When Lea Martin was a kid, she walked to her neighborhood church for five days of snacks, popsicle-stick crafts and a daily Scripture lesson at Vacation Bible School.
"You sat and listened to someone teach. They used a slide projector to teach us the Bible verse, and I thought that was the most high-tech thing in the world! Crafts were made from items everyone saved at home and brought," recalls Martin, laughing at the memories.
Now as children's pastor at Abba's House in Hixson, she's in charge of Bible school curricula for 200 children that is much more interactive, high-tech and themed. Terrariums planted in sawed-off 2-liter soda bottles just don't cut it with today's tech-savvy elementary schoolchildren.
Across denominations, churches putting together Vacation Bible Schools are turning to prepared kits by national publishing houses that combine time-honored elements of VBS - Bible stories, songs and Scripture - with themes of science, spies, animals and more. This literature, sold at Christian bookstores, provides a complete curriculum that incorporates daily DVDs, professionally recorded CDs with interactive songs, scripts for dramatic skits, games, crafts, science experiments, even guidelines to transform church hallways and classrooms into "environments."
Debbie Hodges, assistant manager of LifeWay Christian Bookstore at Hamilton Place, says the theme kits are so in demand, church VBS directors start summer planning in December.
"If you don't have your stuff ordered by January, you're dead," she says. "We've sold hundreds of kits to churches in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee because the kits span denominations. The newest this season is 'Agency D3.'" Several churches in the area, including Anglican Church of the Redeemer, Heritage Pointe Baptist Church and Falling Water Baptist Church, have used Agency D3 - D3 stands for "Discover, Decide, Defend" - in their recent Vacation Bible Schools.
The various kits range from $100 to $200, but it's not uncommon for larger churches to spend as much as $2,000, depending on how much is invested in supplemental packages such as crafts, she says.
VBS curriculum kits first hit the market in the early 1990s, prepared by LifeWay and Group Publishing. The kits have continued to expand in themes and technology since then, local children's ministers say. Now 15 companies offer VBS material annually. The Southern Baptist Convention reports that 26,600 of its member churches reported using LifeWay's VBS materials last year.
"Agency D3" was the theme at Cleveland First Baptist Church earlier this month, where 800 children and more than 300 adult volunteers became secret agents for a week.
"With so much technology today, that's one of the biggest challenges about VBS - you have to bring that, but balance it with some of the old, familiar things. This VBS package tries to meet kids where they are today," says Tara Waldrop, First Baptist's minister of childhood education.
"We have a worship rally that's a lot of lights and technology on the screen. It's very high-energy songs with motion and dancing. It's almost a concert atmosphere for kids," she describes.
Crafts for these agents include making badges, evidence logs, disguises, agent communicators and undercover kits. And each child leaves with a take-home CD so parents can followup on the week's lessons with more activities at home.
"On our stage, we have set up one side as the evidence log room and on the right side is a 'forensics lab,'" Waldrop says. "A chemistry teacher at a local high school has brought in her chemistry equipment and mixes things that bubble and fizz that the kids love."
Outreach is a big part of Cleveland Baptist's VBS. Children know that the week's offering will be sent to a Nicaraguan school that has no bathrooms. Building and improving the school has been a focus of the church's mission teams to Nicaragua.
Additionally, once the in-house VBS concludes, staff and volunteers will be taking it to the streets. Waldrop says the same sessions will be presented in two Cleveland Boys and Girls Clubs as well in several Bradley County neighborhoods.
"I was challenged to reach kids in neighborhoods who might not have opportunity to come. This is the first year we've taken it outside church. We want to build a relationship so people will ask 'Why are you doing this? Why is your life different?'" she says.
Social action is also an important factor in activities at Ooltewah United Methodist Church's VBS.
"Kids take a lot of pride in hands-on things where they can see they are making a difference," says Allison Beavers, Ooltewah's director of children's ministries.
"We like to do something local, where they might even know the kids they are helping. One night we are making kits for homeless people helped by Samaritan Center. Every night we will collect money for a mission project - this year it's helping Bethlehem Center renovate its bathrooms. Another night the kids will pack 200 snack packs for Breakaway Outreach, a local ministry to children of low-income families."
Sharing their bounty ties in with "High Seas Expedition," an original, pirate-themed VBS package that was written by Beavers. Crafts include making foam boats, pirate hats and a telescope.
"It's all about water - Jesus calming the seas, Apostle Paul's shipwreck - and how God's work can be changing and good in our lives."
Martin says Abba's House uses immersion experience to interest children. For this summer's theme, "Wilderness Escape," in which children caravan with Moses as the children of Israel escape Egypt, the church gymnasium was transformed into the Israeli camp, complete with tents and marketplace. The camp involved role play for children and adult volunteers from the church membership.
The marketplace featured a quail-catcher, who brought live quail for the children to see. There was a camel herder, and one of the week's crafts was making a brass bell such as a camel might wear around its neck. There was a baker's shop where children learned to knead dough. David McFarland, playing Moses, led Bible stories each day - all of which showed examples of trusting in God.
"We're a society that's used to immediate responses to everything, so being immersed in an experience helps them be involved. They don't just think about what they are learning, they are feeling it and doing it," says Martin.
Children at Grace Baptist Church VBS went to "International Spy Academy" where they searched for evidence of the one true God. Rebecca Phillips, Grace's director of children's ministries, says the little spymasters looked for fingerprints, collected clues, made a spy kit and Morse Code detector. Snacks had themed names such as Hot on the Trail Mix.
"Church members built and painted a set that was called International City with storefronts, bank, metro stations. Each night there was a drama that continued through the week. We were training agents to take the gospel to the world," she describes.
"Weird Animals," the theme at Dalton United Methodist Church in Dalton, Ga., promoted tolerance and compassion for those who are different. Jan Byrum, director of children's ministries, says each day's animal mascot came with an accompanying DVD and story about how it was unique or even an outcast.
"We made our hallways into a jungle. We had vines hanging from the ceiling, plastic parrots and sock monkeys," she says. "The more you can ramp up the environment, the more they get into it."
Those decorations are resurrected the following week at a second Dalton church, whose members arrive at Dalton UMC the day VBS concludes to help dismantle the hallway props and put them up again for their own VBS.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.