TUPELO • Steve Hurt just finished directing Vacation Bible School at Calvary Baptist Church.
A 40-year veteran of children’s ministry, the 69-year-old Hurt knows a thing or two about VBS.
Hurt retired from his most recent gig as director of Christian education at Calvary in 2012, after 21 years on the job. He said when Calvary’s current director of Christian education resigned earlier this year, the church asked him to step in for one more VBS.
“When they asked if I’d be willing to do it, I said, ‘I guess I will,’” he said. “When I announced it to the congregation I said, ‘OK folks, I’m coming out of free agency to play one more game.’”
When Hurt retired in 2012, he and his wife decided to stay at Calvary and to make Tupelo their retirement home. He explained that his roots in Tupelo go deep.
“We love it here,” he said. “This is home. My parents went to church here when I was a baby. The first day I was here, an older lady came up to me and said, ‘You’d better behave. I changed your diaper in that nursery right over there.”
Hurt said while VBS was formative in his own spiritual development as a child, his memories are more of crafts than of creeds.
“I don’t remember a thing about the teaching,” he said with a chuckle. “But I know it helped form me. What I do remember is making a chicken out of corn and beans glued onto a piece of plywood and shellacked into oblivion.”
When Hurt and his crew of volunteer helpers at Calvary first started planning and ordering materials back in January, he said he joked with the congregation about what to expect.
“I told them we were going to do a throwback VBS,’” he said. “I said, ‘We’re going to have red punch and those flower-shaped cookies with a hole in the middle and we can stick them on our fingers and eat the edges.’”
Hurt said time has not altered the message of VBS, but the medium is very different.
“The biggest difference is that we’re a digital culture now,” he said. “We’ve got to keep it relevant. Kids are surrounded by technology and learn with technology. If they come here and we’re still doing flannelgraph and coloring sheets, they’re gonna be bored stiff.”
Hurt said capitalizing on technology as a teaching tool is in perfect harmony with Jesus’ own teaching style.
“We’re a visual culture,” he said. “This isn’t your grandmother’s church with three points and a poem and an invitation. Jesus talked fish with fishermen, sheep with shepherds, farming with farmers. That’s what we’re doing with technology. It’s not watering anything down; it’s making it meaningful and understandable.”
Looking back over his years of VBS experiences, Hurt said adult volunteers have always been the essential ingredient.
“VBS is a team sport. It rises and falls on volunteer leaders,” he said. “I remember back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when we’d have a two-week-long VBS with a Sunday in the middle. It never occurred to me then what a sacrifice those leaders were making.”
Hurt said that of the 75-plus volunteers at Calvary for this year’s VBS, many made sacrifices to participate.
“It’s not unheard of for people to take off from work and just give us their week,” he said. “Our recreation director this year was a self-employed contractor with crews out working while he was here doing rec.”
Hurt said while the fun-factor at VBS is always high, kids are also learning and growing spiritually – sometimes without even realizing it.
“We give them a T-shirt and a snow cone and we have such a good time they may not even realize how much they’re learning,” he said. “When you’re singing the songs and learning the motions and making a craft and learning about missions, man, that’s a big deal for kids. And at the end of the week when they say ‘Wow!’ that’s a big deal for us, too.”
Hurt said he loves VBS, not just for the fun of it, but for the strategic value it has in the spiritual formation of children.
“Here’s the best part,” he said. “If a child comes to a week-long VBS – three hours a day for five days – that child is likely to get more direct teaching and exposure to scripture and how to treat people than a lot of them get in a year of Sunday school.”
Even after 40 years of the stress, planning, and work that go into a successful VBS, Hurt said the rewards are incalculable.
“You can’t put it in a paycheck,” he said. “If you half-heartedly go at VBS, you’ll feel like you’ve wasted a week. But when you see what a difference a good VBS can make in the life of a child, it’s worth the effort. We’re building a foundation for the rest of these kids’ lives.”