George Barna. His work is a blessing, but it’s also depressing. He’s the Christian’s statistician, the Holy Roller’s pollster, the Bible-thumper’s number cruncher. Barna seldom has good news about American believers, but nothing concerns me more than his recent findings about children and teens. It was George Barna who interviewed more than 20,000 young adults and teenagers only to learn that “Six out of 10 young adults in their 20s were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.” Looking at stats alone would make anyone pessimistic: Moral decay among youth, Christian families shaken by adultery and divorce, rampant hostility toward believers — I’m thankful my real-life experiences are a lot brighter.
And that’s my word to the pouting pastor and downhearted deacon laid low by the data: If you want to feel optimistic about the future of the church again, gather some stats of your own by getting very deeply involved in Vacation Bible School. You’ll be glad you did.
I’m actually sad for the minister who sees VBS on the calendar and promptly lays in a five-day supply of M.R.E.’s, barricades his study door with all 59 volumes of the Word Biblical Commentary, and prays no one will ask him to referee duck-duck-goose. You’re missing out, reverend. You spend every day looking pastoral, pious and dignified, all while suppressing that gnawing desire to spray paint macaroni and glue it to cork board. You know as well as I do that getting clotheslined in a round of Red Rover is way more fun than alliterating a three-point sermon outline. Put down that edition of The Collected Sermons of The Rev. Dr. Tedious Q. Yawnensnore for just five days. Honestly, have all those dusty old tomes taught us nearly as much as one nice lady putting a paper baby Moses on the Flannelgraph?
My enthusiasm for Vacation Bible School today stems from all the precious summer evenings I spent as the little guy in the pew, memorizing scripture and singing about a boy named David and a giant who came tumbling down. I loved sitting under the tutelage of “Shorty,” the diminutive VBS teacher at the First Christian Church. She was always genuinely happy to see me, never failing to make me feel like Jesus actually did want me for a sunbeam. It was Shorty who helped me get the glitter just right on that memo pad craft I was making for my mom. Last year, she attended a funeral I officiated. She hadn’t seen me for 35 years, but she still remembered teaching me.
And thank God for Jerry and Joan Marlow. I devoted all my evil boyhood powers every day to mercilessly teasing their daughters – Debbie, Dawn and Davina – until those poor girls ran down West Boston Avenue in tears. Nevertheless, Jerry and Joan always made sure I got to the Foursquare Church’s VBS. I know they were motivated by a loving, sincere desire to see me trust Jesus, but I suspect it wouldn’t have broken their hearts if, as a side benefit, the Holy Spirit had brought me under conviction about tormenting their children.
Incidentally, it was at the Foursquare VBS that I first learned a truth that is now lost to the ages: Scripture is easier to memorize when you know you’re going to be reciting it to a pastor’s wife in clown make-up who has a pocket full of Jolly Ranchers.
It occurs to me that I fit into the very Barna statistic I cited. Just like the 60 percent of young adults he polled who had abandoned church, when I hit my teens, I rejected God. I chose a path of depravity and alcoholism. But one day, all the prayers and teaching that countless VBS staffers had invested suddenly paid a dividend. A dormant seed of faith, planted decades earlier, finally germinated. I realized that Jesus still wanted me for a sunbeam, and I desperately wanted to be a sunbeam for Him.
A VBS curriculum author recently lamented, “So often, kids are treated like second class citizens by church leadership. Children’s ministry is looked at as the ‘bait’ that brings in the parents, not a valid ministry in itself.”
I’m so thankful that wasn’t the case with the Marlows and Shorty. May it never be the case with my church either.