Two-thirds (68 percent) of churches in America put on a vacation Bible school (VBS) last summer, according to a new Barna Group study, and it appears the summertime event for children will continue to be popular with churches in the years to come.
Eighty-one percent of churches offered VBS in 1997, and although the percentage has dipped slightly since that time, the majority of churches continue to put on such events each year.
"VBS remains a key way for churches to minister to their community-and not just to the kids, but to the parents as well," Clint Jenkin, vice president of research for Barna Group, said in a statement on the study's findings. "And VBS isn't just summer Sunday school. It can be more focused on unchurched families and offer a more intensive program that allows for greater flexibility in content and delivery.
"Plus, it should be fun! It's summer after all. One of the key ingredients in childhood is unstructured play. To the extent churches can provide this along with spiritual teaching, they are performing a valuable social function for the children in their neighborhood."
The research, commissioned by VBS and Sunday school curriculum provider Gospel Light, revealed that Southern Baptist churches are more likely than churches from other denominations to host a Bible school event. In 2012, 91 percent of SBC churches offered a VBS program.
Large churches with bigger budgets are also more likely to offer VBS, as 86 percent of churches with 250 or more adult attendees and 91 percent of those with annual budgets of $500,000 or more offered the programs last summer. In comparison, 78 percent of churches with between 100 and 249 adult attendees and just over half (56 percent) of churches with annual budgets of $150,000 or less offered a summer Bible school in 2012.
Nearly one-in-five (19 percent) churches that did not conduct VBS last year said it was because they did not have enough time, and approximately the same number said it was because they were already offering other activities for children. The most commonly cited reason among churches that did not put on a VBS, however, was a lack of volunteers (30 percent).
Although VBS programs are focused primarily on children, Jenkin says they could also be a good way for young adults to become engaged in church life through service.
"So many young adults lose their connection with a local church because they feel underutilized," he said. "Churches can give key VBS volunteer roles to young adults and college kids in their congregations. Colleges (or even large churches) could sponsor teams to travel the country and host VBS for churches that cannot afford or staff their own. Using young people as servants and not just consumers is an important way of establishing a faith that lasts."
Jenkin also says churches should identify specific goals they hope to accomplish through their VBS programs instead of just putting them on because "it's always been done."
Barna Group, a research organization based in Ventura, Calif., interviewed 602 senior pastors of Protestant churches in the continental U.S. for their study, "The State of Vacation Bible School."