Tuesday, June 13, 2006

What's the Theme This Summer?

Vacation Bible School is starting up again. I can remember going to VBS every year when I was a kid. In fact, sometimes I went to more than one during a summer. They always played out the same way. We'd start by lining up outside, and the adults would choose three kids to get to carry the bible, the American flag, and the Christian flag. Those three kids would stand up at the front of the line and lead all the rest of the kids into the church building. Then we'd sing some songs, and then we'd go to our respective classes. I don't remember much about the actual lessons. I know that we read from the bible and had to learn a "memory verse" like "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, Isaiah 53:6." (Funny how that came flooding back all of a sudden, and I heard it in my head being said by little kid voices.) Hwwever, I do remember making different little art projects like a bottle covered with small pieces of masking tape and then painted with shoe polish--to make it look like an antique vase with cracks in it. Another year we made a cross out of matches. That sounds like it wouldn't be much to it, but what we did was we struck a bunch of matches and then immediately blew them out and then laid them out in rows and columns to create a cross with sort of a shadow effect. It was pretty enough that parents could frame it and hang it on the wall. I remember that my grandma had one hanging in her house after that particular year. If I remember right, she may have been the one to help all us kids make those. Anyway, we'd do art and then we'd have a snack consisting of Kool-aid and those little lemon-flavored flower-shaped cookies with the hole in the middle, and then we'd go outside and have a game of Red Rover. Nowadays you'll be hard pressed to find a VBS that allows the kids to play with matches and then go play Red Rover.

A few years ago, I volunteered to help out with VBS at church. VBS has changed a lot since I grew up. For those of you who haven't payed attention, VBS has a new theme every year. The year I helped out it was "Wild Frontier Bible Theme Park"--we had to yell "Yee-haw" every now and then. Really cheesy! This year I've noticed that a couple of churches are doing one called "Arctic Edge." What kind of theme is that? Perhaps it is one that can be modified for the particular political leaning of the church or community--if you're more Democrat you can teach the kids about the fact that the Arctic glaciers are melting and that we need to be good to the earth that God gave us. If you're more Republican then you can teach the kids that global warming is a myth and that the Arctic contains oil that God gave us to use so that we can be better able to truck food to other kids that don't have any. (I'm kidding.) (Sort of.)

Yes, nowadays everything that takes place at VBS has to adhere to the theme, from the songs to the craft projects (not good crafts that took the whole week to make like when I was a kid), even down to the snack, which the children prepare for themselves from ingredients handed out by the adults. You know, some big company pays people to come up with these themes, compose new songs to fit the theme, make up a weird snack, and create a craft project for every day of the event--a craft likely made from paper and cardboard components that come in the VBS kit and that will probably end up in the trash the very next week. Some CEO is making big bucks off of these churches who think that they have to transform the church building into a scene from a big budget movie in order for kids to learn something about God. It's too bad that the message of Christianity has become so boring that we have to dress it up with a theme.

I realize that kids naturally have short attention spans, and the fact that the media constantly bombard them with ever-changing stimuli doesn't help, but it seems that church is exacerbating the problem by dressing Jesus up so that he can compete with the latest video game. The message of Jesus is unchanging; he shouldn't have to put on a different costume every summer so that kids will pay attention to him. And anyway, I have a sneaking suspicion that whatever the current VBS theme is, it's going to blend in so much with whatever movies the kids watch and whatever vacation they go on this summer that the message the kids are supposed to remember about Jesus won't even be that memorable.


As I was writing this, I looked online at some various VBS themes and found this one that is particularly disturbing: Army Adventure Camp. Go take a look at it.


Tony Arnold said...

You hint at a progression I have witnessed in the church--outsource or hire to get things done where we used to do for ourselves.

Is it because there are less stay at home parents now? Or our lives are busier? Or wealth so abundant that we seek the easy way out? Are we lazier or more consumed with personal leisure? Are we succumbing to church marketers?

VBS has become what you described rather than homemade by church volunteers. Pot lucks have been replaced by catering or at best, purchased food rather than homemade when we actually have a pot luck. So many other examples exist.

In my opinion, what we have really lost in all of this is a tighter community. And what is church supposed to be but a community.


jettybetty said...

I could go all over the place about VBS. I was going to write a whole post about it--but thought it would be too controversial. (I will let you cover the controversial stuff ;-)

There are people who love it--spend a cazillion hours working on it and there are people who think it's unscriptural.

I pray there are seeds planted--and kids understand Jesus more than entertainment.

I really did enjoy your take on VBS--especially the polital views!

JMG said...

I wonder whether each church's VBS organizers actually sit down and discuss the goals for each summer. Or do they just say, "Well it's time to plan VBS; let's see what the new themes are for this year." I venture to guess it's the latter, and those who make the decisions take for granted that the materials they purchase have a worthwhile message. I imagine that the most pressing concern for many of the VBS planners is that the program be as exciting or moreso than last year's program.

To address what you were saying, Tony, from what I've seen (and granted, it's been a while since I was involved in this sort of thing) many of the VBS programs don't really foster growing relationships between the kids involved. Rather than engage the kids in meaningful conversations and activities that encourage real friendship and fellowship with one another, the program herds the kids from one "station" to the next, hurrying them through each activity so that the next group can come in and everyone can be done within the 2 1/2 hour time period. This mentality carries over into adulthood where church becomes just another "automated" process like everything else we do during the week. Consequently, no real thought or effort is put into church activities and fewer and fewer people gain any real lasting impact from being with their fellow Christians. And nobody brings good old homemade macaroni and cheese to the potlucks.

JMG said...

JB, it's funny that you let me handle the controversial stuff. Out in real life I stay away from controversy. It's just here on my blog that I have a big mouth!

Tony Arnold said...

I am going to ask my wife her opinion on this as Maria is involved in several VBS's this summer.

JMG said...

Yes, Tony, it's always good to get the boss's take on it before you make a decision.

Tony Arnold said...

Well the boss has already made decisions. Maria just finished one VBS at a neighborhood church. It was a theme VBS with revolving stations.

Anita said everyone was nice and Maria enjoyed it for the most part, but Anita is not impressed with the revolving stations concept.

One interesting situation that arose involved one the stations that created unintended competition. One of the days, she and her friend were on opposite teams. Her friend's team finished a station first and began to chant, "Pink Team won, Pink Team won."

My daughter, who can be a tad sensative to not winning, (no idea where she gets that! :-) ), got her feelings hurt. Although I think it was a great lesson for Maria on how to handle small issues and disappointments, I don't think the VBS marketers and the VBS staff intended this type of attitude among the children, however, they created it.

Part of Maria's hurt feelings were because she has been a little under the weather. The other part is an unexpected reaction to a lesson I have taught her. I have stressed being a good sport when you win. Don't gloat and tell the competitor good game.

She has taken this to heart to the extent that if the other party does not do this, she gets her feelings hurt. First, I told her this was not a competition. Second, I asked her if she did her best. "Yes." Then don't worry what others say and don't feel bad. I told her if you do your best and don't finish first, there is no reason to feel bad. Furthermore, sometimes your best is not better than someone else. There are always others better than you.

Also, don't feel bad if someone else is a bad sport. You cannot control them, only yourself. Their behavior is their problem, and more importantly not a reflection on you.

She seemed to take great comfort in this. A rare moment when I felt like a competent parent.


JMG said...

Sounds like Maria's going to grow up right!