VBS preview reflects multicultural, technology needs of today's children

CLEARWATER -- Vacation Bible School (VBS) is a tradition that dates to the mid-1890s, when an Illinois schoolteacher, Mrs. D.T. Miles, grew frustrated at the short time span for Sunday school and started a daily summer Bible school. In 1898, Eliza Hawes rented a New York saloon to teach Bible lessons to immigrant children.

Shirts, pamphlets and other VBS materials with scriptures on display table
Lots of color and an emphasis on scripture are among characteristics that stay constant in Vacation Bible School curricula. Photos by Kathy Steele.

Over the next two decades, tradition took hold and today thousands of children participate in VBS, a rite of summer that combines arts and crafts, music and sometimes puppetry in a way to make learning about the Bible both fun and meaningful.

But VBS requires a lot of advance planning. Take it from the church leaders and lay volunteers who put these programs together.

"The earlier and the sooner, the better," said Deborah Johnson, children and youth ministry director for Mount Zion UMC, Clearwater. She and Tyna Middleton, Sunday school superintendent, spent a recent Saturday morning reviewing their options for the upcoming summer VBS.

"We can plan out and see what we can do with it," Johnson said.

Johnson and Middleton were among dozens of people from churches of all denominations who came to the Cokesbury VBS 2015 Showcase Preview on Jan. 24 at Skycrest UMC, Clearwater.

More showcases hosted by Cokesbury, the distributor for United Methodist Church Publishing House, will be popping up elsewhere in Florida and around the country during January and February, the months when most VBS organizers start shopping around for programs.

In the education building at Skycrest UMC, eight VBS starter kits, including Cokesbury's G-Force, were open for inspection. Starter kits from other publishers, including Abingdon Press, Concordia Publishing and Group Publishing, also were displayed. People moved from table to table looking through the booklets, posters and CDs, taking notes on what they saw.

VBS consultant Lionel Trujillo discusses an item with church leaders
Lionel Trujillo, right, talks about this year's VBS curricula from Cokesbury with church leaders at a preview showcase set up at Skycrest UMC, Clearwater.

There was something to pique everyone's interest.

Carole Anne Agnew, a volunteer with First Presbyterian Church, Dunedin, wanted a kit with music and drama that would appeal to about 50 children, from preschool through fifth grade.

"We need a program that offers a puppet skit,” she said. “The kids love the theater."

For Mount Zion, Middleton said she was looking for a multicultural starter kit for up to 40 children expected to enroll from a predominantly African-American congregation, “so the kids see themselves and feel it is a part of their experience."

One kit featured African-American historical figures and modern-day personalities, including Nelson Mandela, Sojourner Truth and Jennifer Hudson. But another multicultural curriculum also was appealing for its music and energy.

"We're looking to get them excited, learning about Jesus," Johnson said.

Cokesbury's community resource consultant, Lionel Trujillo, hosted the Clearwater event. He serves South Central, Gulf Central and South West districts of the Florida Conference. A second showcase will be held Saturday, Jan. 31, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at South Shore UMC, Riverview.
Another is planned Saturday, Feb. 7, from 8 a.m. to noon at First UMC, Oviedo, for VBS planners who find it easier to get to the Orlando area.

About 20 people from eight churches in the Jacksonville area attended a similar showcase on Jan. 25, hosted by Bob McLeary, Cokesbury’s consultant in the northeast part of the state.

Many people seemed to focus on science activities for children of all ages and on mission projects, both local and global, he wrote in an email.

"I get excited seeing two leaders discussing what works and what doesn't work in the children's ministry," McLeary wrote. "This is especially good for the new leaders, who always come in with big eyes and big ideas."

With many churches opting to purchase VBS kits online, Cokesbury closed down its brick-and-mortar bookstores in 2013. The showcases give people a chance for an up-close, personal look at what's available. Consultants also visit individual churches, offices or other organizations by appointment.

Women browsing VBS items at tables
Children's and youth ministry leaders get a sneak peek at curricula and items to enhance Vacation Bible School this summer at a preview showcase offered by Cokesbury at Skycrest UMC, Clearwater.

"We're providing a venue where church leaders can make educated decisions on what to do for VBS this year," Trujillo said.

Social media is playing an ever-increasing role.

"The changes tend to focus on advancements in technology," Trujillo said.

Downloading software and applications for use on mobile phones and iPads is routine now. The "apps," he said, let parents join in. "What's done at church, parents can follow up with students at home."

VBS programs also are becoming easier to use, which is an advantage in recruiting volunteers.

"They don't require as much training to do the lessons," Trujillo said. "Technology really helps there too."

But the importance of music in VBS is probably the biggest trend.

"I have had some people choose a program solely on the music," he said.

Music gets the attention of children in a big way, said Amanda Bressler, youth director at First UMC, Clearwater.

"That helps them remember," she said. "I still remember songs from when I was a kid. That's why it's important for music to reflect the action world where children live."

         VBS Showcases planned

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 31

Where: South Shore UMC
             11525 Big Bend Road, Riverview
Contact: Lionel Trujillo, (727) 216-6208 or


When: 8 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Feb. 7

Where: First UMC, 263 King St., Oviedo
Contact: Bob McLeary, (904) 223-4333 or

Can't get to a showcase? Contact Trujillo or McLeary for assistance or click
here to locate a Cokesbury resource consultant in your area.


First UMC, with a membership of about 500 people, usually has about 100 children in its VBS. They range in age from preschool through fifth grade.

Bressler and two church volunteers moved from table to table at Skycrest UMC, taking notes and conferring. In all, Trujillo said there were about a dozen programs from which to choose.

Mary Speck recalled when VBS kits held a few materials inside slim tubes. They have become more sophisticated, with posters, handouts, CDs, videos and applications.

"Before, they were much simpler," said Speck, a volunteer from St. Giles Episcopal Church, Pinellas Park. "You had to come up with your own stuff. They gave you a few ideas but didn't give you templates and CDs."

St. Giles has about 150 church members. About a dozen or so children are expected to enroll in VBS. Among the congregants are many new Hispanic members, so Speck was interested in Spanish language and multicultural programs.

"This is kind of like spiritual renewal for kids," Speck said. "You don't have enough time on Sunday. We want them to fall in love with Jesus."

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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