Summer is upon us. For parents, this means day camps, pool days, and for church folk – Vacation Bible School. VBS is fun-filled, over-the-top, and often chaotic but gosh, some of my fondest memories as a kid were those I made at VBS.
There’s something special about a space carved out in the church during the summer that’s just for kids. However…
Many of us who have deconstructed (or are in the process of deconstructing) our own childhood faith cringe at the thought of sending kids off to hear about their “sinful nature” and the gift of penal substitutionary atonement. VBS is, in some ways, the epitome of the disservice the Church has done for kids. We have dressed up bad theology in bright colors and wacky games and called it kid-friendly.
Now, I know some kids just want to go be with their friends and play the fun games and make the cool crafts. I get it. I WAS that kid. But I firmly believe in respecting a child’s personhood. By that I mean – seeing them as full humans no matter where they land on a developmental scale, and meeting them there in their fullness. When it comes to children, specifically, this often requires drawing boundaries. And to be clear – I’m not talking about censorship or not talking to them about “hard stuff.” I’m talking about respecting the fact that children soak in everything and are deeply sensitive to messages of not being worthy of love. When we dress up in a silly costume and sing a song proclaiming that love for others was ultimately expressed by a “Father” sending a “Son” to die (specifically for them), that’s actually what they hear. They don’t dissect that and reframe it to see the deeper meaning. And the costumes and underwater-VBS themes don’t make that message appropriate. Giving them these kinds of messages shows a lack of respect for their personhood because it neglects to take into account their cognitive capacities. So then, to create a boundary in front of those sorts of things is a perfectly healthy way to love your child well, protecting their humanity and presenting them with messages of worth, goodness, and courage instead. My advice: don’t send them into a damaging space. Future religious trauma isn’t worth the 3 hours of free childcare, y’all.
Don’t be discouraged. There are other ways to engage your child’s fullness and goodness this summer. Here are some VBS alternatives:
- Make your own summer days of fun! Invite neighborhood kids/friends over for an afternoon of games and snacks and crafts – make it themed if you’re into that (I personally LOVE a good party theme). Ask parents to help by providing supplies or food and make a day of it. Kids don’t actually need the $5,000 VBS budget full of decorations, customized crafts, and songs with hand motions to enjoy spending time with others.
- Spend time this summer intentionally creating space in your home for spiritual practice that makes sense for your family. Traci Smith’s new book “Faithful Families” is an incredible resource and can be adapted to any faith tradition (or non-religious types). It’s a practical guide to making time for reflection while having fun.
- Do a summer of Kindness instead! Last year, I stopped doing VBS at the church where I served as Children’s Pastor. We’d always done it in the past and simply wrote our own “story times” and skits (while borrowing Lifeway decorations from a local Baptist church to save money). But at the end of the day, we were still spending THOUSANDS of dollars on craft supplies and decorations with no real impact on the kids. SO – I ditched VBS last summer and did something I called “Pineapple Mayhem” instead. Each week, kids received a “Pineapple Challenge” – a random act of kindness that they had to perform at some point during the week. I set up a closed group on Facebook where parents could safely post pictures or video of their child completing their challenge. The kids earned points for their class for each challenge completed and by the end of the summer, our kids had performed over 300 acts of kindness ranging from returning someone’s cart at the grocery store to leaving popcorn on a Redbox machine for someone to enjoy. It was simple. And it actually got kids DOING the sorts of things I try to teach them all year. They became active participants in bringing about joy in the world.
Nurturing a child’s spirituality during the summer months can be done in a multitude of ways and VBS is not your only option. Whether it’s obligation or peer pressure, don’t feel like you have to subject your child to harmful theological messages. Instead, empower your children to impact their world this summer. Live out that impact alongside them. And by all means, set up boundaries and within that space, act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with them and with God.
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