It’s that time of year again, when congregations across the country implement a summertime cultural ritual. The happy T-shirts and foam-board crafts; the upbeat, canned music; the knock-off theme of last summer’s movie mega-hit—all of it comes together in that annual event known as Vacation Bible School, or VBS.
Seen as a critical tool for outreach, the eternal hope is that congregations will recruit little salespeople as kids go home celebrating all the fun things they did at that church up the street. Unchurched parents, meanwhile, with faint memories of grandma’s faithful church attendance, love the free child care. Rarely does a biblical image so singularly justify a church practice as the seed imagery does for VBS, because as an outreach strategy, VBS is usually a flop, but still the chorus echoes across the country, “At least we planted the seed.”
That may be true, but as long as we’re using biblical images, let’s remember the devil’s seeds also—the weeds. In the case of VBS, we have to ask: Is VBS part of the ecclesiastical cocktail leading to the decline of Christianity in America? More specifically, did it help drive millennials, the demographic leading that decline, from the church?
Selling Religion Like It’s Popcorn
Millennials grew up in the church after the business philosophy of “church growth” swept American Christianity. Church growth is simply applying marketing principles to church, because, as the smart set of any congregation will tell you, “Hey pastor, you’re just a salesman, right? You sell salvation.”
The success of mega-church charlatans like Joel Olsteen, Rick Warren, and Bill Hybels seemed to prove the case. Don the affectations of a late-night infomercial host, speak in a southern twang, behave like a motivational speaker on speed, and you’ll get the success every congregation wants. And it’s all good because Jesus said “Make disciples of all nations.” Forget that Jesus gave the recipe for doing so—baptism and catechesis—whatever gets people through the doors is good. We’ll bait ‘em through our fun ‘n games, and eventually get to that boring old Presbyterian or Lutheran doctrine.
So that philosophy got applied to VBS. Lure children in with a zany theme that clones some waning pop culture reference, then sneak in the most minimalistic of teachings on Jesus (if you’re lucky) or “God” generically understood. Here is just a small sampling of the VBS offerings in the past several years: Camp Out: Getting S’more of Jesus, Team Jesus (Olympics theme), Outback Rock, Barnyard Roundup: Jesus Gathers Us Together, Galactic Starveyors: Discovering the God of the Universe, Super Saints: This Summer Be Super, Deep Sea Discovery: God is with Me Wherever I Go, Gold Rush: Discovering the Rock of Ages, SonTreasure Island, Construction, Inc. (“Bob the Builder” knock-off).
Glitzing God’s Word Up Implies Something’s Wrong With It
These programs are written and produced by Christians with good intentions, but the baseline bait n’ switch philosophy is perverse, like trying to get your child to eat vegetables by embedding them in a Twinkie. Sure, the child will hear some good things about God, but the medium of the message—the razzle-dazzle theme, characterless music, throwaway crafts, forced theatrics, the theological minimalism—is what the child internalizes.
The deeper message conveyed is that what is meant to be an eternal truth is derivative, unserious, inauthentic, forgettable, commercial, frivolous, and cheap. Based on the evidence, millennials figured out how to nibble at the bait and leave the hook bare.
To speak generally, the medium of the message becomes its own catechesis, catechizing children in the forms of pop culture. The shallow entertainment value of attention-grabbing imagery and soundtracks keeps the soul bopping around from thought to thought, preventing any sort of serious reflective thinking. Yes, even four-year-olds are capable of reflective thinking!
Meanwhile, the focus on the phantasmic—commercially generated themes, images, and archetypes—undermines what is meant to be a Logos-based faith consisting of organized and systematic thought. Yes, kids can learn about concepts like sin, redemption, and the Incarnation! Finally, the programs’ essential ephemerality encultures children in a throwaway culture, suggesting implicitly that the faith is one of the passing fads to grow out of, rather than an eternal truth to grow into. Yes (goodness!), children yearn for steady, eternal things in their lives!
Pop Culture Does Cheap So Much Better than Jesus Does
All these elements conspired in the catechesis of a millennial generation that has fled the church. What did it teach this generation when the goofy ditty about Jesus got forgotten along with whatever forgettable pop song topped the charts? Or what did it say when their foam board Jesus-the-Good-Shepherd craft got tossed out with the McDonalds happy meal toy when mom cleaned out the minivan floor?
Is it any wonder after 30 years of a Christian populace bopping around from church to church seeking the highest entertainment value, the kids grew up and decided to seek their sense of the holy and eternal in religious alternatives like progressivism, a more serious world religion, or even radical Islamism? Or does it surprise us that after growing up in a faith life backdropped with cartoon caricatures, the apparent substantiality of science was enough to dismantle such childish thoughts?
Folks, we’ve raised our children to leave the church. The loss of millennials has no one to blame but the parents and church leaders of the past 40 years. Forty years of a strategy of marketing the faith through the medium of pop culture has backfired, as every study of Christianity in America has revealed the past ten years.
Vacation Bible School Is a Symptom of a Deeper Problem
I’m not laying all this at the feet of VBS. There are plenty of other examples of pop media permeation in Christianity that reflect the same argument. We could also ruminate on the damage parents do children’s faith in other areas—when, for example, if ever there is a conflict between sports and church, the parents choose sports. Or don’t get me started on the absolute perversity of giving kids crack, I mean, smartphones (or whatever personal electronic devices), and the subtle erosion of spirit this entails. A lot of bad parenting choices have conspired in the decline of Christianity in America.
Think of it this way. The culture war is a series of battles. Perhaps conservatives were too busy trying to win the war through politics that they forgot to win the little cultural battles and skirmishes that truly determine the winner. The permeation of pop media in culture is one thing—we must live in such a world—but the permeation of pop media in the spiritual lives of children is no small matter. It introduces them to a path that invariably leads away from the church, particularly when that media overwhelms the message, which it’s almost destined to do.
There are a few good alternatives out there. Full disclosure: I write VBS and Sunday school curricula through Pax Domini Press. My goal with our programs is to use biblical themes with substantial theology, crafts designed with organic materials that last, and imagery from the treasury of Christian art. Other similar operations are out there, but they’re hard to find.
Honestly, the best thing a congregation could do, probably, is simply write its own material under the guidance of its pastor. Children are amazing in their ability to discern the wheat of Christian love and authentic attention from the chaff of canned glitz and overproduced dramaturgy.