Vacation Bible school (VBS) has long exemplified the ingenuity of Christian faith formation.
The seasonal education program may date back as far as the 1870s, to the Chautauqua adult education movement. Eventually, the concept was adapted by denominations, including ELCA predecessor bodies. Summer retreats, Bible camp excursions and more became integral to faith formation among Lutheran youth.
Despite these deep roots, VBS programs in U.S. churches have decreased by 35 percent since 1997, according to the Barna Group. The drop-off is often attributed to declining worship attendance and shrinking numbers of youth and volunteers.
However, viable, adaptable curriculum can help programs tremendously, said Mariel Spengler of the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM) Curriculum Committee. “There are several camps that provide daytime programming, or they send out teams to do day camp programs in congregations,” she said.
LOM provides Bible school curriculum that allows users to add their own touches to the content. “We feel it’s a priority to continue creating this curriculum,” Spengler said. “It’s theologically sound, created by outdoor ministry professionals for outdoor settings and congregational settings.”
Connecting beyond our community
Curriculum is often a central focus of successful VBS programs, with form and function becoming especially important in ecumenical ministries.
Community partnerships have enabled Zion (Rockford) and St. Paul (Marble Rock) Lutheran churches in Iowa to provide Bible school for the past 15 years. They collaborate with nearby Methodist and Roman Catholic congregations to offer VBS to preschoolers through sixth-graders, drawing 60 or more children each summer.
In 2002, 125 children attended, said Christine Schmitt, co-coordinator from St. Paul.
After adapting prepared curriculum for years, Schmitt wrote the 2017 materials for “Pathfinders: Let’s Go Hiking!” Its basis is John 14:6, in which Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
“A lot of the VBS materials are about vast unknown areas like ‘deep under the sea.’ I wanted kids to know they could find God right here,” Schmitt said. “We’re in rural Iowa—a small town, with lots of green spaces.”
Supporting the main theme are four daily emphases, with related Bible stories, crafts and games. Children receive a “token” symbolizing the day’s theme.
Specific mission focuses also are included for Homes for Haiti, the local food pantry and the Ronald McDonald House. “We strive to do something to connect everything we do to an international, regional and local mission emphasis,” she said. “This helps the children understand how our faith connects us beyond to our community, to our neighbors and to the world.”
Empowering students to lead
At one time, Peggy Hahn also sought to pair needs with available resources. In summer 1992, she was working at Kinsmen Lutheran Church in Houston, which boasted a new, unused gymnasium. Hahn thought of her three kids at home, cooped up and aggravating baby-sitters.
“Summer is such a rich time for faith formation,” Hahn said. “Summer just has a different energy and occupies a different space in our lives. It’s really important that we take advantage of that opportunity.”
She sketched the vision for a summer Christian education model. With other parents, she developed something to focus younger children, engage teens and fill that empty gym. Camp Hope was born.
Unlike the common four- to five-day VBS model, Camp Hope runs a full day, on a three-week schedule. Along with religious education for children, it provides opportunities for teens to develop in ministry leadership and adults to mentor them.
From Kinsmen, Camp Hope branched out to more than a dozen sites in six synods.
“There are 13 congregations that do Camp Hope as a community. … There is no church too small,” said Hahn, now executive director of LEAD in the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod.
“Summer is such a rich time for faith formation.” — Peggy Hahn
At Greenvine Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Burton, Texas, weekly worship attendance is between 40 and 60 in the town of 300. But even a small congregation like Greenvine has been able to serve students well through its Camp Hope program for youth of African descent by partnering with area nonprofits.
Like Greenvine, each Camp Hope site is personalized. Four core values provide the common thread, said Neil Christians, Camp Hope director and staff trainer: youth-led, adult-mentored ministry; congregational commitment; biblical literacy; and community connection.
“In my experience, high school students know when they’re helping out and when they’re trusted with ministry, and they rise to the occasion,” he said. “You’ll hear people say students are the future of the church; they lead the church today. So let them lead. Let’s get some adults in there to empower them to lead, mentor them and do some discipleship.”