Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Youth Ministry Leadership

As our church’s high school Sunday School teacher, I’ve been trying to plan monthly events for my class. We don’t have a youth group or a youth group leader, so I’m planning these events to build fellowship and promote outreach. One girl, our only senior, came to me at the beginning of the year and said, “This will be my last year and I want our youth group to be something special my last year. What can I do?” She’s been terrific about helping me plan events and doing some of the legwork I don’t have time for. Several parents have also been helpful in working with me. Yet it’s been a struggle to get the youth to tell me what they want to do.

One parent came to me and said we should take the kids out for lunch one Sunday afternoon. I told her I was thinking about leading the group in a service project. We would plan a worship service and visit a lady who recently moved into a retirement center too far away for her to come to church anymore. So, we could combine the two ideas; first go out to eat then travel on to visit our shut-in friend. The parent screwed up her face, “Oh I don’t think the kids will want to do that. They would rather go see a movie.”

Since I’m trying to get my youth to take the lead in planning activities, I posed the activity to them. I also posed another event, a chocolate cook-off, where ladies of the church would donate chocolate desserts, and the youth would taste and judge the desserts then spend the rest of the evening absorbing chocolate and playing games.

Their response surprised me. There was dead silence about the chocolate cook-off. Yet, there was quiet agreement about visiting our shut-in lady. “We could do that,” said the son of the parent who told me the kids wouldn’t be interested. “Don’t forget to get enough transportation for all of us,” said the shy boy among us. That was a problem for the last event. I asked various people to take responsibility for choosing songs, writing a devotion and praying aloud. All cautiously agreed.

We ate pizza then drove to our lady’s house. Our chosen song leader, on her own, had made up song sheets. Our devotion giver, the shy boy, gave one of the most thoughtful devotions for Communion I’ve ever heard. Our lady friend wept with joy. We all felt the beauty of sharing Holy Communion among a small circle of friends who shared our precious faith.

I went away learning a big lesson about leading youth. For so long, I’ve heard sentiments like what that parent voiced, that you have to plan what the kids are interested in. Yet I learned that sometimes, in youth ministry, you have to lead. You have to say, “Hey, let’s go this way. Let’s do this.” Then, the youth will follow, maybe reluctantly at first, but as they become involved, they’ll catch your excitement and passion. The event will turn out to be one they’ll cherish for years.

Actually, this is biblical. Acts 20;26 says, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood.” Shepherds lead. Shepherds say to the flock, “Hey, let’s go this way.” If you want your youth group to mature in their faith, you have to direct them and lead them in the direction they need to go. If you only plan what they want to do, they will not make the initiative to grow on their own. They’ll choose what they like, what’s convenient, what’s “safe” and familiar. If you want them to grow, you need to nudge them out of their comfort zone and lead the way. Besides, once you lead, they just might surprise you with their interest and enthusiasm.

The chocolate cook-off? We did that too. Only five kids came but one was a visitor and she had a great time. We all ate too much chocolate and had a blast playing “Apples To Apples.” The ladies loved being included and there was a lot of talk among church people of what the youth group was doing. An adult bible study was meeting in the church at the same time as our chocolate party, and afterwards, two ladies quietly came and cleaned up the kitchen for me. Everyone just needed someone to lead.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Choosing a VBS Curriculum

Yesterday I attended one of those wonderful meetings at my local Christian bookstore where vendors promote their publishing company’s VBS package for the current year. I thought about comparing the curricula on this blog, but I realize that each church is different and that you need to choose the curriculum that best fits your church’s needs. Besides, since I write curriculum for one of the companies, I could so easily be accused of being biased! I do have a favorite curriculum this year so instead of doing a comparison, I asked myself what is it about this curriculum that I like? What should a church look for when selecting a VBS curriculum?

Vendors quite often will try to first sell you on the catchy theme, the environment in which their curriculum is set. But there’s a whole lot more to a VBS program than the theme. Here are some things to look for:

1) Bible content: To me, this is of first importance. After all, why are we doing VBS? Is it just to give kids a good time? Hopefully we are directing a VBS where children learn about Jesus. Consider: Do the stories center around a common theme or character?
How do the stories connect with what we call the environment theme? Are the stories concrete enough for children to be able to understand?

