A 60-year community tradition in Hesston, Kansas, is one of the many events that has been disrupted by the coronavirus. Five churches, including Hesston MB Church, from four different denominations join together each year to host Hesston Community Vacation Bible School.
Hesston MB Church along with two Mennonite USA congregations, a Methodist congregation and an independent church were planning to host the annual event May 26-29, 2020, until the governor of Kansas issued a stay-at-home order March 28, 2020.
“We are going to postpone VBS until after the stay-home order has been lifted, and we are safe to gather in large groups again,” says the group’s Facebook page. “We look forward to the day we can serve our community with the VBS it deserves.”
The planning team hopes to hold Hesston Community Vacation Bible School (HCVBS) sometime this summer, says J.L. Martin, Hesston MB Church pastor of children and families.
HCVBS got its start in 1959 when Hesston Mennonite Church invited children from the community to take part in a week of games, crafts and Bible stories. When 206 youngsters registered for the event, the 18 staff and 10 volunteers were overwhelmed. Community members quickly recognized that one church would not be able to accommodate all the children, so the next year five churches decided to host the event cooperatively.
This year, that cooperative venture will celebrate six decades of ministry. In 2019, 70 volunteers served 270 children through HCVBS, which is held in the evening for children ages 4 through those finishing fifth grade.
Over the years, the participating churches have made changes to components of the week. For example, initially each church hosted an age group at their site. The individual churches each selected their own curriculum and provided teachers and all supplies needed. This meant that parents with several children were dropping off and picking up children at more than one location.
A major shift took place in 2014 when the churches agreed to use the same curriculum, a change that Martin says has reduced the cost to churches.
The partnering churches find that VBS curriculum produced by Group Publishing works well for them. They like the quality of the music and how well material is organized for the various age groups. This year they plan to use Group’s “Rocky Railway: Jesus’ Power Pulls Us Through.”
In 2019 another change was made. HCVBS was held in one location, Hesston Mennonite Church, which has a large facility. Each church was in charge of a different area such as story time, crafts and recreation across all age groups. Volunteers from each church could choose what area to work in, allowing volunteers from different churches to work together.
Martin says that working together has had a very positive effect on the community as citizens see the churches working in unity and putting aside their theological differences for the common good of the community.
Over the years, the planning team has addressed, prayed about and worked through various challenges, including theological differences, selecting a date each year and use of volunteers.
Follow-up with children who make faith decisions during VBS is an ongoing challenge. When each church hosted a specific age group, each church followed up on “their” students. Moving to one site has created new follow-up challenges.
But Martin is encouraged, believing that solutions are possible.
“(Hesston Community VBS) is worth the few challenges, but you must be willing to be flexible,” he says.
Michelle Coffman, coordinator of children and youth at Hesston United Methodist Church agrees. “The benefit of doing work together in spite of our different traditions, theology, and processes is very rewarding,” she says. “It speaks to the community about the unity of Jesus.”
This VBS takes a lot of effort, says Coffman, but is a “nice way of uniting with others over the love of children, church and the gospel. We often assume we are so different than others, but when you can sit down and work towards a common goal, you realize that we all have the same issues, concerns and desires.”
Martin says putting aside theological and organizational differences happens when churches “choose to focus on Jesus and similarities.”
HCVBS culminates in a Sunday event for children and their families. On the Sunday following HCVBS, the five churches host a community gathering where attendees view a slide show of photos from the week, and the children perform a musical that shares the biblical principles they learned during the week. A pastor shares the gospel and encourages the audience to find a church home in the community. The finale makes the planning, challenges and exhaustion of the week worth it all.