It's summer, and most Catholic parishes have shifted to vacation mode. Mass attendance is down, the choir is off for a few months and any special events are limited to parish picnics or block parties.
But our Protestant brothers and sisters are preparing for one of their busiest weeks of the year. Instead of taking a vacation from religious education for children, many churches offer a weeklong extravaganza of fun and learning, also known as Vacation Bible School, or VBS.
As I write this column, my children are singing about Jesus, learning Bible stories, doing Christian-themed crafts, and being encouraged to raise money for international and local charities. They are not, however, doing it at our home parish or any local Catholic church. Instead, they attend VBS at an Evangelical Covenant church in our neighborhood.
While I don't agree with all of that denomination's theology, I'm pretty impressed with the enthusiasm and creativity of their annual summer program -- and the low cost. At $20 per kid for a whole week of half-day programming, VBS is some of the cheapest summer child care out there. Obviously, the churches subsidize the program, since it is a ministry.
The low cost aside, what I really love about VBS is how it creatively combines learning about God with good, old-fashioned fun. Our son loves the crafts; for our daughter, it's the songs. In between, there are games, snacks and even a midweek movie. And the music! It's not my favorite genre, but the elementary school set loves that upbeat contemporary Christian music. Thanks to a complimentary CD, we enjoy the music all year long, especially in the car. If you pull up to a stop light and see a woman with her hands in the air singing, "May God arise!" at the top of her lungs, that would be me -- thanks to VBS.
While some churches are more informal or create their own programs, VBS curriculum is now a bigtime product line for religious publishers. Standard Publishing, a nondenominational and now for-profit business, was the first to offer a weeklong VBS resource in 1923. Its materials now reach more than 1 million children a year.
The other big player in VBS materials is Group Publishing, a Colorado-based, nondenominational, for-profit organization. This year, Group offers four different VBS packages, such as the mountain-climbing theme "Everest: Conquering Challenges with God's Mighty Power" or "Hometown Nazareth: Where Jesus Was a Kid."
The church where my kids attend VBS is using Group's new "cross-cultural" curriculum, which this year is focused on Thailand. In addition to the $149 starter kit, which contains all the planning materials, leaders' guides, music and CDs, plus clip art and other media, Group sells lots of additional themed items such as name badges, decorating materials and other tchotchkes to hand out to participants. My kids love the little keychain with a different Bible verse "key" each day.
Group has partnered with Catholic publisher Our Sunday Visitor to offer a Catholic version of one of the VBS themes each year. The Catholic version not only adds things like saint cards, but also revises the whole curriculum to stress Catholic theology, such as Eucharist and the sacraments. It also includes the New Revised Standard translation of Scripture and additional Catholic hymns as well as using Catholic Relief Services as the recipient of charitable fundraising.
Loyola Press also offers a VBS resource with materials on three themes: "Playing for God's Team," "Living in God's Kingdom" and "Camping in God's Creation."
Liguori Publications' SonSpark Lab offers a more extensive VBS kit with reproducible materials. This years' theme: "God's Plan 4U = Jesus." Other more traditionalist organizations also offer "authentically Catholic" VBS curriculum, some focused on the saints, for example.
But something tells me it isn't a dearth of materials that accounts for the lack of VBS programs in Catholic parishes. Perhaps it's because directors of religious education take a well-deserved vacation in the summer, or perhaps it's the cost, but VBS is just not historically part of how we teach young kids about God.
"For Protestants, children's ministry begins with VBS, while for Catholics our ministry to children begins with Catholic schools or religious education," says Heidi Busse, lead editorial director on VBS materials for Our Sunday Visitor.
While parishes might see producing a weeklong VBS as overwhelming, the packaged curriculum does make it easy, Busse says. And it bears fruit.
"Some people think it's just babysitting or fun for a week, but that is not the case at all," she says. "The kids come out really changed, plus it's a link to younger families in the parish. It's a very fun event, but it's also a very faith-filled event."
Sending our kids to VBS at a Protestant church has its advantages. It's prompted some good conversations about how Christian churches differ, for example. But I would love to see more Catholic parishes embrace Vacation Bible School as a way to reach out to and serve children and young families.
[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago.]