Virtual, Hybrid, or Outdoors: 2021 Vacation Bible School Options
By Kevin Johnson
Vacation Bible School 2021 will certainly be different from years past. When COVID-19 challenged in-person VBS in 2020, we had to demonstrate flexibility that is essential in children’s ministry. We found creative ways to reimagine, redesign, and restructure our approach to Vacation Bible School. The summer of 2020 found many churches offering virtual presentations and providing take-home kits. Some churches provided a family-centered curriculum, and sadly, some churches did nothing at all.
Now as the summer of 2021 is fast approaching, we still find ourselves continuing to live and provide ministry during a pandemic. Certainly, with the vaccination available for any adult, the pandemic is in a different phase than it was in prior months, but we continue to respond to important questions and guidelines when planning VBS 2021. The safety of all involved, including children, youth, volunteers, and staff is essential. This summer will provide various diverse approaches to Vacation Bible School.
To provide an excellent VBS this summer, listen to volunteers and church staff. What is the response to returning to in-person worship in the context in which you serve? Do you anticipate that changing during the summer months? The CDC guidelines are continuing to be revised with restrictions waxing and waning on a seemingly daily basis. As you plan VBS 2021, create a couple of approaches to your VBS format that could be offered regardless of how the guidelines fluctuate.
How do the families to whom you want to provide ministry feel? Are the majority of them ready to bring their children to a church gathering? Would they prefer something virtual again this summer? Have families had enough of virtual learning and are begging, “Please, no more screen time”? Or are they seeking completely outdoor (weather permitting) gatherings?
What is your state’s COVID-19 protocols for the church? Do these affect your decision of how to provide a safe VBS? Each state is different, and the regulations may change in the coming months. Plan VBS formats that can be maintained if regulations change.
We find ourselves trying once again to creatively reimagine, redesign, and restructure this summer’s VBS.
There are diverse ways to creatively approach this summer’s Vacation Bible School. Several of those have been curated here to allow you and your leadership team to find a meaningful way to best connect with children and their families in your communities.
Many leading curriculum providers are offering a complete virtual option again this summer. This will ensure that Vacation Bible School doesn’t become a canceled event on the calendar if CDC guidelines change. There are various components that make lasting impressions in a VBS, such as crafts, games, music, and activities, but none more important than the relationships that are developed. Remember, relationships can continue to be nurtured and strengthened regardless of where CDC guidelines stand.
Offering a virtual VBS option allows you to connect to families in ways we didn’t imagine before 2020. A virtual option will allow you to reach those you previously didn’t include in VBS, such as children in hospitals and group homes and children whose families are on vacation. The online format will appeal to families outside the church’s normal neighborhood, which will allow you to connect to a broader audience.
Cokesbury will offer a full virtual Vacation Bible School option this summer and even provide an updated version from last year’s theme. Click here to check out Cokesbury’s resources.
Last year, many top Christian educators came together to create an excellent virtual VBS resource, “Where in the World is God?” This fun and creative video journey for kids of all ages contains five sessions that include Bible stories, songs with movements, crafts, and games to help children discover that God is everywhere around the globe in our hearts and homes. Click here for more information about this ecumenical resource.
One of the challenges with a completely virtual VBS is screen time fatigue. This past year, families have experienced so much time in virtual space that they feel the need for interaction in a different fashion. A hybrid approach allows the church to respond to this concern, while still maintaining relationships.
Parents don’t want their children who spend so much time in front of screens to feel that VBS is more work placed before them. There is also the concern of excluding some families who lack resources and struggle to get online.
A hybrid approach provides stories and devotionals that are offered online, but it also sends home packets and supplies for families to use for the Vacation Bible School experience.
Videos, either prepackaged or recorded by church volunteers, demonstrate crafts, offer snack recipes, provide games, and tell Bible stories. Children and their families can follow along with music videos used during VBS as well.
This approach to VBS provides quality faith-building time and offers parents the tools to guide their family through VBS. The church may choose to stagger the schedule of when it provides families with the packets, or it could take a more traditional timeline of a week during the summer. This flexibility allows the individual families to watch the videos and try the activities when they have time. This ensures an opportunity for creating time for faith formation to develop within the home and at church. Another hybrid approach would allow the participants to have the option of joining in-person or remaining at home, while fully included and immersed in VBS.
In the great outdoors
Another approach (or two) that is recommended by Mimi Sanders, the Director of Children’s and Family Ministry at Tucker First UMC in Tucker, GA, is to take VBS outside. Her VBS team wondered, “How can we hold an in-person Vacation Bible School that still follows the CDC-recommended guidelines to keep our children, youth, and adults safe as well as reach as many children as possible with the stories of God’s love?”
Tucker First United Methodist Church developed two different plans. One plan was to hold (potentially multiple) small-group, in-person, OUTDOOR Vacation Bible School experiences on the church property. The second plan was to offer traveling, small-group, in-person OUTDOOR Vacation Bible School experiences in the neighborhoods around the church and within the neighborhoods where their members live. Talk about itineracy!
Mimi explains the church’s decision-making process, outlines how the VBS plans can be fulfilled, and notes questions and concerns that came along the way in this excellent blog, “How to Conduct an Outdoor VBS.”
Take this time to create your own VBS
Nothing says you truly are meeting the needs of your faith community than personalizing VBS to make it a unique opportunity. If you are willing, create your own VBS, so that you can identify and connect to your individual church’s mission and vision. Those values can be reinforced throughout VBS as easily as they can during Sunday worship experiences. This is a great way to seamlessly get the entire leadership on board with creating and supporting a ministry opportunity for the entire church. This approach could provide opportunities for your entire congregation to offer a VBS theme around social justice issues in your community. Click here for resource ideas related to social justice issues and Vacation Bible School.
Some churches already have a tradition of writing their own mission-driven Vacation Bible Schools. One such church is Bentonville First United Methodist in Bentonville, Arkansas. Children’s Minister Sadie Stratton understands that the task of creating the entire VBS curriculum can be daunting; therefore, she is willing to share what she has written in PDF format for you to create your own virtual VBS videos. If you would rather wait until June 1, Sadie is willing to share the videos she creates with other churches. The theme for Bentonville First VBS this year is “We ARE the Church!” The written curriculum should be produced by May 15. If you are interested in using Bentonville FUMC's original VBS curriculum, please contact the church directly at the link below. Perhaps this will spark an annual tradition of creatively implementing summer’s Vacation Bible School into your local church’s DNA. Click here for more information about Bentonville First UMC, including VBS, and Children’s First Worship.
Comparison charts and guides can help
Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary has offered Vacation Bible School reviews for more than fifteen years. That department has spent countless hours assessing intensive, formative curricula, and it has created a holistic assessment of curriculum that includes reviews of inclusivity and theological framework. Click here to view this year’s “top picks.”
Similarly, Cokesbury’s site provides a comparison chart of several different VBS curriculum options.
Vacation Bible School has always been one of the most powerful outreaches of your church. It is one that connects to the children and their families. After the past year in which we experienced. physical distancing and lack of in-person worship, we identify with the much-needed nurturing of relationships. Because of those needs, VBS can be more effective this summer than ever before.
Children and their families need the life-giving ministry that VBS provides. Regardless of how you provide Vacation Bible School this summer, plan on it being transformational for all those lives affected. Families need the assurance of God’s love more now than ever.
Additional resources/sites to visit:
Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.