After two weeks of my kids attending Vacation Bible School at two different churches, one Protestant and one Orthodox, I have been thinking a lot about both the challenges of living Orthodoxy in a primarily-Protestant country and the challenges that come with a church that is traditionally counter-cultural.
Let me start, simply, by looking at the two VBS experiences. Both of my kids and I think that the Methodist VBS was more fun (and don’t worry about me hurting any feelings here; I directed our church’s VBS!) It involved some really well-done, exciting, kid-friendly music. (They passed out a CD to each family, too!) There were music videos (don’t think of MTV videos here; think kid-friendly) that went with the VBS songs playing on two large screens in the sanctuary every day when I picked the kids up. The theme was “God is Wild About You” and it was a panda/jungle theme, so the church was decked out with bamboo, greenery, stuffed pandas, and posters of jungle animals. Each day there was a scriptural theme like “God Made You”/creation, “God Listens to You”/Jonah in the whale. Really my only critique was that most of the crafts were not really about the scriptural themes; they were just cute panda crafts. I think this reflects a critique I have of the Protestant approach to children’s ministry: Sometimes it is so focused on fun that the spiritual side of things gets lost. That said, it was extremely moving and awesome to watch 400+ children singing praises to God.
Our church’s theme was “Traveling on the Ark of Salvation” and we were learning about the feasts of Mary, the mother of Jesus. (In the Orthodox Church, we celebrate feasts or special days in the lives of Jesus and the saints. One of the feasts of Mary that Protestants will recognize is the annunciation, or when the angel Gabriel told Mary she was going to have Jesus.) Anyway, our VBS is typically a more low-key. We don’t do over-the-top decorations or use much technology because we want to focus on the spiritual meaning of things. This year our curriculum included a CD of songs, and when I listened to it, I just sort of shook my head. It was not professionally done at all. It was basically someone playing the piano and a bunch of kids singing off-key. However, I was pleasantly surprised when our church kids LOVED singing the songs! I was glad that the songs were a big hit, even without music videos and well-done recordings. Our crafts were a medallion of Mary and baby Jesus, and several items that were part of the traveling/boats theme. We also had fun games each day that were tied into the curriculum. I think the weakest part was probably in the actual lessons because the lessons weren’t as applicable (not hands-on) to 4 and 5 year olds, and we have a bunch of kids that age at our church! Sometimes it feels like Orthodox churches have to do things differently just for the sake of being different. For example, we usually call VBS “VCS”, or Vacation Church School, because our lessons are not always about biblical themes, but may be more specifically about the church or the saints. However, for the past 4 years of VCS, it has never been about scripture, and I think we are missing out on what could be some really fun activities for the kids. What kid doesn’t love the stories of Moses or Jonah or David or the armor of God?
In the end, I feel like the Protestant approach to children’s ministry and the Orthodox approach to children’s ministry are sort of at opposite ends of the spectrum, and if they could meet in the middle, we’d have the perfect VBS. Fun AND spiritually meaningful.