Robert Raikes first developed the Sunday School in England in the second half of the 18th century. The Sunday School functioned as an educational and religious institution. It was educational because Sunday School was the place where a majority of children learned to read and write, since school education was not mandatory in those days. As the children learned to read and write, they would practice their newly acquired skills by reading Bible stories and writing about them.
Vacation Bible School is an offshoot of the Sunday School. It was intended to bring the children of the community together for an intense period of studying the Bible, usually in the summer time. When I became a part of the church staff of First Baptist Church of Hightstown in 1977, Vacation Bible School lasted for two weeks. During the summer of 1978, we had over 300 children attend Vacation Bible School with a staff of about 60 people.
Within the last ten years many changes have taken place in the Vacation Bible School curriculum. There have been two major reductions – most of the Vacation Bible Schools run for only one week and the students are primarily three year olds to 6th graders. Very few people on the voluntary VBS staff have the time to work for two weeks, which has created an opportunity for teenagers to work on all of the aspects of VBS.
This year's VBS theme was "Power Lab," where students learned about the amazing power of Jesus. We had more than 40 staff members and 119 students participate in the program. We met from June 23 – June 27 from 9:00 AM to 12:00 noon with a closing service on Friday. The creativity and the administration of the staff were commendable. The children were wonderful to work with and they had a great time at the program. Almost every church had staff people and students. Indeed it was a great manifestation of what the area churches can do together for the community children.
One area of concern that I have as a pastor is that as the children are getting older, the other attractions, primarily sports, are taking our students away from the religious involvements such as the VBS. One of my hopes is that we will again see the VBS become more inclusive of the upper grades 7-12. While many teens work as volunteers for VBS programs, there seems to be a scarcity of programs for teens to continue and strengthen their Christian education. Both the Sunday School and the Vacation Bible School curricula has to be revised and modified so that we will be able to continue the education of our teenagers after their baptism (Baptist, Pentecostal churches) and their confirmation (Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches).
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In the way that Robert Raikes was innovative with the Sunday School in the late 1800s, today we need to take this spiritual and educational gift to the church and adapt it to the days in which we live for the glory of God and the blessings of our children and youth.