Finding the ‘Perfect’ Vacation Bible School Curriculum

It’s that time of year again and, if your email inbox is anything like mine, you’ve got lots of colourful reminders that it’s time to pick a VBS curriculum for your church. It is both a delightful and trying exercise. How do you determine which of the many options will be the best fit for your congregation? Should you get the one with the cute chipmunk, or the one that teaches us about water conservation? Which will excite the kids the most? Which will best teach the great stories of scripture and invite participants to find themselves in the story? It is quite a challenge. So, let’s try and unpack it by looking at a few key criteria you should be including in your decision-making process.

First and foremost is the question of theology. Whatever curriculum you choose for your VBS it must be consistent with your denomination’s and congregation’s theology. In our case, it is paramount to choose a curriculum that is Reformed and Protestant, otherwise we are teaching our children something different from what our church is preaching, confessing, and upholding. Take some time to read a number of lesson plans in the curricula you are considering. Jot down notes of how the materials describe God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, individual and corporate faith, sin, growing in faith, baptism, communion, our mission, and hope. Your descriptive notes ought to give you a clear sense of the theology of the resources. Is God described as close, or far away? Is Jesus described as friend or judge? Is faith something that grows and transforms over a lifetime or does the curriculum focus on salvation as a one-time experience that sets us up for life? Look also at the resource materials for the other aspects of the VBS programme. Are the activities of recreation, crafts, and snacks also theologically consistent with your church. Do they lean toward cooperative games or do they advocate for winning at all costs? Are they environmentally aware through their choice of craft materials and caring of a balanced diet and food waste? Ask, “Is the theology of this curricula representative of our church?” If the answer is yes, great! But there’s a few other matters to consider before we press the ‘buy’ button.

Have a look for the educational approach of the curriculum. Some curricula work from a teacher-centred model with a focus on the exchange of information coming down from the teacher to the students in order that the learners gain new knowledge. These kinds of resources often have pre-set answers to knowledge-based questions with an expectation that participants will arrive at pre-determined conclusions. Other curricula will advocate for a student-centred approach, inviting participants to set the conversation by responding to more open-ended questions; wondering about the story and how it connects with them. There is not an explicit agenda in such materials for pre-set conclusions. Parker Palmer advocates for a subject-centred style of learning where the delight of both the leaders and the participants around the topic sets us on an exploration of discovery together. Look carefully at the curricula you are considering. What are the kinds of questions they are asking? Does the curriculum assume that everyone comes into this world spiritually connected, or that the participants are vessels to be filled with the ‘right’ answers? Generally our churches would lean toward student-centred and subject-centred approaches over a teacher-centred model.

Next, we need to look at the overall approach of the curricula we consider. Scottie May and her colleagues have identified a number of overarching metaphors that shape how congregations approach ministry with children in, Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community (2005, pp. 10-22). When a church, or curriculum, embraces one metaphor over the others, how they do ministry with children follows the implications of each metaphor. May et al has identified the School Model, the Gold Star/Win a Prize Model, The Carnival (have fun, high spot of the week) Model, the Pilgrim’s Journey Model, and the Dance with God Model, all of which have strengths and weaknesses when they are embraced by a congregation. Do we teach pilgrims that same way we teach top students? What are dancing with God activities, and what are carnival activities? Take time to evaluate resources through the lens of these metaphors. Curricula that lean toward lots of games, entertaining videos and extensive additional plastic toys to be bought are generally advocating for a Carnival Model. Curricula with winners and losers with rewards for memorizing bible verses and daily attendance prefer a Gold Star Model. The Journey Model can feel quite open ended and would require a flexible leader with a good sense of where they’d like to land, more or less, at the end of each lesson. Ask yourself, does this curriculum fit our model of doing ministry with children.

Finally, there are practical questions you need to ask. Once you have eliminated those curricula that don’t fit your congregation’s theology, educational models, you then look at attractiveness, availability, suitability for your leaders gifts and time commitments, flexibility and cost. While each of these additional considerations are important factors, don’t let them be your primary deciding factors.

At the recent gathering of APCE in Little Rock, Arkansas Roberta Dodds-Ingersoll assembled an extensive list of VBS resources for educators to review to make a choice for their summer activities. Her list itemizes the well-known  and the ought-to-be-known curricula resources. It’s a great place to begin your search and so I’ve linked it to this article. 

Your search begins now…       

Click here for Roberta Dodds-Ingersoll’s VBS resource list


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