By Aaron Wilson
In Ephesians 5:16, Paul tells Christians to make the best use of their time. Nowhere does that command feel more daunting than on a short-term global mission trip.
With high travel costs and limited itineraries, churches want to squeeze the most out of every minute. Add to that the challenge of overcoming cultural and language barriers, and it can be stressful to select the best resources to take on mission trips.
But many churches are finding the answer is right in front of them in the form of a curriculum they already use every summer—Vacation Bible School.
VBS on the move
Vacation Bible School typically lasts three to five days during the heat of summer—but not for Santos Castillo. He spends weeks teaching VBS, sometimes into December.
Castillo’s extended use of VBS is tied to global missions. Two summers ago, he received a donated VBS kit for his church, Tabernaculo Bautista Emanuel in Gainesville, Georgia. After church members hosted VBS for their local community, they didn’t want to throw away the curriculum. So Castillo and other church volunteers traveled to El Salvador to help churches conduct outreach programs for children.
Afterward, Tabernaculo Bautista Emanuel still wasn’t ready to retire the VBS kit. The next stop was Honduras, where the church helped conduct VBS in five different villages. By the time the well-worn kit finally made its way to the trash, hundreds of children in the U.S. and Central America had heard the gospel—with 80 expressing new faith in Christ.
“A lot of churches in these areas don’t have VBS or even Sunday school programs to tutor kids,” Castillo says. “So we sometimes had hundreds of kids show up at a VBS event to learn about Jesus.”
Castillo’s church made a repeat trip to Central America in 2017 for VBS and plans to return this year. Tabernaculo Bautista Emanuel’s investment in global evangelism represents a movement of churches getting additional mileage out of the curriculum for international missions.
VBS provides necessary spiritual milk
Karie Gibson is a member of Brookland Baptist Church in Brookland, Arkansas. For the past four years, she’s traveled to Peru with fellow church members. After their first year leading Bible studies in Peruvian homes and churches, Gibson and others on the mission team began to evaluate their method of teaching.
“The first year we went very in-depth, and I think we overwhelmed some of those we were ministering to,” Gibson says. “We were teaching meat when these individuals needed milk.”
This made Gibson and other team members who had grown up in the church recall their childhood experiences of hearing the gospel during VBS.
“Each of us could name a specific example of a VBS we enjoyed growing up,” she says.
To keep their mission trip messages accessible, members of Gibson’s group decided to emphasize VBS on future trips. Gibson believes by focusing on a VBS structure of teaching, her church provides a spiritual foundation local ministries and other mission teams can build on throughout the year.
“If kids are going to understand the message, then adults should be able to as well,” she says.
VBS is adaptable to different cultures and settings
One Heart Church in Norcross, Georgia, has used VBS resources on mission trips to Romania, Ukraine, and Tanzania. Lindsay Lewis, a member of the church and a former minister of missions, says the flexible model of VBS helps when seeking to evangelize in different environments.
“In Tanzania, our main way of getting in was through medical clinics,” Lewis says. “We would hold evangelistic services at night. The good thing about VBS is you don’t have to do the entire curriculum. You can use bits and pieces whenever you have a group—even if it’s just for five minutes.”
The rotation model of VBS activities allows churches to do condensed Bible lessons or to extend the curriculum throughout a week. The flexibility is helpful for One Heart Church when members visit orphanages and assisted living homes in Ukraine. For these settings, Lewis says she appreciates how VBS can be customized for different age groups and levels of development.
“You can reformat VBS material to work with whatever population you’re serving,” Lewis says. “You can make it high-level for adults or can pare it down to work with disabled children.”
In addition to VBS being adaptable to time constraints and levels of learning, Lewis says the assortment of rotations—Bible study, music, crafts, games, and snacks—allows teams to modify a mission experience to fit cultural learning styles and preferences.
“Ukraine and Romania are more subdued because it’s a post-Soviet culture. The people are less expressive, and it may be more questionable to have kids running around and dancing in church,” Lewis says. “But in Africa, dance and song are a big part of tribal culture. Even an embrace of play is different there.
“So we might beef up the recreation or the song and dance part of VBS in Tanzania,” she says.
VBS provides opportunities to minister to adults
VBS can be particularly impactful overseas because populations in developing countries are often younger than in the United States.
“In India, there are 350 million people under the age of 18,” says Craig Featherstone, director of Lifeway Global. “That’s more people than the total population of the United States.”
While VBS helps reach these children with the gospel, it also provides an avenue for witnessing to parents.
“VBS is often an on-ramp to reaching families,” Gibson says. “When kids come, their parents usually accompany them.”
Lewis agrees, pointing out the lack of children’s activities in some countries leads to an active interest in VBS when it’s available.
“When you don’t have a lot of extra bandwidth with money or resources, children’s activities go to the wayside,” she says. “Because there aren’t always a lot of opportunities for these cultures to focus on children, people take advantage of VBS when it’s offered.
“Parents will come and sit with their kids or hold them on their laps. And in this way the parents hear the gospel too.”
VBS becomes more travel-friendly
While recycling VBS kits for overseas missions is a great way to extend the use of curriculum, some themes that work in America may not translate well overseas. For this reason, Lifeway released a new VBS curriculum this year specifically designed for missions called “Go & Tell Kids.”
“‘Go & Tell Kids’ is themeless, meaning people don’t have to drag a bunch of stuff with them halfway around the world, and is stripped of uniquely American cultural references,” says Melita Thomas, Lifeway VBS and kids ministry specialist. “It’s relevant to kids in any culture and setting.
“You can take ‘Go & Tell Kids’ to Africa and into the rainforest or to a Backyard Bible Club,” Thomas says. “It’s the core of the gospel that fits neatly into a suitcase.”
Whether churches use VBS specifically tailored for missions or reuse curriculum they’ve taught in their own communities, mission leaders encourage churches to think globally when it comes to VBS.
Kelly Parkison, a member of Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, Tennessee, has seen firsthand the impact of VBS by teaching in South Asian orphanages.
“The kids just love it all,” Parkison says. “They’re hungry for the Bible stories and are thankful for any craft or game. I encourage any church doing VBS to consider how they can also use it for global missions.”
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor of Facts & Trends.