2) Focus Statements: Every company will list a focus statement for each day. These tell you what life lesson the material wants the children to learn. Scrutinize these carefully. Some statements are geared more for the unchurched child who needs to know the basics of God’s love. Others are tailored more for the children who have been coming to VBS for years. Some statements state a fact about God then give a goal of how children should respond to that fact. What do you want your VBS material to teach your kids about God?

3) Theme: Can your group of children relate to the theme? Do you have the personnel and resources to make that particular theme work for you? How is the theme connected to the Bible stories? Is the theme carried through every aspect of the VBS program? Is so much emphasis put on the theme that the bible stories become a dim afterthought?

4) Music: Are the songs relevant? Are they teachable? Are they abstract and full of Christian jargon? What helps are provided so you can teach the songs?

5) Price: Does this material fit your budget? Does the starter kit provide all you need or are there hidden costs? Some companies provide great audio video helps such as power point presentations, drama videos and theme posters, but all of this costs money. If your church is on a shoestring budget, can you still use the material without these more expensive extras? One company had a really neat interactive Bible story power point but the curriculum seemed built around the power point. The church who can’t afford this or doesn’t have the equipment to use this would have to make some major alterations.

Why didn’t I mention crafts or snacks? While material that coordinates the snacks and crafts is really cool, it isn’t a deal buster. Don’t discount a curriculum just because the crafts seem too difficult, costly or irrelevant. I’ve been a part of many VBS programs that make up their own crafts out of what we call “junk art.” A talented craft director should have no problem creating crafts. Also, look through the lesson for additional craft ideas beyond the suggested craft packages.

What are extras I like to see? I love the dramatic skits that can be used to open each session. If you have the people to carry this off, they can be so effective. Evaluate these as well for their relevancy, extra cost and length. Do you have the time in your program for the dramas? I also like to same suggestions for outdoor fun. Kinesthetic learners don’t always have the chance to move around in Sunday School classes. VBS offers this chance and well chosen games that fit the theme and message can be so effective. I especially like well written devotions for the teachers. This is a growing time for them and curriculum that uses devotions shows me the company’s commitment to discipleship.
Finally, I like material that gives directors and teachers well thought out tips and directions on how to plan a VBS. For new directors, VBS can be scary and a good curriculum can be such an encouragement and teaching tool for the newbie director.

So, choose your director, select your curriculum and get to work. Summer 2007 isn’t that far away!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A VBS Option

In my last few posts, I’ve talked about the wonderful children’s ministry program called VBS. If you are wondering why I’m discussing VBS in the middle of February, think again! It’s not too early to start planning your church’s VBS summer program. Already Christian bookstores are holding meetings to present the various VBS curriculum available this year.

I’d like to share with you about one curriculum, produced by the Salvation Army. that most likely won’t be featured at those meetings that is still worth considering. The Salvation Army designed the material to meet the unique needs of unchurched and high risk children. However, other denominational groups are discovering the material, and it is now being translated into several different languages. I had the privilege of writing the last book in a three year series.

Originally designed to be an extension curriculum for their regular 42 week curriculum, churches can easily adapt the material to a VBS program. However, it’s so flexible that a church could also use it for a backyard bible club, a summer youth group or for a Sunday School program during the summer months.

The first curriculum, entitled Life Signs, studies the Ten Commandments. I love the cute traffic sign motifs that come with this material! The second series, called Health Signs, looks at the Beatitudes and connects the lessons with a health theme. The third year, the one I wrote, is called Growth Signs and studies the Fruit of the Spirit. The stories look at the life of King Saul and King David and use the theme of growth of a fruit tree. Each lesson revolves around a different fruit. I had lots of fun coming up with ideas for snacks, crafts and games for each fruit.

What I like best about this material is the “More Ideas” section at the end of each lesson. Any teacher knows that sometimes the suggested ideas in a lesson don’t work for your group of kids. Also, a teacher might have more time than the lesson will take and wants something more that will augment the lesson. This extra page gives the teacher additional ideas to consider using in addition or in place of the ideas given in the written lesson.

I also enjoyed writing the “As You Prepare” section of each lesson. This is a concept I don’t see in many curriculum guides. I believe that preparation, both spiritually and physically, is the key to a successful lesson. In this section, I give specific suggestions of how the teacher can apply God’s word to his or her own life and how to pray for students regarding the principles the teacher will present in the coming lesson. Also, it’s good to have a brief summary of what you need to do to prepare for the lesson. This is what I tried to communicate in this particular section.

I’ll write more next time about other work I’ve done for the Salvation Army and about their philosophy behind their curriculum. It’s an exciting story. Meanwhile, check out their program at Also read more about Salvation Army’s SONday’SCOOL program here.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Give a Fresh Look To VBS

I liked VBS when I was a child. VBS was different than Sunday School. In Sunday School, we heard a Bible story. Sometimes the teacher would use flannelgraph figures to tell the story which made it more interesting. Then we completed a worksheet about the story. That was it. That was Sunday School.

In VBS, we got to have a snack. Sure it was just punch and cookies but since I never got punch and store bought cookies at home, I thought that was pretty cool. We also did crafts. That was different. Now, I do NOT like crafts, but I still remember the craft I did when I was four years old. We planted geranium flowers in a Styrofoam cup. My mother let me transplant the flowering plant to our garden and I tended that geranium plant for years. We finally had to pull it out when I was in college and I was sad to see it go. We also got to sing new songs, songs that related to the lessons. Some of them were really dumb sounding but they were still something new and exciting. We didn’t do that in Sunday School.

We would meet in the auditorium for song and missions time. The director would get everyone excited about our mission project, then we would go to our classes. There, we would sit in the same room with the same teacher for the bible story, worksheets, snack and craft. Sometimes the same teacher would do everything; other times, someone different or the teacher’s helper would do the craft.

My, my, how times have changed. As our children are faced with an increasingly visual, action packed, ever moving and ever changing world. VBS curriculum producers have tried to keep up with the competition of tv and video games. Today’s VBS curriculum is filled with drama, video, interactive activities, outdoor games and even purpose driven snacks. As much as I have fond memories of my early VBS days, I’m glad for the changes.

There are two major approaches to VBS. One is the traditional classroom which I’ve described above. The other is what is called the “site based” approach or a rotation approach. Instead of staying in one group, the children travel from one activity to the next. They’ll go to a storytelling room, a music center, games outside and the snack area. Each age level is on a different schedule. An adult or teen helper travel with the children and each station is staffed with yet more volunteers to lead the children in that activity.

The advantage is that kids are moving around from site to site which is great for today’s active children. Another advantage is that the rotation method uses the gifts of your volunteers much more efficiently and gives a director a chance to work in people who have never taught before. I never liked being a teacher for VBS under the traditional method because I’m so bad at crafts. With a rotation structure, I can choose to do what I’m best at – which is usually leading music or telling the Bible story in a dramatic way.

A final plus is that the site based method gives all kinds of room for creativity. Your staff can create an entire environment based on the theme. I’ve seen churches transformed into to a water park, Egyptian palace or country farm. This builds excitement and encourages even more volunteers to get involved.

What is the down side to the site based VBS? You ultimately need more volunteers. A site based structure needs planning and organization. You can’t do it last minute. I’ve seen a site based VBS thrown together at the last minutes and it’s disastrous! It also requires your core staff members for the music, craft and bible story time to be able to shift their approach up or down depending on the age group. Not everyone is suited to work with all age groups and it takes some very talented people to be able to do three preparations and change gears three times during the VBS session.

