Heritage Bible Church in Bakersfield, Calif., held its first ever Art Camp for kids going into kindergarten through sixth grade in July 2019. Art Camp, advertised as “an explosion of worship,” was conceived and organized by Jen Gonzales, children’s ministry director at the church.
Gonzales says she had been wanting to organize a program similiar to a vacation Bible school for some time, but she wanted to do something unique.
“I was thinking outside the box,” Gonzales says. “What could I do to inspire kids, to teach them about the love of the Lord, but be more hands-on?”
Gonzales saw a need when she first began working at Heritage Bible Church to emphasize worship among the youth and also to give kids an expanded understanding of what “worship” can look like.
“I think when people think of worship, specifically children and even into adults, they think of just singing to the Lord, which is an amazing form of worship,” Gonzales says. “But there’s more than one way to worship the Lord. I wanted to bring out that they can worship God in art, they can worship God in singing, they can worship God in speaking with someone.”
She also wanted to give kids an opportunity to disconnect from the technology they are surrounded by and create art with their hands.
“I wanted to get back down to being a kid and having fun,” Gonzales says.
An idea in action
Inspired by the book The Art of Worship, Gonzales created the plan for four sessions that included arts and crafts, music—both singing and dancing—and teaching. Each child who attended would also receive a handmade tie-dyed shirt that Gonzales and a friend made to exemplify the idea of an “explosion of worship.”
The sessions were held on four Wednesday evenings in July, as Gonzales found she was able to secure more volunteer commitments with a once-a-week format rather than for four consecutive nights.
Gonzales advertised the event primarily on Facebook and by word of mouth. The camp was not limited to children connected to the church but was promoted as open to anyone in the community who wanted to attend.
She expected around 30 to 40 children the first week and was surprised when over 50 children showed up. Each following week also drew 45 to 50 kids.
The camp was held in the gymnasium of Heritage Christian School, a school for children in preschool through eighth grade that falls under the umbrella of Heritage Bible Church. Gonzales also serves as the director of the business office and admissions at the school.
Gonzales had between eight and 10 volunteers assisting her each week. She had inquiries from some parents of children with special needs and was able to call on volunteers who had experience with special needs to work one-on-one with these kids throughout the evening.
The camp was free and included a meal. Gonzales saw it as an opportunity to meet a need in her community, which is a lower income area.
“I wanted to be able to have a place for kids to come, get a free meal and hear the Word and have some fun,” says Gonzales.
She kept the meals easy and kid-friendly. One week, Gonzales ordered 250 chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, where the employees thought the order was a joke—until she came to pick it up. She was able to share about the camp with the employees, and one woman ended up sending her daughter to the camp.
Teaching through interaction
Each week had a theme that focused on the character of God: God as my shepherd, my victory, my fortress and rock and as holy. Gonzales based the evening’s craft and teaching around that week’s theme, while also making sure the core of the gospel was presented each week.
“I knew we needed to make sure that we were doing the gospel every night because I didn’t know if that one student was going to come back the next time,” Gonzales says.
The first week, Gonzales spoke about Christ as our shepherd. In order to keep the kids engaged, she instructed them to pay attention and “baa” each time the word “sheep” was said. Another week, she told the story of David and Goliath but began by telling the story incorrectly to see if the kids would catch her mistakes.
“I thought back to being a child, and what I remember the most is when there was interaction between me and my teacher,” says Gonzales. “Instead of just telling them the story, I wanted to pull the story out of them. I wanted them to be a part of it.”
She also kept her plan for each evening flexible, allowing for changes in the order of events from week to week based on how the kids were reacting and if they were staying engaged.
“I’ve been working with kids for over 15 years now and one thing I know is they don’t hold their attention span very long,” says Gonzales. “We kind of went with the flow of the night.”
The month was capped off with an outdoor picnic and water slide night, during which Gonzales recapped what the kids had learned about worship throughout the camp.
Feedback and future plans
Gonzales says she received lots of positive feedback from both kids who attended and from parents. She heard from several kids during the camp that they wanted to invite friends or family to the next week’s session, and students at the school have approached her in the months since camp with more questions about worship.
Two children dedicated their lives to Christ during the camp and were later baptized.
Gonzales has also had many parents ask about future plans for the camp. She is planning another art camp for the summer of 2020 and would like to try holding it on four consecutive days so kids will not miss weeks due to family trips.
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has three children.