Little Jordan Finney rose amid the boomerangs, casting nets and ferns and dramatically demonstrated how the Apostle Peter escaped prison with the help of an angel.
“The angel took his hand, like this, an led him through the dark,” said the second-grader, half covering her eyes and stepping between her classmates. Having made her point, Jordan resumed her seat in front of the poster depicting the Australian outback.
Jordan’s church, Macedonia Baptist in northwestern Lee County, is one of more than 25,000 churches nationwide, including hundreds throughout the Magnolia State, using the vacation Bible school curriculum titled “Boomerang Express.”
The curriculum, a product of Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing division of the Southern Baptist Convention, blends exotic scenery, infectious music and biblical narratives to envelop students in a world of wonder and learning.
From the life-sized, inflatable kangaroo to the plastic koalas swinging from the light fixtures, “Express” re-created the adventurous landscape of Australia inside the cool confines of the small, country church.
At Tupelo First Presbyterian Church, Tucker Erickson, 8, sat crafting a star from paper and wire. “This is the North Star,” said Tucker, peering out from under an Ole Miss baseball cap. “The star is what they followed to Jesus’ birthplace.”
Around Tucker, the day’s theme, “Bethlehem Trek,” was symbolized by tents, backpacks and all manner of camping gear. His church was using “Camp Edge,” a product from the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville.
Vacation Bible school curricula like these are a far cry from the Popsicle stick crosses and the Bible verse scrapbooks many adults brought home as kids.
They’re highly polished learning systems that interweave elements of developmental psychology, evangelical missionary work and a strong dose of entertainment.
There’s plenty of biblical learning, but it’s not rote memorization. Instead, the lessons are couched in adventurous, fictional scenarios and robust imagery.
Jerry Vogel, director of childhood ministry publishing at LifeWay, said kids today have lots of outlets vying for their attention and the VBS industry has had to raise its standards in order to compete.
“Kids have almost constant access to multimedia, and, in a way, they have the world at their fingertips,” said Vogel. He added that immersing children in an exotic environment, like Australia, cultivates global awareness and draws them deeper into the overall experience of learning.
Linda Tozer, director of vacation Bible school at the Methodist Publishing House, said her company’s products this year are the result of extensive research as well as a concerted effort to stay true to old-fashioned biblical teaching.
“We ask ourselves ‘What’s Disney doing?’ and ‘What’s Nickelodeon doing?’ and we really value input from Christian educators who are engaged with children and see the effectiveness of our products first-hand,” said Tozer.
Besides the products offered by LifeWay and UM Publishing, VBS coordinators today can choose from hundreds of options, including products from Group Publishing, Concordia Publishing House and Standard Publishing.
Connie Stanford, director of Macedonia’s VBS, said the choices can be overwhelming, but she’s found that LifeWay consistently offers products that are engaging and that can be used by both large and small churches. Macedonia’s VBS had fewer than 30 kids each night, but the curriculum is easily adaptable to accommodate dozens.
Tozer said UM Publishing’s products have a cross-denominational appeal, and, without divulging numbers, she said they do pretty well selling to VBSs other than those operated by her denomination.
Bessie Barnes, who coordinated VBS at St. Paul United Methodist, agreed with Tozer. She’s been teaching VBS for over 30 years and said “On the Move,” UM Publishing’s other product this year, is the best she’s seen.
The title, Barnes said, was also appropriate because the 30-plus kids, ages kindergarten through eighth grade, were in a constant state of flux. That helps break the monotony and allows volunteers to specialize in one area.
On a Friday evening, St. Paul’s first- through thirdgraders had no problem rapidly clipping off what they’d learned as they marched from their classroom toward the Family Life Center.
“Be kind and nice,” said an exuberant, 8-year-old Marquez Dilworth.
“Wherever you go, God goes with you,” added Connor Agnew, age 9.
Barnes said the diversity of VBS products gives churches that operate on a limited budget, like hers, more choices.
Tozer said the healthy competitiveness that permeates the VBS industry today helps raise the overall quality of the products.
“There’s a buzz each year to see what’s coming out next,” she said, adding that The UM Publishing will debut its 2010 product in early July. There’s even a place on its Web site to guess what the theme will be.
Behind the kangaroo blow-ups and the simulated camp fires, there is an underlying question: What is the purpose of vacation Bible school? Vogel of LifeWay said it’s simple.
“VBS continues to be the number one evangelistic opportunity churches have to reach kids and families that might not ordinarily go to church,” said Tozer.
Curriculums like “Boomerang Express,” along with the materials to make them work, aren’t cheap but most churches today budget money for VBS and therefore they don’t charge admission. They also encourage members to invite their children’s friends to come along.
Macedonia and St. Paul held their VBS in the evening, another trend which, according to Vogel, is expanding opportunities. “About half of Southern Baptist churches are now doing evening VBS,” said Vogel. “That helps get men involved and creates more opportunity for working folks.”
Donita Schultz, who coordinated “Camp Edge” this year at First Presbyterian, said one third of their kids were non-members, and she finds that encouraging. She said VBS, which is usually held shortly after school adjourns for the summer, is a narrow window for bringing kids together in a concentrated environment where they can build Christian relationships.
“So many things are pulling them away,” said Schultz. “Vacations, sports, we have this great opportunity for making connections, for building relationships and sharing who we are as Christians.”
She added that the thematic ambiance heightens the sense of being in a special time and place and lends itself to forming lasting memories.
Treking their way between lanterns and pup tents, the First Presbyterian kindergartners sat to listen to the puppet Mickey the Meerkat. Just that morning Mickey had taken a nasty fall while making an ill-advised trek up the mountain wearing a blindfold.
A heavily bandaged and contrite Mickey, voiced by Schultz, asked the children, “Who can always guide us?”
Four-year-old Ryder Jones was obviously enjoying the ambiance, but he clearly understood the message. He rose excitedly to his feet, and leaning in close to Mickey, answered, “God.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal