This past week, our church combined forces with the church next door to do a Community VBS. Our average attendance for the week - ten. That's right, ten.
I heard it all week long. Forty years ago, just our church alone had 150 kids. The church in the large town twenty miles south of us had seventy kids. Years ago, VBS ran for two weeks. The mega-church my daughter attends in Columbus had 600 kids attend VBS.
Some friends of mine say VBS is an outdated, obsolete program. I think that's too broad of a criticism because obviously, from the numbers above, it works for somebody. On the other end of the spectrum, it would be easy for our workers to say, "VBS evidently isn't working for our congregation so maybe we shouldn't have it at all." I'm not satisfied with that answer either because of what I saw happening this week.
Two of the boys who attended come fairly regularly to our church. A few weeks ago, one of them stopped by my backyard, his wrist wrapped in an ace bandage. He had injured himself fighting with his sister. I feigned surprise. "I can't imagine you doing something like that. I thought better of you," I told him. We moved on to other things but at the end, I told him with a gentle smile, "Hey no more fighting with your sister, ok? You can do better." I wondered if I had been too intrusive. When he didn't show up for church the next Sunday, I really worried.
Fast forward to VBS. The story teller was having an argument with God about what constituted a sin, including fighting with a brother or sister. My student, sitting directly in front of me, turned around and looked at me with a deer in the headlights look. How did they know? Normally very talkative, this student sat perfectly still with rapt attention. I could tell the message was getting through.
The night before, I ran into the church, drenched by a sudden cloudburst. My glasses wet, I couldn't see where I was going. I knocked over a fan sitting in the hallway and, without thinking, bent to pick it. My fingers slid in between the wires, getting in the way of the fan blades. The pain was excruciating! We wrapped the most injured finger and, even though I was feeling some shock symptoms, in spite of the suggestion I go home, I pressed on, saying I thought I could go ahead and lead songs. I felt so bad, I thought I was going to pass out or throw up. "Please Lord," I prayed, "give me the strength to keep going." (Yes, I did end up in Urgent Care later that night.)
All the songs that week were the Bible verses set to music, which in my opinion, is a great way to teach memory work. The song that night, based on Matthew 22:37-39 about the two greatest commandments, was particularly a catchy tune and, I could tell, was becoming everyone's favorite. Even though we were small in number, at the very end of the session, the kids spontaneously spilled out into the sanctuary isle, doing the motions with enthusiasm. I pressed my woozy stomach back into submission and decided then; in spite of my injury, in spite of the low numbers, it was worth it all for that moment.
Yes, we need to rethink VBS. We need to decide if this particular program is the best way to use our limited resources. We need to be willing to think outside the box, and, like one of my readers suggested last week, think of different structures into which we can pour a summer outreach program such as a one day, all day VBS program. We need to be more proactive than just a fatalistic resignation to the small numbers, doggedly continuing to do the same thing that obviously is not working.
We need to do this, still keeping in mind that increased numbers is not our goal. If at this moment, this is what God has called us to, this is what we need to do. One of our other memory verses was Colossians 3:23: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not for men."
Or, as a wise man once said - I believe it was John Wesley who first coined this phrase - "God has called us to be faithful, not successful." When my time is finished here on earth, I pray that the Lord will find me faithful, whether faithful in hanging in there when the obstacles loomed or being faithful to listen to Him when it was time to change the way I approached ministry.