THE FIRST time I walked into a North Shore Alliance vacation Bible school program, I crossed over a drawbridge and under a portcullis to find myself inside a castle. The entire church lobby had been lavishly transformed into a medieval castle complete with parapets, brightly colored banners, and knights.
By the time I entered the sanctuary, holding my five-year-old’s hand, I was the one in tears. The stage was unrecognizable as a stage, but had become a richly abundant castle interior. I was overwhelmed. Although I grew up in church, I don’t remember any event where such an immense amount of energy and care had been taken to make the children feel welcome and loved.
That was three years ago, but the impact of each successive VBS has been no less. The value the church places on children is evident in each event.
This year, my son and I walk through the back of a Conestoga wagon complete with wooden box and wagon wheels into a lobby made into a general story and livery for “Son Creek Junction,” this year’s western theme.
The sanctuary and stage has become the interior of the general store and mail station. The counter holds jars of candies, barrels and bundles of various dry goods spill out across the stage. A wood-burning stove with stovepipe and a sawhorse with a real saddle complete the scene. A log cabin and prairie schooner wagon create a distant backdrop. Never mind that some of the props are made of paper — they are bright and bold and well designed — and they work their magic.
The place is humming with excitement. Young adults dressed in western costume are shepherding groups of children, aged three to eleven, into the auditorium. The groups, named in keeping with the theme — Rattlers, Mustangs, Pony Express, and the appropriately named preschoolers, the Field Mice — are exuberant. They feel important.
We are greeted by a whooping “whoo-hoo!” from Shirley Love, the church’s children’s pastor. Dressed in a gingham-checked dress, apron, cowboy boots and ten-gallon hat, ‘Mama Love’ (as she is affectionately called) introduces the ‘Worship Muchachos.’ Three guys in their late teens — who turn out to be the muchachos — lead the children in singing such ‘grown-up’ worship songs as Delirious’ ‘Shout to the North’ and Andrew Smith’s ‘I Will Not be Shaken.’
“F-AI-TH — You gotta have faith!” they yell at the top of their lungs. Prior to each VBS, the church sends out a CD of songs to each child, taken from the Gospel Light curriculum from current and past years. These are not insipid, patronizing little ditties — these are quality songs even adults enjoy singing, and it’s obvious the kids do too.
From my vantage point in the balcony, I can see the main floor packed with 300 bandana-bedecked children, a sea of little hands raised high as they perform the sign-language/dance combination actions of the songs. I can also see who is running the sound system and power point — two 11-year-old boys, calmly supervised by a couple of teens. Clearly, this church believes in handing over real responsibility to the next generation early.
North Shore Alliance has used Gospel Light’s curricula since they began their first VBS program in 1994 with 60 children. Love says one of the best things about the curriculum is that churches are allowed to reproduce the CDs. “Those CDs are in people’s houses and cars — the impact goes on for years,” Love says.
Before the children head off into small group activities, several of the nearly 80 youth who volunteer in running Son Creek Junction perform a skit for the kids. Outlaws, Dusty Dan, Luci Tripinfall, and Jesse play their lines smoothly and demonstrate the importance of telling one’s true feelings to God for the children.
Ranging from ages 12 to 20-something, these youth make the program happen as the group leaders, musicians, craft and game-time facilitators, and Bible study leaders. The youth begin meeting in late March to prepare for the July VBS, helping to create the decor and learning the ropes of running a quality children’s program.
“It’s important for the [young] kids,” Love says. “They get to see what they can be like as a teacher, or up on stage. It gives them dreams, something to hope for.” Children entering grade six in the fall are given the choice of helping to supervise the youngest children’s groups as leaders, or joining for a final year as participants.
It is equally important for the youth staff, Love says. Not only is it fun and relationship building for the teens, it gives them a vision of helping others.
For the first time this year, Love conducted an interview process for youth wanting to work in the VBS. She says she was amazed at their reasons for wanting to participate as leaders. Many said it was very important for the kids to know Jesus, while others said they had been taught, and now felt they wanted to teach. Putting on a program like this requires youth to use “every spiritual gift,” Love says, from administration to intercession to pastoral.
Over the years, the Alliance has partnered with St. Simon’s Anglican Church to put on the program. Although a much smaller church, in past years St. Simon’s has provided nearly half of the youth staff for the program, Love says.
With the opening session over, the children now head off for the day’s activities, which include interest builders, crafts, games, Bible studies and missions centres. As I walk around, I see children creating sidewalk chalk art all over the paved entrance to the church. Some are panning for ‘gold’, while others are making crafts. Although the church spends approximately one dollar per child for their craft each day, these are not just little paper coloring sheets. My son brings home a rattlesnake complete with rattling tail made from an old stuffed silk tie, and a brightly decorated cloth bandana to wear during the week.
Every detail has been thought of, down to the crossing guards helping the children cross the street for their game time. As we walk past, I see a group of older children practicing a line dance to Delirious’ ‘God’s Romance,’ which they will perform at the end of the week when the parents are invited to the ‘Round Up’ evening.
Not only do these kids receive, they also learn to give. The missions portion of the week raised money for Lifeline, a downtown ministry which gives out food and clothing. The goal was to raise $1,500 to help paint and repair the ministry’s delivery ‘Blue Bus’. By Wednesday, the children had already raised $1,100. By Friday, they had exceeded their goal by over $1,000 dollars, as children competed in teams to see who could bring in the most. This wasn’t just Mommy and Daddy’s money either — children were asked to think of creative ways to earn money to give to the cause. The day I attended, children brought in ziploc bags stuffed with coins to place in their team’s basket, along with canned goods.
All this activity does draw kids from other churches to VBS, but Love says that nearly 30 per cent are unchurched. “The kids are the best evangelists,” Love says, noting that one child invited her entire school class to Son Creek Junction. Love would ideally like to have 50 per cent unchurched kids, and has considered limiting enrollment from other churches. She says she would rather spend her time teaching other churches how to put on their own program, so that every church can be drawing in kids from their neighborhoods, rather than filling each other’s programs.
“My theory is that if 85 per cent of people becomes Christians before the age of 18, then 85 per cent of church budgets should go to that,” Love says. Betty Eisenhauer, who handles the VBS budget, says the church has a “healthy” budget for VBS — approximately $8,000. Love says the elders never limit the budget, as they see the value from it. Still, bigger is not necessarily better. In a VBS program, “safety and quality are more important than quantity,” Love says. Obviously, the church has found a way to have both quality and quantity, with abundance.