A SUMMER INSTITUTION
VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL CONTINUES TO GROW IN POPULARITY
By John Armistead
At 8:23 on a bright summer morning last week, children clustered in the dappled shade of ornamental trees on the east side of the church. Adult workers moved into position and began lining up the children.
Shortly after 8:30 the front and side doors of the building swung open and the sound of lively music bounced out of the church and over 400 children marched inside. Another day of Vacation Bible School had begun at Tupelo's Harrisburg Baptist Church.
"It lets them see a different side of church," said Beth Martin, Harrisburg's director of childhood ministries. "It lets them see church can be more than just a place to wear your Sunday clothes."
Martin and her faculty operate one of the most sophisticated VBS programs in the area. "We ceased using the Baptist literature about eight years ago," she said. "We wanted a change, wanted education to appeal to the way children learn more."
Instead of following the standard Southern Baptist annual program, Harrisburg selects the best of several sources. "We do use some Southern Baptist material," explained David Langerfeld, the church's minister of education and business administrator, "but we're not afraid to try new things." The result is an intense, multi-media approach to teaching.
Nearing the century mark
Vacation Bible School grew out of a 19th-century innovation in religious education called Sunday School. "Robert Boville in New York was a prime mover in the beginning of Vacation Bible School," explained Perry Hancock, assistance professor of Christian education at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. "He used vacationing students from college and seminary as teachers and in 1901 held five pilot projects in New York City."
The movement grew rapidly, and, in 1922, over 5,000 Vacation Bible Schools were conducted nationwide. "In 1949," said Hancock, "it was reported that there were over 62,000 schools conducted with over 400,000 children attending."
Making Bible learning fun
Like many programs, the VBS at All Saints' Episcopal Church in Tupelo will last five days for three hours each morning. "One of the great benefits for kids is that it makes church fun," said Lori Culp, director of All Saints' VBS. "They learn about Jesus and the Bible and it is all so much fun. That's what I like."
Culp expects to have about 60 children in their July school.
Steve Hurt, minister of education at Tupelo's Calvary Baptist Church, agrees with Culp. "The purpose of VBS is worship, Bible study, missions emphasis, and lots of fun," he said.
Hurt has seen many changes in the program over the years. "The standard school used to be for two weeks," he said. "Most churches conduct only a five-day school now."
"And we don't build bird houses anymore," he continued. "The crafts are related to the teaching goals. This is total period teaching. It all fits together."
Putting a faculty together, however, is increasingly difficult. "It's getting harder and harder to recruit faculty because more and more women are working," he said.
A committed school
While most of the teachers in VBS are mothers whose children are attending, two of Hurt's Calvary faculty are of a different mold. Joyce Beasley has been teaching in VBS for 40 years. "I think it is the most fun learning experience there is," said Beasley, who taught in the first grade department.
Steve Foster, teacher and football coach at Guntown Middle School and Saltillo High School, has taught in Vacation Bible School 13 years in a row. Why? "It's because when you finally connect with those children and their eyes light up and they say, 'Oh, yeah. That's right,'" he said. "And there's never been a Bible school when I didn't get more out of it than the students."
This year Foster taught sixth graders.
The difficulty in recruiting teachers to help during the day has caused some churches to conduct Vacation Bible School at night. St. Paul United Methodist Church in Tupelo also had its VBS. last week, holding sessions Monday through Friday nights from 5:30-7:30.
"Many of our parents work, and that's the best time for us," said the Rev. George Pulliam, pastor. Pulliam also sees VBS as an opportunity for the church to contact new people. "It can be a great outreach tool," he said, "For many of our children, this is the first time they have heard about Jesus."
St. James' Catholic Church in Tupelo conducted its VBS earlier this month. Coordinating the school were Sisters Georgia Acker and Geri Hoye. Like most programs, it was a five-day, three-hour-per-day school.
"Vacation Bible School continues to grow in popularity among Catholics," said the Rev. Meyrl Schmit, pastor of St. James. "They (the nuns) have done a top-notch job with our religious education."
In the opening worship service each day in the typical Vacation Bible School, the children give an offering. The offering at Harrisburg's VBS last week was gathered in little red wagons pulled down the aisles by young ushers. On Wednesday the children collected story and coloring books for the waiting room at the Free Clinic in Tupelo.
Two-hundred-eighty-seven books were given.