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Churches rethink VBS because of COVID-19

North Oak Community Church in Hays, Kansas, offered three family VBS nights throughout the month of July. These family nights featured activities spread throughout the building to allow for social distancing, and masks were encouraged. Photo: North Oak Community Church

Continuing concerns surrounding COVID-19 forced USMB churches to rethink traditional plans for vacation Bible school this summer, and many chose to offer alternative events.

For most churches, planning for VBS began early in the year, before the coronavirus had begun to alter daily life. By the time states began implementing restrictions in March, many churches already had their VBS plan in place.

Despite the challenges, organizers believed in the importance of offering some kind of activity to give kids something fun to keep them engaged with their church family.

Virtual VBS
The daily videos sent out to children participating in Community Bible Church’s virtual VBS included music, instructions for crafts and games, and a Bible lesson. Photo courtesy Mandy DeWitt, Community Bible Church

With summer still months away, churches like Community Bible Church in Olathe, Kan., decided to hold off for a while on making any final decisions.

“VBS is such a wonderful outreach program for us, and we wanted to do something for the kids since they’d been stuck at home for several months,” says Mandy DeWitt, co-director. “We kind of were hanging onto hope that we would still be able to do that.”

However, by mid-May the decision was made to cancel plans to use Group’s “Rocky Railway” VBS and pivot in a new direction. The kids’ ministry team at CBC selected a new curriculum called BOLT, which was specifically tailored to be offered virtually.

“The biggest decision-making factor in trying to decide which one to do was, we wanted parents to be engaged with their children,” says DeWitt.

“We were trying to find a curriculum that would foster parents serving as that disciple-maker.”

Volunteers from Community Bible Church in Olathe, Kan. set up a drive-through for families to pick up bags of materials for each child participating in their virtual VBS. Photo courtesy of Mandy DeWitt and Community Bible Church

Volunteers supplied each child with a packet containing craft supplies, snacks, components for games and a note for parents. Families picked up their packets drive-thru style at the church, and then the ministry team sent a daily email June 2-4 with a video containing the lesson and music for the day.

Zoar MB Church, Inman, Kan., also went the route of offering a virtual VBS. Zoar has partnered with other churches for an Inman community VBS for many years. These churches had also planned to use the Rocky Railway curriculum and decided to go ahead with this theme when Group revamped the program to provide an online option.

“They walked you through how you could do a virtual presentation of their curriculum,” says Melissa Funk. “We decided to pursue it that way and see if some of our volunteers would be willing to videotape their segments.”

Volunteers created a YouTube video for each of the five days of VBS, held July 12-16.  Different segments were recorded either at Zoar MB’s building or in a volunteer’s home. The Inman churches also created packets for families to pick up, and to kick-off the event, they included a boxed supper grilled by the volunteer fire department.

“When we started doing the pickup I got a little teared up, because it wasn’t supposed to be that way,” says Funk. She says it was a challenge “not having the kids’ energy, of getting to see their faces and the excitement of it all” while making the videos.

However, the virtual VBS did open up a new opportunity to reach kids beyond the Inman community. Funk explains that the videos made VBS accessible to children outside Inman whose own churches may have cancelled VBS and not been able to offer alternate events.

Family nights

Other churches opted to still offer in-person events with a different format, usually outdoors to allow for more social distancing.

Diana Zuercher says the planning team at Koerner Heights Church in Newton, Kan., pulled materials from a past year’s VBS to create a one-time family night called Treasure Quest 2020. Leaders encouraged interaction to stay primarily within family units as attendees participated in a meal, songs, lesson time and a treasure hunt, all held in a local park.

Attendees of another family fun night held at Living Hope Church in Henderson, Neb., brought their own picnic meals and ate in family units while participating in Bible trivia in the church’s Family Center. The festivities then moved outside for a game of slip-and-slide kickball.

Joanne Haidle says the fun night allowed for all ages to participate, if they were comfortable, while keeping the gathering smaller than a typical VBS, which usually attracts around 120 kids from the community.

North Oak Community Church in Hays, Kan. offered three family VBS nights throughout July.

Thinking outside the box led North Oak Community Church in Hays, Kan. to organize three family VBS nights throughout the month of July. Photo: NOCC

“In trying to think outside the box, we decided to have three nights, but change the format to be able to social distance and allow parents to attend too,” says Karen Rigler.

Some churches that opted to wait until August to hold events continued to deal with changing restrictions and information as the summer went on.

Kingwood Bible Church in Salem, Ore., planned an outdoor family event for August 23 that would allow them to follow state safety guidelines.

“The event is rather simple, and perhaps growing a bit more simple as we get closer,” says pastor Nathan Ensz in late July. “Restrictions in Oregon are tightening up rather than loosening; yet it seems we still have the go-ahead to pull this off.”

The event is planned to include a free meal and activities such as mini-golf, Frisbee and painting and a gospel presentation.

“We want to remind our neighbors that we are still here and trying our best to follow guidelines and yet keep the mission of the church alive and well,” says Ensz.

Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro, Kan., planned an outdoor family fun night in August for its congregation to try to limit the gathering size, and also partnered with two other Hillsboro churches to offer a joint virtual VBS.

Parkview, Ebenfeld MB Church and Grace Community Church, with help from Hope Community Church of Andover, Kan., gave children in Hillsboro the opportunity to participate in VBS at home July 27 through August 11.

Churches are largely hoping to return to their traditional, in-person VBS format next summer, if they are able. The experiment in alternate events has opened the door for new ideas, however.

“Next summer, we hope to have our VBS in early June again with tons of kids,” says  North Oak’s Rigler. “Although, we have learned the value of family nights and I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue having family nights throughout the year in the future.”

Funk says she would love to see videos of Inman’s community VBS continue to be offered online so it can reach a wider audience.

“How is God going to use this? That was always the question,” says Funk. “It was a neat opportunity to watch how God did use it.”

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