This summer, Richardsville Baptist Church announced some joyful news on their sign outside the church building: “18 souls saved during VBS.”
For any church, that’s reason to rejoice. For this small country church that runs around sixty-five in Sunday morning worship, it’s a clear example of how God is drawing people to Himself in their community.
Vacation Bible School is one of the most significant annual outreaches held by many churches. In 2014, according to data collected through the Annual Church Profile and Church VBS Reports, 23,754 Southern Baptist churches hosted 36,439 individual “schools”—VBS, Backyard Bible Clubs, and any other activities the church considers to fall into that category. A total of 2,593,547 children were enrolled.
The potential for VBS as an outreach tool is enormous, said Jerry Wooley, VBS ministry specialist at LifeWay. He said that nationally, around 10 percent of VBS registrants claim to be unchurched; that is, when asked their church affiliation during the registration process, they either leave the question blank or write “none.” If 10 percent of the over two million children enrolled are unchurched, then the total reach of VBS across the country for children plus their families could be well over one million.
Kenneth Whitaker, bivocational pastor of Richardsville Baptist in Richardsville, Kentucky, estimated that of the sixty or so children who attended the church’s VBS this summer, about one third were unchurched. “We had families come this time and bring their children that don’t normally go to church anywhere,” he said. “We have five or six families that have come back and visited with us and are still coming. It’s really been a plus for us.”
Wooley suggested in written comments that to promote VBS in their communities, churches should identify places and events where families gather, such as parks, parades, and festivals, and take advantage of those opportunities. Churches could also reach out to childcare centers or local youth programs, target specific audiences within the community, and encourage church members to spread the word using social media. The best promotion, he said, comes from word-of-mouth by providing a quality program each year. “Creating a reputation of excellence will build anticipation for the next year.”
Kelly Glass, the church’s VBS director, said that the church utilized social media for promotion by posting frequently on the church’s Facebook page throughout the planning process. They also hosted a kickoff event featuring a fireworks display, which she said drew in a lot of community members.
Nationally, of the more than two million children who participated in VBS last year, there were 73,192 professions of faith. That number only includes decisions recorded during the week—not any decisions that occurred during follow-up.
Whitaker recounted being approached by a young girl at one of their VBS sessions. “This little girl comes up and wants to talk to me about being saved, and her mom was right behind her,” he said. “We talked with her for a few minutes and we prayed together. I looked up from that, and [other children] were starting to line up!” Many of those children were saved that night, he said.
Children aren’t the only ones being impacted by VBS. Whitaker said that in the past two years, they have seen three people in their mid- to late-eighties accept Christ, and two of them were directly influenced by VBS activities—last year, an eighty-eight-year-old woman, and this year, an eighty-nine-year-old man. Whitaker said the man’s decision was partially influenced by VBS, “because he got to see the excitement that was happening with the kids, and I think that really moved him.” The eighty-eight-year-old woman had a similar response while observing the children’s activities, he said.
Glass, who directed VBS for the first time this year, was also changed by the experience. “I was absolutely terrified of being VBS director,” she said. The night the pastor handed over the responsibility to her, “I started praying a lot for VBS. Not just for God to help me, but to make an impact in our community, for our church to be seen and for lost families to be reached. That’s the reason that we do this.” About two weeks prior to the start of VBS, God laid on her heart that they would see one soul saved and five lives changed, but she didn’t understand what that might mean. On the second day of VBS, after Whitaker offered an open invitation during their opening ceremony, fourteen children and teens came forward to be saved. “It was just really personal to me . . . when so many came forward and said they wanted to give their life to Jesus,” she said. “It’s so wonderful.”
Churches should “[a]dopt the philosophy that discovering unchurched families and connecting with them through follow-up is the reason for holding VBS,” said Wooley. Follow-up should not be an afterthought. Plan follow-up actions while planning for the VBS event itself, he suggested, and assign a follow-up leader. It needs to be more than just sending a postcard; it should be about relationships with the people.
At Richardsville, follow-up builds on the relationships that the children have already developed during the week with their teachers. “We try to get the teachers that taught the kids and someone else from the church to go visit those [unchurched families]; that way the children are familiar with that teacher and it kind of opens the door,” Whitaker said.
They also send out mailers to the families, Glass said, to keep them informed of news and upcoming events at the church.
For Whitaker, the success of VBS is just one example of how God has been working in the community. “It’s a continuing revival in our church,” he said. He held baptisms for four Sundays in a row following VBS. They are trying to find more space in their facilities to accommodate the new children and families coming to Sunday school. “It’s been a great journey,” he said.
“We’re just blessed to be a part of what [God’s] doing,” Glass said, “and that’s the bottom line. If He continues to bless us in the way that He has, and use us in the way that He has, I think we’re going to see great things in our community. And I’m excited. I can’t wait to see more.”
Rebecca Wolford is communications specialist with the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.