This morning I greeted people at the front door as Romper the River Otter. It was clear a number of times that a few people did not get the memo that it was VBS Sunday or that their morning would include shaking hands with someone wearing a purple otter nose mask.
I climbed on stage and shimmied through 6 songs that fall into the stylistic category I refer to as “kid’s worship zumba” and listened to the recaps that Pastor Julie took us through. I was pleased no children leaped off the front of the stage and did great jobs at their kid duty of worshiping in front of “big church” in a precious and fun way.
I do sort of wonder at the wonderment of VBS. I mean, I remember a time that my involvement during VBS was as an attendee at my grandmother’s church’s VBS and I remember a time where I dropped my child off and used the time to catch up on laundry (I think, just the once maybe) and I remember a time where I volunteered for one station or the other. But having worked full time at a church now through 2 VBSes, I now can hardly imagine not knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and I think perhaps I might share a bit with you, just because, you know, why not?
We learned from last year that there is no such thing as TOO early to start working on VBS. This time we met for our first meeting 6 months before to vote on a theme and to start dreaming about what could be. This meeting will sound something like this…
Ok, so we’re going to vote on a theme. We have two choices and I won’t give away which one I want, but ONE COMES WITH ACTUAL PONIES, ponies, and capes for every child. It has an awesome soundtrack and for the set we could bring in astro-turf and line the stage with that and then there are these magical seeds which grow the world’s biggest sunflowers in three and a half days. Each child is guaranteed to have a deeper understanding of 1 Peter 1:23 and the “imperishable seed” though I don’t quite understand how the ponies apply to that bit, I’m pretty sure it all works out. And then we have choice number two….which gives every child a whistle.
So then once we’ve chosen the one with a whistle…because what kid doesn’t like whistles….we begin to daydream what summer will bring. And we will pray for the children who are coming to VBS and thank God for the opportunity to be involved in this.
During the months leading up to VBS we meet once a month for a few months, then twice a month. We choose which stations we’ll be doing and map out what exactly will happen each night at each station. We will work up a menu for snacks and then we will abandon that menu and make an entirely different one. We will work up a supply list for crafts/missions and then abandon that and start all over. We will flip through all the different station and leader guides and make lists and plan.
We will hand the game guide over to the guy leading games and say “You know how to play games right? So, uh, we trust that. Have fun.”
And we will pray for the children who are coming to VBS and thank God for the opportunity to be involved in this.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE
This is crunch time. Work hours increase to a manageable 60-70 hours a week. We build set and try to find places to hide a 9 foot waterfall for the next two weeks. We cut out more trees, because that is what we do. We paint and paint and paint. Then we stand up and realize that our bodies are not as young as they used to be.
We email volunteers and run downstairs to the front desk to accept packages of the most ridiculous things and trash our office. We start gathering donations, like huge boxes of chocolate and popsicles, 4,000 goldfish, 8 billion graham crackers and marvel at how people are so ready to give so generously.
You redefine the terms “free time” and “social life” to mean, find people you like to work on VBS stuff with and work on VBS stuff. You cut things and tie things and punch things out. You spend hours (days? weeks? millennia?) up a ladder laying layer after layer of door tinsel over the upstairs railing until it resembles a waterfall. You try not to think about the word “waterfall” because every time you do you hear “water…fall off this very high ladder” and then get scared.
You have good friends who bring you food and remind you to put that food in your mouth and chew and swallow it, because otherwise you would forget to eat…except coffee. You never forget coffee.
You repeat this phrase over and over regarding everything else in life, “Um, sure I can find that out for you, but could you email or text that to me because I’m going to forget otherwise. Thank you so much!”
We pray for the children who are coming to VBS and thank God for the opportunity to be involved in this…and then you look at someone and say quietly, “I don’t know if or how this is going to happen.” Speaking it out loud gives you the chance to say “Well, if God did it before, He can do it again.” Speaking it out loud gives you the chance to hear that those around you are in the same place as you. Speaking it out loud gives you the chance to turn to God and say, “I need you.”
These weeks are the weeks where you are keenly aware of just how much you need God.
Your goal should be to have so much set up in advance that you can take this day off. You meet friends at the pool. You eat tacos. You see that life exists outside of the church.
You spend all afternoon putting the remainder of the set and decorations up and prepping the stations. And with a few spare minutes you gather in the sanctuary and pray as a team. For the children. For the program. For one another.
And then you head out to the lobby.
Children rush you with hugs. Adults rush you with questions. Volunteers rush you with registration forms. You have answers. Or you don’t. And then somehow you are on stage in an otter costume singing and dancing and the kids are dancing and laughing and responding. You count the offering and do more random tasks and all of a sudden you realize that it’s closing time and sing, dance, make a weird otter noise, high five a million kids and then somehow you are at home in bed.
