Vacation Bible school (VBS) is a summer standard for many USMB congregations and Grace Community Church (GCC), a USMB congregation in Sanger, Calif., with an average weekly attendance of 107 for all ages, is no different.
What is somewhat unusual for a small congregation is that Grace volunteers were involved with two VBS programs—one sponsored by their church and another that targeted children whose parents work at a local packing house—that saw a total of 81 children accept Jesus as their Savior.
One-day VBS draws 79 children
Grace Community hosted a one-day VBS June 3, 2017, directed by children’s director Ana Hernandez. The congregation promoted their VBS in the community and Hernandez also encouraged the congregation’s children to be missionaries and invite their friends. The outreach efforts were effective. Of the 79 children, toddler through fifth grade who came to VBS, the majority were guests and 29 accepted the Lord that Saturday.
The day’s schedule included opening and closing rallies and children were divided into age groups for crafts, games, snacks and Bible stories. The Bible story was told in an area created to evoke the belly of the whale and was converted to the starry sky for the story of Jesus’ birth.
The enduring influence of VBS on the spiritual life of the congregation is evident in the number of adults that volunteered to help, says Hernandez. “It’s amazing,” she says. “There is a life-long impact. We had 28 adults (helping with VBS) because they were impacted by VBS (as children.) For them to be given the opportunity to come back is pretty powerful.”
Collaborating for a unique VBS
Ten days later, Hernandez and a team of 14 volunteers spent June 12-16, 2017, at Centerville Elementary School working with Children’s Champions, a ministry that networks, equips and empowers children’s and youth ministry leaders in California’s Central Valley, and volunteers from other Sanger churches to host VBS for about 130 children whose parents work for Kings River Packing, a local fruit packing and shipping business owned by Douglas Hazelton and his sons-in-law. Hosting a week of VBS reflects the business’ mission statement: “The families of Kings River Packing seek to honor God by impacting the lives of our employees, customers and the community.”
The five full days of activities for preschool through ninth graders was funded by the packinghouse. In addition to covering the cost of supplies and materials for the morning VBS, the company provided breakfast, lunch and a snack and a variety of afternoon on-site activities for the children. This year, the approximately 130 children who attended VBS were also given a backpack for the upcoming school year. And Kings River adjusted Friday work hours so that parents could attend the closing program.
Adapting to children’s limited knowledge
Hernandez reports that 52 children accepted Jesus as their Savior during the week. The invitation to accept Christ was given Thursday, and the children were encouraged to tell others about their decision. “Once a child accepts Christ, we give them an immediate opportunity to take action so that it sticks,” says Hernandez. “We want them to learn how to witness so we tell them, ‘Now God wants you to go spread the good news.’”
Presenting the gospel before the final day also gives the teachers one more opportunity to talk with the children. “Some of the children have issues and ask questions,” says Hernandez. “A child may come back and say, ‘I know this or this is wrong but my family does this.’ We can answer some of these questions.”
Many of the children that came to Grace Community’s VBS as guests as well as the kids who attended the packinghouse-sponsored VBS have a limited understanding of the Bible and God, says Hernandez.
“We are finding that the community kids coming to the church have no Bible background,” says Hernandez, adding that the children are not familiar with Jesus or Bible stories. “All they come in with is whatever knowledge they get from TV. So, we are starting from scratch most of the time.”
With some children, beginning with the basics means explaining to them that the words “Jesus” and “God” are good words, not swear words that should be avoided, says Hernandez.
To better connect with children that have limited Bible knowledge, Diann Widaman, the children’s ministry coach with Children’s Champions, developed the VBS curriculum around the theme of super heroes, focusing on the biblical characters of David, Esther, Daniel and Jesus.
“These children can’t understand the concept of God, but they can understand a super hero,” says Hernandez.
Full-day of programming
The morning schedule followed a typical VBS format: opening and closing sessions with lots of enthusiastic singing, a Bible story, crafts, games and a snack. Children could earn fidget spinners for memorizing Bible verses. “Jesus is my super hero” was the week’s chant and could be heard frequently.
While VBS began at 9 a.m., parents could drop off their children as early as 7:30 a.m. The day’s activities ended at 5 p.m.
Afternoon activities varied each day and included waterslides, a petting zoo, a soccer clinic provided by a local college women’s soccer team, a bubble magician and an appearance by Central California boxer Jose Ramirez.
Grace Community is one of the congregations Children’s Champions contacted two years ago when the ministry was first asked by Kings River Packing to organize and staff a four-day VBS for their employee’s children. This year Hernandez and her team were responsible for staffing the nursery, organizing registration, telling the Bible story and leading the opening and closing rallies.
Impacting parents and children
The goal of the VBS program is to impact the parents as well as the children. While the children’s activities are done in English, many parents speak only Spanish, so Hernandez recruited nursery volunteers who are fluent in Spanish. Grace Community has both Spanish and English services, held simultaneously English, so Hernandez drew from volunteers from the Spanish congregation for the nursery.
Connecting their employees with local churches is one of Kings River Packing’s goals in sponsoring the VBS, says Hernandez, and freeing parents to attend the closing program is one way of doing that. The closing program includes VBS songs presented by the children and a representative from each church introduces themselves and their church. This part of the program is done in Spanish. The “hard work” of connecting with parents is often easily accomplished as the children enthusiastically introduce their parents to the VBS staff, says Hernandez.
“We are blessed to be involved with this,” says Hernandez. “We are praying for the Lord to open more doors as we meet the needs of our changing culture and community.”
More about Children’s Champions
From the Children’s Champions website https://communitiesinc.org/childrens-champions/
One out of every four children in California’s Central Valley currently live below the federal poverty line. This percentage is even higher in rural communities and in under-resourced urban neighborhoods. The number of children under the age of 18 in these communities often makes up over 30 percent of the total population, driving the median age down to about 28 years.
Churches in this context understandably struggle with having enough resources as well and have difficulty investing in the children and youth of their communities. Many pastors are bi-vocational and secondary leadership such as children and youth ministers are rarely paid and almost never trained for the work they do.
Through Children’s Champions’ relationship with churches in 53 communities and a conviction that Christ’s priority on children needs to be shared by the church, Communities INC established the Children’s Champions Initiative to address these challenges.
The vision of Children’s Champions is to see qualified and connected children and youth ministry workers established in every community and every church in the Central Valley. They envision a movement of the people of God who share Christ’s priority for children and will partner with God to bring radical transformation into communities through more effective gospel outreach to children and youth.
Children’s Champions works in three target areas.
- The Children’s Champions Network is a growing group of children and youth workers who gather in regional clusters to pray, encourage, and share resources with one another.
- The Children’s Champions Training is a 12-session curriculum that provides ministry leaders and volunteers with essential skills that will strengthen their ability to minister to the young people in their congregations and communities. The Children’s Champions Training is offered bilingually in Spanish and English. Grace Community Church, the USMB congregation in Sanger, California, has hosted a training session.
- Empowering Leaders Children’s Champions also identify churches and individuals who demonstrate exceptional passion for making an impact in their communities through ministry to children and youth. Ministry coaches Matt Naylor and Diann Garcia Widaman then engage these leaders and churches to provide support for ministry growth that fits their specific congregation and community.
Connie Faber joined the magazine staff in 1994 and assumed the duties of editor in 2004. She has won awards from the Evangelical Press Association for her writing and editing. Faber is the co-author of Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. She and her husband, David, have two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, one son-in-law and one grandson. They are members of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.