Reimagining Vacation Bible School

by | Sep 12, 2019

Participants having a good time at the St. John’s, Olney Vacation Bible School, August 2019

Last fall, I sat down with my newly christened lead volunteers for Vacation Bible School. They were still glowing from the VBS we completed a month earlier, the first St. John’s, Olney had offered in about ten years. 

We had carefully crafted a theologically sound, all-activities-point-to-the-Gospel, week of fun and selected specifically the last week of August–a week often void of kid camps before the start of school–and we were thrilled with our over 70 participants and 30 some volunteers. Energy was high. Conversations rang with remembrances of the good old days of VBS at the height of church attendance, a nostalgic vision of ministry in the collective memory of the parish.

I was a little troubled, however. For one, most of the thanks from the parents echoed a similar refrain of cheap child-care, which of course is a ministry, but of a different sort than we had been looking to provide. For two, upon coming into St. John’s, I had spent my time re-working the Sunday School program to be more reflective of family formation expectations, with Holy Household Toolkits coming home quarterly, Sunday School with a clear objectives trajectory and expectation toward attendance, and across generations prayer partnerships with events featuring prayer tools.

Our VBS, while solid in its teachings, felt out of sync with our formation goals. How were these parents empowered to continue these themes at home? For the amount of resources (time, talent and treasure) involved, did we offer the most positive formation experience possible? So I emailed my two stand-out, supportive volunteers.

Sitting across from their excited, expectant faces, knowing full well that they were expecting to launch into planning next year’s camp, with a Harry Potter theme, I stated my concerns, “So, I’ve prayerfully been thinking, we should offer our VBS at night, as a family-oriented event, with people of all ages being formed and fed, with activities that would reach multiple ages and faith development levels.”


“You know we won’t get as many people–it’s a much bigger ask of a family.”

“Yes,” I replied. “But I think it will be better long-term formation.”

Silence again.

“We should feed them dinner.”

From that comment, we launched into planning a week-long program, where parents would be expected to stay and be formed alongside of their kids, where teenagers and parishioners without small kids would be required to form and be formed at the same time, and where we were certain we would drop numbers and have to talk people into coming.

What we found, is on whole, we didn’t have to convince people into coming. People were hungry for the opportunity to talk formation, to have tools to help them teach formation, and to find a path to understanding their family as faithful.

Sorted into Hogwarts Houses, VBS participants work together on a craft project

In keeping with the Harry Potter framework:

  • We served dinner, buffet style, with each family sitting in a larger grouping of their Hogwarts House.
  • We “Owl Mailed” a daily newsletter of the theme, the Harry Potter connections, the bible stories and the “why” of every activity.
  • We did one craft–fitting the theme of Harry Potter and the theme of the day.
  • We did a House challenge, requiring all the members of the House to work together–building a marble run, completing a puzzle in silence, participating in scooter races, unwrapping saran-wrap balls of goodies, and collaborating in a photo scavenger hunt.
  • We watched a daily bible video, created by one of our own parish teenagers.
  • We broke into age-appropriate groups to discuss the Bible story (the only time we divided by age).
  • We took next steps as households to discuss where this theme takes us further in faith–as individuals, as church, as families, etc.
  • We prayed compline, every night, except Friday, when we celebrated the Eucharist together.

At home, the conversations continued. Spouses continued discussing scripture and parents were ready to discuss Harry Potter in the view of the Gospel, the world in the view of the Gospel, their family in the view of the Gospel.

Small group, age-based, Bible discussion 

Over the course of a week, we had over 70 participants, with few who were strictly volunteers and no one not participating.

Our numbers included all ages, from infants through parishioners in their 80s. Our households included young families, empty-nesters, and people without children. Participants left asking for more family formation events, saying that they valued this time of learning and family. They were adding the following year’s VBS week into their phones to hold the dates before vacation could be planned.

We’re already planning next summer’s Lion, Witch and Wardrobe Vacation Bible, with the assumption we will have more people from across the age spectrum participating, with or without kids, but ready, in child-like curiosity, to learn about faith so that they may take it with them to continue their formation long after the experience is over. 

The Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson
Associate Rector, St. John’s, Olney

Laughter and joy during one of the nightly Hogwarts House challenges