any VBS you choose.

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