By Mary Helen Kelly
The three Ballowe children — Evie, Beck and James — raced excitedly through the halls of Sandy Springs United Methodist Church one recent night. Their parents followed closely behind.
They were trying to decipher a clue that would lead them to their next task on a scavenger hunt. The clue directed them to the second floor of the church, to a classroom called “Children’s Church.”
There, they found church volunteer Suzy Williamson ready to lead the family in a game similar to Pictionary as part of the church’s summer Vacation Bible School.
Beck got the word and drew a picture on a chalkboard wall. It didn’t take the Ballowe family long to guess their word: “family.” That was the focus of the church’s family Bible school program this summer.
With the return of summer, scores of churches are starting up their annual summer Vacation Bible Schools. They’re programs that usually last less than a week and involve crafts, drama and songs to teach Bible stories and introduce young church members to concepts from their faiths in an easy-to-understand way.
The goal is to “teach them about Jesus in a way that’s fun and over the top,” said Len Wilson, creative director at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Buckhead.
Vacation Bible Schools vary from church to church in size and theme. This year, Peachtree Presbyterians’ program, which ran from June 1 through June 4, included more than 900 kids. Sandy Springs UMC’s program included about 40 participants, including parents, during its run from June 3 to June 5.
The Bible schools cross denominations, showing up at Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic churches alike. Most Vacation Bible Schools begin in the morning and run until early afternoon.
But for their Vacation Bible School this year, leaders at Sandy Springs United Methodist chose to try something different. They started a night school so entire families could take part. Church leaders wanted to get to know the families of the kids who were attending Vacation Bible School in order to build a strong community of families, so they switched to this format, said Candace Johnson, the church’s minister to children and leisure activities.
“We wanted a chance for families to get to know each other a little better and build some community,” she said.
The theme for the week at Sandy Springs United Methodist was “Sprout: Growing Together in Faith.” The nightly program consisted of a dinner, a worship program, and then a Bible-based activity, including the scriptural scavenger hunt.
During the scavenger hunt, which took place during the first night of the three-night school, family members followed clues around the church and found bonding activities at each location the clues directed them to.
Johnson said the hunt was intended to provide practice looking up Bible verses, and the activities were intended to reinforce the content of the verses. For instance, one clue about Moses being put in a basket by his mother led to an activity where participants tossed eggs into baskets.
On the next night, there was a service project, craft project and prayer project. Volunteers from the church helped to put on these nightly activities.
Wilson said Peachtree Presbyterian’s program also is multi-generational.
Each week of Vacation Bible School is built around a theme. This year, Peachtree Presbyterian’s program was centered around the Apostle Paul. Every morning, there was a large production with skits and worship songs to help convey the lesson for the day.
One day, for instance, the skit was a re-enacting of a shipwreck with water guns and fans to explain the story of a shipwreck in Acts which was the scripture for the day. The “over the top” production keeps kids entertained and engaged while they are learning Bible stories, Wilson said.
Vacation Bible School at Peachtree Presbyterian goes back to the church’s founding – the church started as a Sunday School for kids – and belief in involvement by the church community.
Whether it is helping in the pre-planning, or volunteering as a craft helper one day during the week, the program encourages parents to have a connection to what is going on.
Wilson says people hear about Vacation Bible School all year and start to look forward to it. “People see it as a vital part of the yearly church life,” Wilson said.