For three years, churches across North Carolina experienced disruptions to their VBS plans because of COVID-19. This past summer was a different story.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in early 2020, churches faced an unprecedented number of challenges as they adjusted to new realities brought about by the disease.
Among these challenges arose a particularly difficult question: What should churches do about Vacation Bible School (VBS)?
Such was the case at John Porter’s church. For three summers, Meherrin Baptist Church in Murfreesboro had to pivot away from their usual VBS plans.
“We’ve always done the weeklong Vacation Bible School, (but) COVID pushed us back on that,” said Porter, pastor of Meherrin Baptist.
In 2020, Meherrin Baptist made the difficult decision to cancel their VBS program. In 2021, the church canceled their summer program again. And in 2022, facing a volunteer deficit, Meherrin Baptist organized a one-day VBS event, but they did not receive the attendance they had hoped for.
“It did not produce the kind of fruit that I had thought,” Porter said.
So Meherrin Baptist set its eyes toward summer 2023, with a goal to bring back a full, weeklong VBS to reach the next generation.
By the end of the summer, Meherrin Baptist had experienced something they hadn’t seen in years: a fruitful VBS week leading to eight professions of faith.
The church averaged 130 each night for their weeklong program in June. And they saw an entire family experience gospel transformation.
At the end of their VBS week, Porter learned that a child and her sister both wanted to make a profession of faith. After meeting with the children and their mother, Porter found out that their mother was ready to make a profession of faith, as well.
“Mom was somewhat familiar with Christianity … but it was her being in the adult class and seeing her daughters being willing to make that step of faith that inspired her to even make that step of faith,” Porter said.
Porter then asked to meet with the father of the family. A conversation with him resulted in the father making a profession of faith.
“Dad was not involved in Vacation Bible School at all,” Porter said.
A third daughter, seeing four others in her family come to faith, made the decision to follow Christ afterward.
“A family of five — mom, dad and three daughters — that through the events of Vacation Bible School made professions of faith,” Porter said. “That was a big encouragement to our church family, bearing witness to that.”
The church wasn’t alone that summer, either. After three years of setbacks, North Carolina finally saw this summer a resurgence of VBS that transformed many lives.
A VBS “hodgepodge”
In 2020, many churches initially chose to cancel their VBS plans, while some opted to do outdoor VBS or “Backyard Bible Clubs.” These clubs allowed children to participate in small groups while still complying with the state’s social distancing mandates.
Other churches developed virtual VBS programs, creating online videos and resources for children to use at home. Some churches even adopted a method called “VBS in a bag,” compiling resources, activities and snacks for families to pick up or for church staff members to deliver.
As the pandemic extended into 2021, N.C. Baptist churches continued to have varied approaches to VBS, often dependent on the church’s size, location and volunteer capacity.
Beth Whitman, VBS consultant for N.C. Baptists and former director of children’s ministry at Gate City Baptist Church in Jamestown, said that at this point COVID-19 had created “the biggest morph of VBS” she had seen in over 40 years of ministry.
“You had a combination of kids picking up VBS bags to go, you had outdoor VBS, you had indoor VBS, you had VBS that were all online and everything was virtual,” Whitman said. “It was the biggest hodgepodge of VBS that I think that I had ever seen.”
According to Whitman — who coordinates VBS training for churches as part of her role with N.C. Baptists — many churches did not have the capacity to continue VBS and were forced to cancel programs for a second year in a row. Churches that did continue VBS faced other challenges.
“(Churches) were certainly not getting the attendance that they were hoping,” Whitman said. “They couldn’t get the volunteers they were hoping for — especially if they were doing Vacation Bible School in the daytime — because a majority of their volunteer database were older people, and they were the most at risk when it came to COVID.”
Even churches doing programs online faced unique difficulties.
“Kids learn when you’re able to be in their face,” Whitman said. “Of course they learn by listening, they learn by reading, but predominantly, the majority of children learn by doing. These children were only getting a little bit of that.”
By 2022, many churches were ready for life to return to normal, and for some that meant resuming their usual summer VBS ministries.
But for many churches like Meherrin Baptist, the effects of COVID-19 were still being felt. The ministry was not taking off as they thought.
“I was very concerned about that,” said Porter. “I knew that if we were to continue to try and do Vacation Bible School, we had to regroup.”
A VBS resurgence
Whitman realized that 2023 would be different when she began to coordinate this year’s training programs.
“It’s kind of exploded this year,” Whitman said. “Our training group had more requests from associations and churches requesting training than we could offer.”
Meeting with churches to conduct VBS training only confirmed her suspicions. At one point in a training, Whitman asked a group of 30 VBS coordinators how many of them were planning their first VBS since the pandemic. All but two people raised their hands.
“I was floored to realize that none of these people had done any of the options,” Whitman said. “It just stopped.”
By the time summer 2023 arrived, churches were operating VBS ministries in full swing. A recent report from Lifeway revealed that over 17,000 attended VBS this summer in North Carolina, with reports still coming in. Professions of faith numbered nearly 250, and over 1,500 unchurched individuals had been reached.
Whitman has seen families across North Carolina this summer experience a resurgence of hope with the return of Vacation Bible School.
“Our families need hope, and COVID was a very hopeless time, especially for nonbelievers,” Whitman said. “They found themselves isolated. Many found themselves without faith communities.
“Children and families are excited to know who God is. They’re seeking a direction and a place in God’s family, and Vacation Bible School offered an opportunity and offered that hope to those families.”
And — just as churches like Meherrin Baptist witnessed over the summer — families are ready to respond to that offer of hope.
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