Organizers consider their outreach effort “VBS on steroids”
By Myra Holmes
Bethesda Church views Super Summer Jam as a mission opportunity in their community. "It is has unified us in something much bigger than the four walls of our church," says vollunteer Laura Reinders. About 130 volunteers will make SSJ happen this year. Photo provided by Bethesda Church
Like many USMB congregations, Bethesda Church, a congregation of about 280 in Huron, SD, is a mission-minded church with a desire to reach their community for Christ. And like many USMB congregations, one way they hope to reach the kids of their community is through vacation Bible school.
Not surprisingly, Bethesda VBS organizers found that mostly church kids—not community children—came through the doors for VBS. Adding to the challenge, the makeup of Huron has changed in recent years, with an influx of immigrants and refugees who are unlikely to come to a church that doesn’t even share their language.
So Bethesda reshaped their summer children’s ministry to take the gospel into their community with Super Summer Jam. They call it “VBS on steroids.”
Huron is a city of about 13,000 based on a farming and industrial economy. A large turkey processing plant and a Jack Links beef jerky plant draw immigrants, primarily Hispanic, in search of jobs.
In addition, Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota resettles political refugees in Huron each year—some 122 in their 2015 fiscal year. Many of those are Karen, a people group from Southeast Asia forced to flee their homes in places like Burma due to internal conflict and ethnic cleansing. While the adults often don’t speak English, the children usually do.
Given these changing community dynamics, Bethesda’s approach to outreach needed to change, too. The answer came from inner-city Chicago.
Inspiration comes from missions trip to Chicago
Five summers ago, associate youth pastor Anthony Lind took a team of about 25 to work alongside New Hope Church, the urban Chicago congregation he and his family had been part of before coming to Bethesda. The team participated in New Hope’s “Hope for the Hood,” an annual outreach with a 20-plus-year history in which the congregation takes children’s ministry into the inner city for a week.
For four women on the team, the experience was an epiphany. Cherrlyn Fast, Angie Fast, Laura Reinders and Lorena Blom are like-minded, high-energy schoolteachers. When these friends start talking about kids and ministry, conversation overlaps as they finish sentences and add to what another has said. So it’s not difficult to imagine how passion began to build as the four sat in that Chicago church and visited about their experience.
“Ideas started to flow and pretty soon the conversation turned to: We can do this in Huron,” says Angie Fast. “This little spark turned into a flame.” The four women brought the vision back to Bethesda, and Super Summer Jam was born.
“Our church wants to come to you”
The key to the Super Summer Jam vision is taking a VBS-like format to public parks to make it more accessible. Rather than expecting community families and children to come into the church, SSJ takes the gospel to them.
“We’re saying, ‘Our church wants to come to you,’” Reinders says. “’We want to meet you where you are and get to know you. We care about you.’”
Initially, the church chose four sites in four quadrants of the city. Because the immigrant and refugee kids organizers wanted to reach don’t necessarily have someone to drive them around town, sites were selected for their accessibility by foot. Over time, the team has learned certain locations are more effective. So this year, they expect to reach the same number of kids—about 300—in just two locations.
SSJ is always held the last week in July, a strategic window that hits between the end of summer sports leagues and the start of school activities. This year, the fourth for SSJ, it will be held July 26-30.
SSJ runs Tuesday through Friday evenings, then ends with a carnival on Saturday. Each of the four evenings looks similar, with a VBS-like format that begins and ends with large-group music and activities. Children are assigned to teams that rotate through four stations: lesson, craft, games and a different “special” each night. This year, the specials will include art, face painting, Bible trivia and a petting zoo. While a Bethesda volunteer has created curriculum in past years, this year’s SSJ will use “Shine” curriculum from Go Fish.
Saturday picnic, festival conclude SSJ
On Saturday, colorful inflatables and carnival games sprout on the green of a centrally-located park. Hundreds of children laugh as they run from one game to another. The smell of hot dogs or walking tacos fills the air, and upbeat Christian music sets a festive tone.
Parents and kids alike take refuge from the July heat under the shade of trees and in the misting tent. Bethesda volunteers, who are easily spotted because of their brightly-colored, matching T-shirts, mingle with the crowd and use small games to start spiritual conversations. Some volunteers hand out copies of the Jesus Film in Spanish and Karen.
In the middle of the day, carnival games pause. Hundreds of children rush to a flatbed trailer to proudly present the songs they’ve learned for their parents. Roy Burket, pastor of Bethesda, gives a brief gospel presentation and opportunity to respond.
Angie Fast says, “We often look around and our eyes meet and we have tears; it’s just one of those moments.”
Even though a team of volunteers quickly packs up and cleans up at the end of the day, leaving no physical trace of SSJ, the impact continues throughout the year. Bethesda’s mid-week AWANA program reaches somewhere between 175 and 200 kids, and well over half are from Karen or community families. Likewise, about half of the junior high youth are Karen. And several women who attend a Bible study first heard about Bethesda through SSJ.
“The good news is being spread in our community,” Cherrlyn Fast says.
How can your church rethink VBS
The SSJ team encourages other USMB congregations to consider rethinking summer kids ministry to better reach out to their communities. “I’d encourage them to go for it,” Blom says. The Bethesda team offers three suggestions.
Begin with prayer. “We know that doing this without prayer is absolutely futile,” says Angie Fast.
Enlist a team, rather than going it alone. Reinders says, “It was absolutely no accident that the four of us and our husbands were part of that team to Chicago, because God definitely had a plan.”
Allow the ministry to evolve. While SSJ initially imitated Hope for the Hood, it has morphed over the years as leaders incorporate what works best for their community. They’ve dropped a basketball tournament and a free meal and combined sites to make the most efficient use of their efforts. And they’ve added translation of printed materials into both Spanish and Karen in order to better serve those families.
For more specific ideas, contact the SSJ team through Bethesda; they’d be happy to share their vision. Even better, they say: Come to Huron and experience SSJ firsthand.
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