Which is best for your group of children? You have to decide, based on your facilities, the number of children you expect, and the number and talents of your volunteers. However you choose to structure your VBS, keep my guiding philosophy on Christian Education in mind. Everything you do in your needs to relate back to your purpose and your theme for the day or for the week. Tie everything you do back to your theme, whether it’s a game, a snack or a craft. You only have a few precious hours with these children. Make every moment count.

Friday, February 02, 2007

What's So Good About VBS: Part 3

What else is so good about VBS? Here are three more points to consider:

3. VBS is a fellowship tool. Even if you have low attendance and no children come to Christ, VBS is not a waste. It’s a time to build community, to work together, to laugh together. VBS can be a tremendous boost to the moral of your congregation because together, they made something happen. I’ve seen new friendships blossom and old wounds heel as people work side by side together and learn to appreciate the gifts God has given each one of them.

As we plan for VBS, we too often focus on the preparations for the kids. But a few extra small touches will make your staff feel wanted and appreciated. Promote this by having a place for staff to come when they aren’t doing anything. Have snacks other than what you serve the kids for your staff.. Provide lunch after a morning session or supper before an evening session so tired workers don’t have to stress over fixing food for their family too.. Have a work day before and after VBS. Have a staff prayer time before each session. When you have a well-cared for staff, they will outdo themselves in making your VBS program the best ever.

4. VBS is a worship tool. VBS is such a faith builder. You will see God work in ways you haven’t noticed before as He provides staff, children and supplies. You’ll see children and staff grow in their faith and their confidence that God can use them through His mighty power. Every time you say, “Wow! Look what God did this time,” you will be worshipping Him. Promote this by having a VBS praise service for your staff about a week after VBS so staff can share how they saw God at work throughout the week. Have a praise box centrally located so staff can jot a quick note of “what good thing happened today.”

The singing at VBS is some of the most exciting singing I hear in church. Perhaps it’s because everyone is more open to learning new songs and those songs are song over and over until they stick in everyone’s minds. Don’t compromise this part of your program! Be willing to spend the money on the CD’s or video. Choose your song leader wisely. Have a practice session with your song, sound and audio equipment people before VBS. Teach one or two of the songs several weeks before in children’s church or to the entire congregation. Pick your song leader wisely, someone who has a good, clear singing voice and an infectious enthusiasm.

5.VBS is a mission tool. Supporting a mission is one of my favorite parts of VBS. What a spirit of community as the children work together to reach a goal. I see this tool deemphasized which saddens me. Often VBS programs just want to support a local benevolence cause, which is needed, but you can do so much more. VBS is a great chance to introduce foreign missions and the world’s need for Jesus to your children.

I just love all the creative things you can do to promote your mission time. Choose tangible projects the children can grasp. It’s best if you have a specific goal in mind. One year, we decided to “buy a cow” for a needy family in Kosavo. Someone had the great idea that I should dress up in a cow costume. Yep. Complete with udders. We needed $700, so we made up a poster with a picture of a cow, divided the cow into seven parts and for every hundred dollars, we would place a piece of the cow puzzle on the poster. Excitement ran high that year and for weeks afterwards, I was known as the “Cow Lady.” We raised almost $900 and we only had about 30 children in our VBS! The entire congregation became informed and excited about “the cow project.”

Another time, we sponsored a missionary in Hong Kong, the minister’s son. Our minister, who had just visited his son, was the missionary speaker. He got a wide pickle jar and a small Buddha statue which he put inside the pickle jar. The theme became, “Bury the Buddha.” At first it didn’t seem like a good idea because people brought mostly pennies, realizing that would cover Buddha faster. The total offering was down that year. But children and adults were more informed about Gary’s work and our congregation continued to support Gary and his family past VBS.

The tools of VBS: missions, evangelism, fellowship, worship and discipleship. Hey, this sounds like
Rick Warren’s five purposes in The Purpose Driven Church! VBS programs have been fulfilling these five purposes long before Warren wrote his book, because as Warren so clearly emphasizes, these tools are straight from the Bible. VBS is a biblically sound, effective program for reaching children with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But do we have to do it the way we’ve always done it? I’ll discuss that in my next blog entry.