the “VBS circuit”
There are very few events that I have seen church people put more energy into than a VBS style event. As I frequent church websites, I will often see information online about a VBS months and months and months in advance. I don’t traditionally see people advertising for Christmas in June, but I sometimes see people promoting VBS at Christmas. VBS and similar style events are a big deal for a lot of churches, and it requires a lot of prep and forethought, which is why today’s topic is so important.
I know all over America many highly successful VBS style events reach unchurched kids, but in my personal neck of the woods that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, I have often heard church goers talk about the “VBS circuit.” You might ask what the “VBS circuit” is, or you might already know, but basically the “VBS circuit” is the list of local churches that are hosting a VBS that the local “Christian” crowd plans to attend.
Despite the fact that most of those people are loyal to one church, they will send their kids to 5 and 6 VBS style events over the course of the summer. As a parent, I completely understand the appeal to do such a thing. You get your kids out of your hair, AND they get to go and learn about Jesus. This sounds like a “win” in the parenting world! However, as ministry leaders, your “win” looks slightly different. Your “win” is to reach a broader audience than that. Your “win” is to help continue to grow your church and your ministry, but mostly the kingdom of God.
reach more than just “church kids”
I don’t want to downplay the positive effects of Vacation Bible School. I know tons of ministry leaders would say if it took six weeks of VBS at every church in their city for a kid to come to Christ, then so be it. However, for most children that attend church regularly if the seed was planted, especially when their family and ministry leaders are watering it, it’s going to grow.
So, when you have this amazing event that took weeks and months to plan you want to be able to reach a lot of kids. More than that, I know most ministry leaders desire to reach a lot of kids that they’ve never reached before. You don’t just want to be on the “VBS circuit”, you want to be on the “this event is the best event of the summer” list. So, let’s talk about how to plan a Vacation Bible School event that reaches more than just “church kids.”
five things to remember when trying to reach “unchurched” kids for your VBS
#1 your theme matters
The theme of your Vacation Bible School matters way MORE than I think you could ever realize. There are a ton of resources online that will compare curriculum themes for you. You definitely should do your research and try to find a curriculum that’s the best fit for your church. However, I just want to add that in my own five-minute overview of the current curriculums, most of these themes are not going to appeal to a kid who hasn’t grown up in the church.
I do not mean disrespect to any publishing company, because how can a publishing company make one thing that’s ideal for every age demographic and cater to regional differences and understand your church culture? The point is, they can’t. However, in my opinion, “Cowabunga Farm, Joy in Jesus, Deep Sea Discovery, Egypt: Joseph’s Journey” are not the types of themes that are going to make a child who just saw “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in 3D get excited about coming to church, especially if they’ve never been before. Why would they care about some old guy named Jesus or Joseph if they don’t know about the power of the Bible?
You have to reach kids where they are. I did see some themes that were slightly more palatable to a broader audience, but it’s so important for you to really research and find something that’s good for your ministry.
The last two summers I actually had a team of people who helped me create relevant themes from scratch. We did a “Calling all Superheroes” theme and the next year we did “All Snapped Up” a Lego theme about friendship. Creating something from scratch is a lot of work, especially because ours was dramatically driven, we had to write sketches and more. However, the reward was in seeing 200 kids pumped about coming to VBS. More than that, we had hardly any kids on the “VBS circuit” because we targeted outside of that and we hosted it in the evenings. If you have the team to help you, it might be worth it for you to create (or even modify) something too.
Creating a relevantly themed VBS from scratch might not be for you, and that’s okay, but it’s important to remember that most of today’s kids are growing up with smartphones in their hands playing baby apps at six months old. They are growing up in a fast-paced, media driven world and especially if they haven’t grown up in church, you have to have something they understand to engage them. You don’t get a year to build a relationship; you get a week to inspire them. So, make it count. If by chance you already went with “Cowabunga Farm” or “Joy in Jesus” check out point two because no matter your theme, this can make a huge difference.
#2 do something wild
Everybody loves to be delighted. My two-year-old and four-year-old light up at when I simply say the word surprise. They wonder what it could be? Delight and anticipation are powerful feelings, and you get the chance to create them at your VBS event. At the last two VBS events that I hosted, we tried to add one element of sheer delight; some might even say it was a little wild. One year we rented a money machine, it cost about $75 to do so at our local rental, and we filled it with one dollar bills and one twenty dollar bill.
Kids got a chance to go inside each night for a variety of reasons like bringing a friend, memorizing their Bible verse, or simply being awesome. The following year we gave away an iPad and a ton of Lego sets that were donated. These were our ideas, but you could easily have the ice cream man show up and give away ice cream. You could shave your pastor’s head or let kid’s throw pies in their leader’s faces. (This is an oldie, but a goodie and it’s free!) The ideas are endless, but do something that’s so crazy that they have to tell a friend.
#3 have each night or day build anticipation
It’s vital to have each day build in anticipation of something awesome. If the first day is really cool, the next day kid’s will be more likely to come back and bring a friend. The first day kids might just be coming because their parents brought them, but let’s say they arrive and realize the next night there is going to be a video game truck that they get to play in; not only will they want to come back, but they might bring a friend too. Even from the perspective of momentum, you want kids to be engaged until the very end. This happens by creating an expectancy for all the fun things that are still to come.
#4 consider advertising in a non-churched venue
This post is specifically about reaching an audience of kids that are traditionally unchurched, which is why advertising would be relevant. If the design of your VBS is more for your own church family, I still encourage you to utilize the bring a friend option because this teaches kids about evangelism and with cool enough incentives this works really well. However, if you want to reach an audience of people that don’t attend your church than you do have to advertise. With social media these days you can very easily promote on Facebook and Twitter with boosted and sponsored posts.
It should be noted you can target your demographic quite specifically too. You might have a local family magazine that you could advertise in. A slightly more costly, but seriously effective plan is to send a targeted mailer to a local neighborhood or even send a postcard to past visitors in your database. You can utilize online resources and list your event as a fun child-friendly event on local sites that host that kind of information. Whether you have a huge advertising budget or not, there are tons of places that allow free advertising like the grocery store, library, and local businesses.
#5 have a huge prize for the top five kids who brings the most friends who don’t regularly attend church (you can even add a minimum)
Your people are always your own best advertisers and kids have no shame, so pump them up to tell everyone they know. I already slightly alluded to this point, but no matter your targeted audience, you definitely should be encouraging the kids in your ministry to bring their friends.
You have to give them an incentive to bring their friends beforehand and then when they do reward them proudly and publicly. You could giveaway five $10 gift cards to Toys R Us or provide a trip to the money machine like we previously mentioned. This could also be free rewards, such as making them the leader of their crew or first in line all week long. Whatever you choose to do, make it special and make it public.
More than anything I want you to remember if you’re going to host a VBS style event create an experience that’s worth your time. If you’re going to recruit volunteers, learn the songs, buy the snacks, prep for all the crafts and games, then go all the way. Make it memorable, make it awesome, and make it an experience that kids will rave about all summer long.
Chief Creative Officer
Stacia has over a decade of ministry experience, with the majority of that time leading next generation change. She has experience leading almost one hundred volunteers, and developing curriculum for kids and students. Stacia has a B.S. in Church Ministries and Biblical Studies, as well as experience educating in an elementary public school environment. She is also immensely creative and accomplished in teaching children about the wonder of God.