What one United Church learned when it brought back Vacation Bible School after more than 50 years.

A group of campers at the Vacation Bible School hold a bunch of snails and slugs.
Credit: Courtesy of Natalie Istead

In the summer of 2018, our church decided to try Vacation Bible School camp (VBS).

The last time the United Church had organized a Vacations Bible School in the Gatineau Hills was circa 1955. Unsure of whether we could do this alone, Église Grace United Church asked our Anglican neighbours at St. Mary Magdalene in Chelsea if they would like to work together. They agreed!

We chose a theme: “Weird Animals” and adapted resources for our own context as we planned activities.

We advertised and prayed that children would sign up. On the first day of camp, 13 children signed up – a huge number for our small churches!

In five days we spent 35 hours with the children. Here are some of the things we did to nurture faith formation…

  1. We worked together. By partnering with our Anglican siblings in Christ, we had more leaders available which allowed to pool our creativity, share our faith, and grow deeper relationships with the children.
  2. We began and ended each day in worship. For many children at camp, church was a new experience. We wanted them to learn about worship, but also to practice worship. We introduced the experience of public worship in a simple and kid-friendly way.
  3. We gave children the opportunity to participate in worship. Each day, the children filled the baptismal font and touched the water. They lit the Christ candle. They placed a Bible, chalice and paten on the communion table. They used a rain-stick to centre themselves in worship. The children felt important and valued in having tasks and became part of the liturgy – “the work of the people.”
  4. We centred each day in a Bible story. The children interacted with the Bible story through activities like drama, cooking, and games. They re-told the story in their own words. Many VBS curricula emphasize a moral or theological lesson, using a Bible story to support it. As leaders, we made the decision to focus on the Bible stories themselves. The children especially enjoyed the parting-the-sea cupcakes, a Good Samaritan relay race, acting out the story of Zacchaeus, and singing “Go Down, Moses.”
  5. We spoke simply and caringly about Jesus’ love. As leaders, we were careful to speak with respect of various theologies and faith traditions. We also spoke honestly and humbly about how Jesus loves us no matter what. This was a message that the children took seriously. For some, it was their first time hearing this Good News.
  6. We created opportunities to serve others. Each day, the children worked at a caring project. They made and shared cookies with residents at a local home for people with intellectual disabilities. Another day, they visited a charity second-hand store and learned about recycling. They helped to tidy the church gardens. The children found meaning in helping others; an experience that was important to growing in Christian faith.
     
  7. We prayed with the children. Twice each day, the children repeated a blessing to one another “May the grace of Jesus Christ…” By the end of the week, the older kids were leading it! In the mornings, we sat in a circle and passed around a “stuffie.” When someone had the stuffie, he or she could share a prayer of thanksgiving or intercession. Sometimes things got silly! For the most part, the kids had a safe place to pray with others. The adults had the opportunity to model prayer for the children.
  8. We strongly emphasized a safe and caring environment. Although many children will soon forget individual Bible stories or activities, what they will remember is experiencing church as a safe, fun and caring place. They will remember the feeling of being valued, a friend, safe and welcome. To support the creation of a welcoming camp community, we maintained a high ratio of adults per kid. (3-5 adults for 13 kids) This allowed the adults to stay patient throughout the day, to listen to children’s stories, and to intervene when occasion demanded it.
  9. The leaders prayed for this camp and the children. Organizing a camp was joyful and meaningful, but it was also hard. We prayed for Jesus to help us in welcoming these children and teaching them about his love. We couldn’t have done the camp without prayer.
  10. We let the Spirit lead us. Some of the best things at camp were not in our plans. We hadn’t planned on a bilingual or multidenominational camp…but Jesus’ disciples hadn’t planned Pentecost either! God sent us children from four denominations and from no church background, as well kids who spoke English, French, or both. One day, a leader began teaching the children an “alleluia”; unplanned, but beautiful and powerful. The children shaped and often changed the plans. They asked fascinating and deep questions, and shared powerful stories. They had lots of ideas. One day, a child proposed the counting of the crosses in the sanctuary. The adults were amazed when they reached over 50! Another time, the kids wanted to play “hide and seek” in the sanctuary. Both times, these unplanned activities allowed the kids to explore sacred space in a fun way, and gave us all a chance to talk about faith.

Our camp was not perfect. Next year, we’ll make a few changes: Moving morning worship a little later in the schedule, singing more often, and serving more freezies. (When the leaders asked how camp could be better next year, “more freezies” was the most consistent feedback!)

I am glad that we led summer camp this year. Together with leaders and an awesome group of kids, we “did church” and created a Christian community. Adults and kids alike, we all grew in faith.

— Rev. Natalie Istead is serving in ministry with l’Église Unie de la Grâce United Church in the Gatineau Hills. If you’d like to talk more about summer camp, please feel free to email her.