It all feels so familiar. The spontaneous giggles and chatter of snack time, the sound of tiny footsteps tapping their way down the hallway, the wave of smiling faces making their big debut in recreation time.
The sights and sounds of Vacation Bible School were dramatically different or totally absent in 2020. But after a year of cancellations and adjustments, VBS is back and is kickstarting the return to normalcy for churches across Illinois. Some picked up right where they left off, while others used the “new normal” to launch new ministry.
“We are so thankful to be on the other side of the pandemic with our lives slowly returning to normal,” said Robb Rockwell, children’s pastor at Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church. The Jacksonville church is one IBSA congregation making the bounce back this summer by pressing resume on their activities for kids and families.
In 2020, Lincoln Avenue made the difficult decision to close their doors temporarily, like most churches, which left summer activities out of the question. “We did have some alternate dates later in the summer…but it quickly became evident that it would not be safe or in the best interest of our VBS staff or the children that attend to hold VBS,” Rockwell said. It was a challenge to adapt so quickly, but the church chose to use online resources to keep kids engaged.
“Not holding VBS had a huge impact on outreach,” Rockwell said. “We used weekly Facebook posts to engage our children and families along with our online worship time.” Losing an entire summer of what would typically consist of more than 200 children flooding the church halls, called for a celebration like none other once it was safe to do so—albeit with some new safety precautions. “During the week we have a designated cleaning crew that will be spraying and wiping down surfaces, doors, etc. throughout the day,” Rockwell said. “We want to add as many layers of protection for our staff and kids as possible.”
A whole new strategy
Instead of using last year’s long months of sheltering at home to pick up a new hobby or binge-watch TV, Nicole Griswold from Elm Street Baptist Church in Murphysboro decided to reimagine her church’s VBS strategy altogether.
“We needed something that would help unchurched families and those that were still practicing caution feel comfortable attending,” she said. Her church is hoping to reach families this summer in an entirely new way. “We decided to hold a series of four outdoor events that would appeal to families in the community, get our own members re-engaged in ministry, and give us the opportunity to meet and talk with those people.”
They plan to host events such as a petting zoo, carnival game night, outdoor movie, and a water game night. Also in the plans is engaging Elm Street’s Sunday school and Bible study classes in the open-air activities and allowing them to operate their own games for different events.
Getting students to actively participate online during the pandemic was very difficult, she said, but still emphasized the importance of being intentional with student and family relationships. “Personal interaction still trumps electronics. Families seemed to really appreciate being checked on and receiving mail.”
The summer is an opportunity for something new and refreshing, Griswold said, and a chance to think differently and gain a new perspective on reaching others. Whether churches are using this season to start new ministries or relaunch trusted outreaches, the goal is to grow in community and in evangelistic potential. And to remember what it’s like to be together.
“I just want to see kids enjoying themselves and not having to worry about what may happen next,” Rockwell said. “Just a few hours a day of fun, learning, and laughter.”