Stewardship of Life

Minimalist VBS

Vacation Bible School is a major event on most church summer calendars. Let’s assume you are the designated person in charge of producing your community’s VBS program. If you are lucky, you have an abundance of talented volunteers, an adequate budget, great facilities, and an easily reachable population. If, however, you are like most of us, at least one but probably more of these categories will be somewhat lacking. What do you do? How do you create a great experience for families in your community with less than perfect tools at your disposal?

First of all, I suggest that you identify your goals and objectives. Asking some of the following questions may prove helpful:

  • What do hope to accomplish through your Vacation Bible School?
  • What is your budget and how does this break down per student? We spent $2 on craft supplies, less than a $1 on snacks, and about $1 on photocopies and supplies per student. That’s around $4 per student for five days of VBS. Our family picnic cost around $200 (hotdogs, chips, cookies, fruit snacks, fruit, and lemonade). We had 140 children registered for the week.
  • How many participants are you likely to draw? (We had 140 children registered for the week.)
  • How will you publicize and spread the word of your event?
  • What kind of volunteer support might you reasonably expect? What volunteer jobs are available? (Remember to secure more volunteers than you think you will actually need. People get sick and run into scheduling conflicts, so it is crucial to have adequate staffing.)
  • What is the one thing that is most important for the children you will serve to learn? What do you want families who participate in your VBS to take away with them?

If you find that you have few volunteers, not much time, and lots of funds, then purchasing a pre-packaged curriculum from Augsburg Fortress or other publisher may be your best option. You won’t need a lot of time to create your own materials or train volunteers. Purchased curriculum will afford you a turn-key experience, a consistent look and theme, and solid theology.

If, however, you find that you are short on funds, have creative and flexible volunteers, and a willingness to try new approaches to time honored traditions, then I suggest you rethink the traditional purchased curriculum approach to Vacation Bible School and explore the possibilities of hosting a minimalist’s version of VBS. Try to involve a small group of congregational leaders in a brainstorming session around these questions. Take good notes. Think outside of the proverbial Christian education box. Be creative. Dream.

Remember, Vacation Bible School doesn’t have to be a Disney production to be a meaningful experience for the children in your community. Young children thrive on simplicity; they are creative, innovative, and willing to suspend disbelief. You are not competing with Nickelodeon, so don’t even try to mimic them. Sure, there are big faith communities with amazing technical resources, professional musicians, elaborate sets and huge staffs, but those things are not a requirement for your congregation’s successful VBS.

Pick a Theme

The Bible is full of rich thematic material that will fit into a three to five day format, be it daytime, nighttime, or even one designated night stretched over several weeks. Consider picking a few biblical characters for exploration. How about focusing on a few miracle stories of Jesus or some parables? You might create a theme around the “Fruit of the Spirit Orchard,” and delve deeply into one text while pulling supporting material from other biblical texts. How about a Journey in the Wilderness with Moses or a Missionary Journey with Paul and Silas?

Surf the Net

The web is full of great resources, many of which are free. You can find skits, crafts, coloring pages, music, and ideas for how to host a fun week. I’m not knocking purchasing denominational VBS curriculum; for many congregations that is the clear choice and best option, but don’t let budget or dissatisfaction with what you find available stop you. Create your own!


Find out what your colleagues and partners in ministry have done and are doing. Try not to duplicate, but do draw on the experiences of others to find out what works well and what might need revisiting. Perhaps you can even partner with near neighbors for a combined effort that will make for a lighter work load and a larger group of children. We combined efforts with our congregation’s Parents’ Day Out Program. Without their staff, energy, and expertise we would not have been nearly so successful nor had such a strong turn out.

Seek Volunteers

Determine what you need and ASK. Be specific. Broadcast your need for volunteers, supplies, food, etc. Don’t forget to network and make individual calls or personal appeals. Merely putting your needs in the newsletter or announcements is not likely to have folks beating down the door to help, but a personal invitation may do the trick.

Don’t Overlook the Details

Ever heard the saying “The devil is in the details?” Well don’t let that be the case for you! Involve many people in looking at your plan to make sure you have not overlooked anything important. Have a child safety expert review your plan for registering, checking students in and out, and safety and emergency plans. Be extra careful about food allergies if you are serving snacks. Read food labels carefully. This year we stuck with pretzels, air-popped popcorn, and animal crackers. Water was our beverage of choice, and we served everything on the playground to cut down on mess. Do you plan to have a picnic or cookout on the final day? If so, communicate the details to parents early on and provide a way for them to r.s.v.p. so you will have good numbers.

Thank your Volunteers and Staff

Be sure to say thank you with a personal, handwritten note if possible. If you choose a small token of appreciation, avoid giving trinkets that will simply create more junk. This year we gave organic, fair-trade chocolate bars made by Divine Chocolate Company, a cooperative supported by Lutheran World Relief and other major non-profit entities. Again, think outside of the box.

Don’t Forget the Follow-Up!

Part of the purpose of Vacation Bible School is to introduce your congregation to families in the community that are seeking a church home or spiritual center. Plan a way to invite them to worship. Perhaps host a VBS Sunday where the children will sing or where you will have special recognition for VBS families and volunteers. Be sure to provide information about your Christian Ed programs and family ministry.

Be sure to evaluate your program after the event is over. Ask staff and volunteers to complete an evaluation. Seek their input about what went well, what could be improved, and what might be fun to do next year.


Finally, don’t forget to pray, and pray, and then pray some more. Seek God’s guidance, the Spirit’s presence, and the love of Christ to be present with you as your congregation ministers to the children and passes on the faith. A Minimalist VBS can be a great experience for everyone involved, can put less strain on the budget, cut down on waste, and still proclaim the love of Christ and great stories of faith on a shoestring budget. May God be with you.

Your Turn: Have some ideas or experiences that you would like to share? Please do so! We’d love to know about your favorite links, great craft ideas, tips, and ideas. We’re all partners in ministry, and the more we share the better!

Photo Credits: Carolyn Seneker, used by permission

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  1. It may interest readers to know that we are releasing a Top Tips booklet on Runnig Holiday Clubs this Autumn. ‘Top Tips Running Holiday Clubs’ It is a great small booklet full of handy tips and useful ideas which unpack the why and how of holiday clubs. At £2.99 it’s too good to miss! Available from the website.

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