You barely move. Every muscle is tired. It hurts to blink. You crawl to the coffee. You crawl to church. You hear the words coming out of people’s mouths. You smile and nod. You frown and nod. You crawl from station to station and reset things. You crawl to the coffee again.
Then registration is open and you think that last night may have been a fluke, or some other doubt or fear overtakes you. Maybe this is just my experience. Maybe everyone else out there doesn’t doubt or fear, but does it seem that unusual that this sort of attack would be a part of the week? If it’s just me, then I’ll tell you…I went off and hid and prayed. I prayed that I would see with God’s eyes. I prayed for the kids. I prayed for the volunteers. You pray for your leaders. And then you walk out…just willing. If nothing else….willing….to see what God will do, because you are so tired.
And then otter onstage and sing and dance and there is the energy! And there are more volunteers than you knew you had! And look how great they are! You remember that you are there for more than just counting offering and doing tasks, so you do those quickly and then you go through the stations and play with the kids or sit and watch a skit with them. You realize that your games station guy is super capable and you were right 5 months ago to toss the book to him and go “You know how to play games, right?” You see teenagers investing in kids and becoming instant celebrities to the littles.
This was the day I answered the question of someone I respect greatly about how they could pray for VBS. And in asking for the specifics, I really saw what we wanted. Changed lives for kids. Strength for our leaders. Continued connection beyond the week.
These 3 days fly by. And these three days are just about watching God answer your prayers. The specific prayers for VBS you asked for the day before. The prayer you prayed in your doubt to see what God sees. The prayers you prayed in the weeks and months before.
You are still sucking back coffee, but you walked to the coffee machine, instead of making pouting faces until someone took pity on you and moved the coffee closer. You have enough shame in the past month’s diet to maybe eat protein or something like a salad at lunch.
You will run into glitches. You will have moments. You will have to operate from a give and take stand point. You will get on the job training on thinking on your feet. You will be receiving a huge portion of miracle grow and you will be applying the lessons as you learn them and be better in the next moment for it.
The children who are new to your church are comfortable now and you recognize one another with excitement. When they run towards you, you turn your flip flop feet to the right so they don’t jam your toes and you pray, “Oh God, this one. Help him know you. Let him want to know you his whole life. Bring him to you young, and don’t let him wander.” Each high five, each hug, each time a child yanks your otter tail, you pray, “Oh God, this one.”
The gospel is presented, in a gentle way, in a precious way that a child can understand, but not in some coercive persuasive argument, just looking at the outstretched arms of Jesus in any church nursery saying “Let the children come to me.” And because the Word always returns fruitful, children’s hearts will be changed. Over and over you hear the stories of church members who trace their faith back to their own childhood VBS, without multi-level waterfalls or special VBS song and dances. You pray over and over, let this be the aim. Life long commitments made. Hearts changed. Little ears filled with promises of hope and a future.
And somehow each night you make it home to bed, thanking God, for children, for His provision, that nothing caught on fire and that there are still plenty of thematic band aids left in your group bins.
Well, the church ain’t gonna put itself back together. You get it as set as it needs to be for Sunday and go to a friend’s house who you haven’t seen in forever for dinner. Your kids play with her kids and you listen to stories and tell stories.
Meet your friends at the pool. Lay still. Eat tacos.
Do kids worship zumba not in an otter costume and kinda scaled back. Can’t do a cartwheel on stage with all those kids up there with you. Do a presentation. Repeat. Repeat again.
Tear down all the rest of the set. Appreciate that you have people who are willing to help you. Like super appreciate it. Like you coulda had to do it all by yourself, but you have these people…these good people…who will help you, with or without the use of begging emojis (though begging emojis are a fun addition.) Be amazed at how fast it all comes down. Go home and sleep for 4 hours.
And then hold hands with your kids and pray again. Thank God for their sharing you with others. Thank Him that your little ones have come to know Him young and ask Him to protect their faith. Thank Him for hearing you. Thank Him for rest. Thank him for VBS.
And that, friends, is VBS…more or less. The experience may change from church to church by size and budget, by theme and by volunteer base, but this is the take away that I imagine to be true across all VBS weeks.
1. The kids will be pumped for it and talk about nothing else during it.
2. The earlier you start, the more chance there will be that you can have the day off before.
3. You will bond with and SO appreciate your leaders and volunteers…even if you all don’t think that the fake trees should go in the exact same spots or even if you don’t all fall on the same side of the glue stick/glue dot debate.
4. You will be extra thankful for whoever is doing games out in the 90 degree heat.
5. Everything will get done, or it won’t. But what the kids notice is if you notice them.
6. Pray. If you don’t have time to pray, you don’t have time for VBS. You don’t have time for anything, actually. Pray and then wait and watch expectantly for God to do His thing.
7. If you give the children whistles, the parents will lose them. You should teach their children how to make loud otter noises because parents can’t lose their children’s voice boxes.
And that’s a wrap!