(RNS) — Kyla Rodriguez’s two children had a blast earlier this month at Immanuel Lutheran Church’s Vacation Bible School.
Every morning during the weeklong Rainforest Explorers-themed program, 3-year-old Carson and his little sister Madison, nearly 2, prayed and sang songs. They ate rainforest-themed snacks and made tissue paper rainbows and colorful toilet paper roll parrots.
And they did it all without ever leaving their home in Merrill, Wisconsin.
The virtual Vacation Bible School, or VBS, was hosted by Immanuel, their grandparents’ Missouri Synod church in Seymour, Indiana. Carson and Madison received backpacks in the mail ahead of time, stuffed with the materials they’d need for crafts and other activities. Then each day, they’d tune in to watch prerecorded videos for stories, songs and instructions.
The kids were especially excited to see their grandpa, a pastor at the church, on TV, according to Rodriguez.
“They liked the songs and the crafts and it was something fun to do, especially right now. We don’t have things like going to story time at our local library,” she said.
“So it was fun to have something to do during the day that they liked, that was just a little different from our normal days right now.”
Like so many other things, VBS programs look a little different this summer amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A beloved summertime tradition for many churches, VBS usually looks like weeklong day camps with songs, crafts, games, Bible stories and memory verses that reinforce a theme.
Across denominations, it is one of the biggest outreach ministries of the year for many churches and draws a huge number of volunteers from congregations.
While some churches have canceled or postponed their programs due to the pandemic, many have found ways to host programs mixing online videos with hands-on activities that children can do at home with a parent’s help. Other churches, in states that have loosened stay-at-home orders, have made plans involving face masks and social distancing or smaller gatherings in volunteers’ backyards.
“Families are looking for activity and engagement for their kids,” said Jody Brolsma, an executive editor at Group Publishing who leads the development of Group’s annual Vacation Bible School curriculum.
“Those who are doing this are finding overwhelming support from families and parents saying, ‘We need something in the summer, and VBS doesn’t feel like school,’” she added. “‘It‘s not compulsory. The pressure to get it right isn’t the same, even if it’s happening in my home.’”
As plans quickly shifted this spring, many of the publishers behind popular VBS curricula, like Group, also created resources to help churches adapt their programs to the times.
LifeWay Christian Resources, part of the Southern Baptist Convention, published an e-book detailing four strategies to adapt its “Concrete and Cranes” curriculum. Those strategies range from “VBS as usual” to virtual programs, depending on how communities have been impacted by the coronavirus.
Meantime, ELCA World Hunger, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, released pre-recorded videos and modified crafts and games that changed its “On Earth As in Heaven” curriculum to “On Earth As in Heaven… At Home!”
Illustrated Ministry — which creates progressive Christian coloring pages, Sunday School curricula and other resources for churches and families — released its first VBS curriculum this year.
It’s something founder Adam Walker Cleaveland said customers have been requesting for a while, noting most popular VBS curricula are produced by more conservative publishers. The digital resources it produces suddenly seemed like a good fit for an at-home program, he said.
In six weeks, Illustrated Ministry created Compassion Camp, which has had more sales than anything else the company has done, according to Cleaveland.
He said they chose the theme of compassion from “a read of the world that we live in … and just feeling like there was a desperate need for compassion to be talked about, to be lived, to be thought about, sung about.”
It seemed like a better fit than an elaborate theme based on a destination, Illustrated Ministry Director of Product Development Rebekah Lowe added, when “the setting is home and everyone has that understanding of what compassion is or can be.”
Compassion Camp includes many of the traditional elements of a VBS: In place of games, there’s yoga for movement. For crafts, there’s one of the printable coloring posters Illustrated Ministry is best known for, broken up into individual coloring pages like mosaic tiles that a church can then collect from each child, assemble and display.
There’s also a “compassion in action” activity to reinforce each day’s theme, like writing letters to medical workers and essential workers to help kids remember that compassion helps them to be brave. Kids are also encouraged to do something they love to remind them to be compassionate to themselves, too.
Group initially took a “wait and see” approach to the summer, urging churches to come up with plans A, B and C for their VBS programs, according to Brolsma.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines limiting the size of gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Group began hosting online trainings for church leaders and posted options on its website to adapt its 2020 curricula either for online or smaller neighborhood programs.
For example, the publisher encouraged churches to create their own prerecorded or live videos so kids can see familiar faces and hear familiar voices. It also suggested taking frequent pauses to complete hands-on activities so kids stay engaged, Brolsma said.
Its website also includes ideas for adapting the activities to accommodate social distancing, such as having kids hold opposite ends of a pool noodle, instead of holding hands, or playing a game that allows them to stay six feet apart.
The theme of Group’s “Rocky Railways” curriculum especially resonated, she said: “Jesus’ power pulls us through.”
“Really, our curriculum team paved the way and began to explore what that could look like and still be true to our brand and our mission, which is really keeping things highly relational and highly engaging,” Brolsma said.
Group also urged churches to remember why they do VBS.
“I think that was really empowering to people,” Brolsma said. “Instead of letting COVID run the show, that put them back in the driver’s seat, saying, ‘God gave you this vision for this outreach. Now how can you make that happen?’”
Edmond Church of Christ in Edmond, Oklahoma, decided to host a Backyard Bible School program this July in yards across the city, according to Brenda Gordon, its children’s ministry director.
The church’s Vacation Bible School usually welcomes about 300 children to the church and draws more volunteers from its congregation than any other event, Gordon said. Its drama team had been preparing for the summer program since January.
This year, they’ll go without the skits and singing, she said, pointing to warnings about how singing can project the virus.
Instead, they plan to host smaller versions of the camp in volunteers’ backyards.
The church — which recently started holding services in person again with some limitations — is providing all the lessons and materials and encouraging social distancing, Gordon said.
Volunteers can sign up to host a Backyard Bible School any time in July, she said. It might be for one day or three. It might be limited to siblings or families who have been quarantining together. It might be open to the neighborhood.
“I said, ‘You do whatever you feel comfortable with. Share God’s word. Share the gospel.’ And so that’s our main focus right now,” Gordon said.
Meanwhile, Riviera United Methodist Church in Redondo Beach, California, has canceled its plans for Vacation Bible School this summer, which makes the church a “rarity” even in its area, according to Dena Abramson Babb, its director of family and children’s ministries.
Coronavirus cases are spiking in California, Abramson Babb said. And families at Riviera are tired of staring at a screen after the last school year. They don’t want to be tied to a computer all summer, too, especially when it seems likely at least some of their classes will be online this fall.
So she sent them some resources, including suggestions for books to read and activities like going outside and talking about where they see God.
That, she said, is why the church does VBS.
“It’s really about giving kids the experience and the tools to find those ‘ah, I see God’ moments. It’s where I have my most ‘I see God’ moments. I see it in the kids and in the volunteers,” Abramson Babb said.
“I’m hoping families can experience the same thing.”