By Sarah Puryear
Review: Lisa Brown, The Best VBS Workbook Ever (Church Publishing, 2017).
The Federalist recently ran an article highlighting the weaknesses of many children’s ministry programs, particularly Vacation Bible School curricula: They pander in pathetic ways to pop culture, skimp on thoughtful interpretations of Scripture, and leave kids with throwaway craft projects and a thin version of the Christian faith. Notable examples include Pandamania, developed by Group after one of the Kung Fu Panda movies was released. Tagline: “What happens when a pack of fun-loving panda bears invades your church?” (Answer: Your children leave the church as soon as they graduate from elementary school.) Lifeway’s Far Out Far East Rickshaw Rally was widely excoriated for its racist stereotypes, and LifeWay issued an apology to Asian Americans.
Or consider a Group curriculum that I recently encountered in preparation for my parish’s preschool VBS. It was designed to accompany the VeggieTales video “King George and the Ducky,” which is very loosely based on the story of King David’s grave injustices against Bathsheba and Uriah. The video stars King George (played by Larry the Cucumber), who likes taking baths with his rubber ducky far more than he likes going off to battle. When he spies a rubber ducky that isn’t his own, he decides to take it, sending its young owner off to battle in order to get him out of the way. The video wisely omits the gory details of David’s sins, focusing on the eighth commandment against stealing instead of the seventh commandment about adultery (or the sixth against murder).
Upon review, I discovered that the accompanying curriculum didn’t spare a single of those gory details, however, instructing teachers to tell children how David “took” Bathsheba, impregnated her, and covered up his wrongdoing by having her husband murdered. Teachers are advised to put a fun twist on the narration, such as the following (I have paraphrased): “Hey, kids, do you think David will fess up that he’s the baby daddy? If so, stand up. If you think he will pretend he’s not, lie down and cover your eyes.” The only conclusion I could draw was that the curriculum writer wanted to spoof The Jerry Springer Show, which regularly features guests hearing the news of paternity-test results. I would have expected the curriculum department at Group to show more common sense about what’s appropriate for children’s Bible lessons; surely there are more suitable biblical accounts we can use when reminding preschoolers to share their toys.
While most curricula successfully avoid discussing adult topics, many still give rather predictable takeaway lessons for each day of the program: God loves you; be nice to your friends; don’t do things that make people unhappy; being nice will make you happy. While all children need to learn these lessons, their sum effect is to teach the religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than orthodox Christian faith.
Every VBS curriculum writer ought to ask, Is there any theological content here that is explicitly Christian, or could the children learn this same set of lessons at any non-religious preschool or daycare program? Unfortunately, these sorts of critical questions don’t seem to lead the process of curriculum development at most major publishing companies. I am vaguely aware of some newer organizations trying to release better content for children’s ministry, and I would appreciate hearing about them in the comments.
With a dearth of good resources out there, what’s a VBS director to do? A new VBS resource from Episcopal Christian educator Lisa Brown, The Best VBS Workbook Ever, gives parishes an alternative to ordering “VBS in a box”: developing their own program. Drawing on her years of directing VBS in Episcopal parishes, Brown walks church staff and volunteers through a detailed list of how to develop a VBS theme that draws on their parish’s unique context and gifts and takes into account their “audience” (whether children who regularly attend church or those who live in the church’s neighborhood). She recommends that a church VBS team develop a vision and goals for the VBS program so that it becomes something more than just “what we do every summer,” which can easily become exhausting for those tasked with putting on VBS each year.
The book is replete with ideas of how to choose a theme and then develop corresponding activities in storytelling, music, art, and movement. Brown writes briefly about some of the programs she has developed: Wade in the Water, on water-themed stories from the Bible; Draw the Circle Wide, on outreach and loving our neighbor; St. Francis in the Garden, on caring for God’s creation. I would have loved to see the detailed plans of the programs Brown has developed. While this might undermine her goal of helping churches create their own programs, I suspect her programs would be wonderful resources for congregations if published.
VBS and children’s ministry often exist in a kid-centric bubble, without much meaningful engagement with the wider church context. One of the strengths of Brown’s book is its emphasis on how to connect VBS to the parish’s ministries of music, outreach, and pastoral care. Rather than isolating children in a corner of the church, VBS can foster multi-generational relationships and teach children about the ways older Christians serve God and their neighbor.
The Best VBS Workbook Ever would be helpful even for those who choose a published VBS curriculum, because of its extensive suggestions for dealing with every practicality a VBS director encounters: lining up volunteers, thinking through safety, setting the schedule, and involving volunteers in meaningful ways. The Montessorian in me would have liked to see more detailed information about child development and how to adapt material to the needs and interests of each age group. The book is a little pricy at $30, but that is vastly less than most published VBS curricula would cost. On the whole, Brown makes a compelling case that VBS programs developed by a parish for that parish can be more meaningful, engaging, and profound than packaged programs.
This post has been corrected: Concordia Supply did not develop Group.