It’s that time of year again. If your email inbox is anything like mine, you’ve received lots of colourful reminders that it’s time to pick a VBS curriculum for your church. It is at once a delightful and trying exercise. How do you determine which of the many options will be the best fit for your congregation? Should you get the one with the cute chipmunk or the one that teaches us about water conservation? Which will excite the kids the most? Which will best teach the great stories of scripture and invite participants to find themselves in the story? It’s quite a challenge. Let’s try to unpack it by looking at a few key criteria to include in your decision-making process.
First and foremost is the question of theology. Whatever curriculum you choose for your VBS model it should be theologically consistent with your denomination and your congregation. In our case, it is paramount to choose a curriculum that is Reformed and Protestant; otherwise, we are teaching our children something different from what our church preaches, confesses, and upholds. Take time to read a number of the lesson plans as well as the other group activities found in each curriculum you evaluate. Jot down notes about how the materials describe God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church, individual and corporate faith, sin, growing in faith, baptism, communion, our mission, and hope. Your descriptive notes ought to give you a clear sense of the theology of the resources. Is God described as close or far away? Is Jesus described as friend or judge? Is faith something that grows and transforms over a lifetime or does the curriculum focus on salvation as a one-time experience that sets us for life? Ask, “Is the theology of this material representative of our church?”
Next, look at the educational approach of the curriculum. Some curricula work from a teacher-centred model with a focus on a top-down exchange of information coming from the teacher to the students for the learners to gain new knowledge. These kinds of resources often have preset answers to knowledge-based questions with an expectation that learners arrive at pre-determined conclusions. Other curricula will advocate a student-centred approach, inviting participants to set the conversation by responding to more open-ended questions, wondering about the story and how it connects with them. Parker Palmer advocates for a subject-centred style of learning where the delight of both the leaders and the participants around the subject or topic sets up exploration and discovery. The energy in the room comes from all participants, with the understanding that all are learning new things together.
Look carefully at the curricula you are considering. What are the kinds of questions being asked? Does the curriculum assume that everyone comes into this world spiritually connected, or that the participants are vessels to be filled with the “right” answers? Generally, our churches would lean toward student-centred and subject-centred approaches over a teacher-centred model.
Next, we need to look at the overall approach of the curricula under consideration. In Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community (2005), Scottie May and her colleagues identified overarching metaphors that shape how congregations approach ministry with children. When a church or curriculum embraces one metaphor over the others, the way they do ministry with children tends to follow the implications of the metaphor. May et al identified the School Model, the Gold Star/Win a Prize Model, The Carnival (have fun, high spot of the week) Model, the Pilgrim’s Journey Model, and the Dance with God Model (pp. 10-22). Each of these models carry strengths and weaknesses when they are embraced by a congregation. Do we teach pilgrims the same way we teach gold star students? What are dancing with God activities, and what are carnival activities? Take time to evaluate resources through the lens of these metaphors. Ask yourself, does this curriculum fit our model of doing ministry with children?
Finally, there are the practical questions to ask. Once you have eliminated curricula that don’t fit your congregation’s theology, educational, and metaphorical models, you then look at attractiveness, availability, suitability for your leaders’ gifts and time commitments, flexibility, and cost. While each of these factors is important, don’t let them carry all the weight in your decision-making and curriculum selection.
At the recent Annual Event of APCE in Little Rock, Arkansas, Roberta Dodds-Ingersoll assembled an extensive list of VBS resources for educators to review for making a choice for summer activities. Roberta has graciously allowed use her VBSPreview.2020 list for you to discover a wealth of VBS options to consider. Her list itemizes well-known and ought-to-be-known curricula resources. It’s a great place to begin your search.
Another great overview on VBS materials comes from Beth Hayes with the Moravian Board of Cooperative Ministries in North Carolina. Visit this YouTube link for a 30 minute video preview of resources.