Many churches will be missing the ear-splitting squeals, messy spills, sweet singing, enthusiastic clapping, stomping and joyous laughter of children running through the halls during vacation Bible school this summer.
But, the children won’t miss being introduced to Jesus or hearing stories from the Bible taught by caring Christian mentors.
Vacation Bible school is a cherished event in the life of churches and the hearts of children but COVID-19 is changing the tradition this year. Try imagining hundreds of children staying six feet apart while playing games, making crafts and sitting in circles learning about the Bible and you get the picture.
Highland United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas, will be doing “VBS in a Box,” a virtual event instead of a face-to-face weeklong meeting.
“We're hoping to have 400 families join us for VBS. That is down from our normal, but given all the factors that we're up against, that's still a very encouraging number,” said Amanda Garman, interim director of Highland Park United Methodist Church Kids.
Families will drive by the church the week before VBS starts to get a kit for everything they need to do crafts, games and other activities, Garman said. They will also get daily emails with an opening video for the day.
“Our hope is that families will start their VBS day watching the video, and then digging into their boxes to do as little or as many of the activities they want to. The great thing about virtual VBS is that they can do it anytime throughout the day that works for their family, and as much or as little as they want to,” she said, adding that there will also be a lot of interaction on the church’s Facebook group for kids.
With the start of the pandemic, both churches and Cokesbury, the retail and customer service arm of The United Methodist Publishing House, started planned for an unusual VBS 2020.
In early May, the VBS division of Cokesbury announced it was revising the content of its 2020 “Knights of North Castle” as digital and free for all churches. Digital VBS-related content will be available in early June at Cokesbury.
Churches can access and download the content using the United Methodist Publishing House’s media app Amplify without having to sign up for a subscription.
Todd Stogsdill, part of the VBS team at Cokesbury, said they hear from churches that vacation Bible school is one of their most effective outreaches for the year.
“Not only does it help build a strong faith foundation for kids in a fun way, but it gives adults and youth opportunities to serve by volunteering. A truly successful VBS is one that involves all ages in the church,” Stogsdill said.
One church that is planning to have a “live” vacation Bible school is First United Methodist Church, Tucker, Georgia.
Mimi Sanders, director of family and children’s ministries, said they usually have 300 children participating each year.
“That’s not practical this year,” she said. Instead, the church will be using five classrooms in their children’s wing with eight children per room and two adults.
Sanders said she polled families before they made the decision to try an in-person school. Each child will bring their own snack and water bottle and have their temperature taken by a nurse who will be on hand for the week.
North Georgia Conference Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson urged churches to remain closed until at least June 22. Vacation Bible school is planned for June 22-26 in Tucker.
The changes are going on worldwide.
“The vacation Bible school for kids happened here virtually and many kids are so happy about it,” said Gladys P. Mangiduyos, United Methodist communicator from the Philippines. “We are using the materials prepared by the Philippines Board of Christian Education and Discipleship.”
The Rev. Tonela Zeferino, director of Christian education in Mozambique North Conference, said they are in quarantine and practicing social distancing. Online VBS is not possible in their rural context, he added.
“Christian education or VBS however is happening in forms of home services that the episcopal office has intentionally mandated to take place in our households. So, we believe parents are responsible for teaching their children about God and His word,” he said.
During good times, vacation Bible school is held once schools are closed, mainly from the end of November until end of January, said the Rev. Romao Marapuxane Macamo, Mozambique South. “We are planning to produce VBS books, with local content. Hopefully this will find some funding.”
Cokesbury, which produces ecumenical VBS material, has many other options for virtual VBS in addition to the 2020 theme of “Knights of North Castle.” Some churches are using Volt, Focus or writing their own virtual VBS program like First United Methodist Church, Oviedo, Florida.
Kathryn Halterman, children's ministry director at Oviedo First United Methodist Church, developed a program for pre-school through fifth grade as part of her final project for a seminary class at Asbury Theological Seminary.
The plan is to drop packages at the doorsteps of each camper. Packages will include T-shirts, two Bibles for each camper (one to keep and one to give away), all craft materials, QR codes for special content videos, small group assignments and other activities.
Halterman said they will be filming live worship with skits, lessons and music each morning via Zoom and students will go to Zoom-assigned small groups later that morning for discussions and instructions on what to do with their materials.
The week will conclude on Friday with a drive-thru parade with signs, music, and prizes, she said.
“Our volunteers are excited and we will pull it together and make it fantastic. Our church is awesome like that,” Halterman said.