50 Years of Vacation Bible School

By Don Anderson

The year 1971 was pivotal in the United States. The 26th amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age to 18. Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida. The NASDAQ stock market index debuted. Intel introduced the first microprocessor. And FedEx and Starbucks were founded.

All these events changed society, but another first in 1971 changed more than how we do business or where we buy coffee. In 1971 Regular Baptist Press introduced its first VBS program. The Lord has now used RBP VBS programs for 50 years to change lives for eternity.

Beginnings of VBS

Records document three early Vacation Bible Schools: in Boston (1866), Montreal (1877), and Hopedale, Illinois (1894). In the Hopedale VBS, Mrs. D. G. Miles, the wife of a Methodist minister, started a monthlong VBS with the goal of providing concentrated Bible teaching in the summer to supplement Sunday School instruction. Thirty-seven children attended her first VBS.

The VBS movement, however, seemed to get its start in 1898 when Mrs. Elizabeth Hawes, the wife of a physician and a member of Epiphany Baptist Church in New York City, conducted what she called Everyday Bible School. Her VBS ran for six weeks, enrolling 57 children in the first year and 114 the second year.

The work of Mrs. Hawes took off in New York City to the point where Dr. Robert Boville, executive director of the New York City Baptist Mission Society, held a series of VBS programs and in 1907 founded the National Vacation Bible School Committee. The concept of VBS spread rapidly with the first published curriculum introduced in 1923.

RBP VBS Materials

In the 1930s and ’40s GARBC churches mainly used interdenominational teaching materials. By 1950, GARBC leaders recognized that the fellowship needed to have its own materials to maintain and perpetuate the Regular Baptist movement. So in 1951 Regular Baptist Press was founded, with the first Sunday School curriculum available to churches for fall 1952.

Along with the publication of Sunday School literature came an interest in VBS materials. In the February 1950 issue of the Baptist Bulletin, the GARBC leaders proposed that “careful exploratory studies be made with reference to such fields of service as D.V.B.S., memory work, and distinctive doctrinal studies for boys and girls.”

Though RBP was interested in VBS in the early days, the company’s small staff was busy producing Sunday School and other resources, and creating VBS materials did not seem urgent at the time.

1970s

In the late 1960s RBP’s interest in VBS resurfaced. In 1969 two staff members, Ruth Herriman and Pat Brannen (now Carapelle), visited a major interdenominational curriculum publisher to investigate the possibility of using that company’s VBS materials but adding RBP’s own covers and distinctive doctrinal teaching. However, after investigation, the two women recognized that such a venture would not be workable. There were too many doctrinal differences, which would have required extensive revision. The conclusion was that RBP should produce its own VBS materials.

Valerie Wilson

Valerie Wilson

But who would head up the new VBS department? Dr. Merle Hull, executive editor of RBP, had a person in mind. Valerie Wilson had worked for RBP for two years, writing the 2s and 3s Sunday School curriculum. As that project neared completion, she wondered what God had for her beyond that assignment. Here is her account of what transpired.

I remember the day clearly. RBP’s executive editor, Merle Hull, came into my office to chat about plans for the new project RBP was about to undertake: publishing Vacation Bible School materials. He finally announced that his choice for editor of this new venture was me! Surprised does not adequately define my response! I accepted Dr. Hull’s offer and began immediately to plan the new product. I consulted with people in the office and with editors in other church educational publications. One seasoned outside editor told me that the material would be a success if the words “Bible,” “God,” or “Jesus” were used in the theme, so we followed that counsel. [Note those early themes at the bottom of this article.] God brought to us the writers and illustrators we needed, including seasoned writers for adult courses, for each year’s 10-day program. The director’s material was packed in boxes at first and then in zipper cases. We offered enough help for churches to have a successful week, but we did not have all the extra items that RBP now offers.

The first VBS materials rolled off the presses in 1971 for use in 1972. The theme was “The Bible: Your Answer” and answered questions about creation, sin, salvation, Christian living, and Heaven. From the beginning, RBP realized that VBS was a major outreach ministry for churches, so the staff designed the materials to be intensely evangelistic. This evangelistic emphasis continues 50 years later.

In addition to common means of advertising RBP’s new product, Valerie remembers two special marketing ideas.

  • At the 1971 GARBC Conference in Winona Lake, Indiana, a teaser sign on RBP’s display simply read “Something New for ’72.”
  • At the 1972 GARBC Conference in San Diego, the vocal group from Baptist Bible College (now Clarks Summit University) sang the theme song for the new VBS program.

The VBS materials were off to a strong start!

Valerie continued producing VBS materials through the rest of the ’70s. Each program had solid Bible teaching and a strong evangelistic emphasis. Valerie’s work made Regular Baptist Press a major player in the VBS field.

When asked what her favorite or most memorable theme was, Valerie says, “I love all things patriotic, so my favorite year was 1976, the U.S. bicentennial. ‘Life and Liberty in Christ Jesus’ combined Bible teaching and patriotic activities.”

1980s

Don Anderson

Don Anderson

In the early ’80s editorial staff members built upon Valerie’s strong start. In 1984 I joined the RBP staff as the VBS editor. Serving until 1998, I continued to develop the VBS programs, always keeping the focus on Christ, the Bible, and evangelism.

Strengthening the evangelistic outreach of VBS, the staff added a new evangelistic resource: a salvation wall chart. This poster-size chart outlined the plan of salvation so teachers could easily explain the gospel every day. The salvation wall chart is still part of the VBS resources but includes a new theme-related background each year.

1990s

Major upgrades took place in the early ’90s with the coming of Assistant Editor Linda Zimmerman. Sensing the need to make the themes appealing to a new generation of kids, she introduced a change in the way RBP stated its VBS themes. That change occurred in 1991 with the theme “Amazon Adventure: Telling the Good News.” Although the theme structure changed, the lessons continued to emphasize God, Christ, and the Bible. This pattern continues today.

Linda brought other innovations to VBS. She gave the theme art a different look, she introduced recorded puppet scripts, and she included an original song. Linda had asked George and Kathy Abbas, musician friends of hers, to write a song for VBS, and that song has almost become the theme song for all RBP VBS programs: “The Best Place.” Its words may seem familiar (and some readers may even start humming the tune):

We’re glad to be here at Vacation Bible School,
Vacation Bible School, Vacation Bible School.
We’re glad to be here at Vacation Bible School.
This is the best place we can be!

We get to learn that Jesus loves us,
And make new friends who’ve come to join us.
We’ll hear exciting stories and play some games
At Vacation Bible School.

We’re glad to be here at Vacation Bible School,
Vacation Bible School, Vacation Bible School.
We’re glad to be here at Vacation Bible School.
This is the best place we can be!
This is the best place we can be!

 

The ’90s also marked my most memorable year of VBS: 1993. That year our theme was “The Great Dinosaur Hunt: Digging for God’s Truth.” With that theme we had the opportunity to teach the Biblical truth about dinosaurs. Coincidentally (but in God’s plan) the Hollywood blockbuster movie Jurassic Park was also released that summer. Needless to say, our theme was especially relevant that year.

In 1994 Rhonda Sawtelle joined the VBS staff as assistant editor. Combining her creativity with her background in Bible and teaching, she produced programs that were fun and filled with God’s truth. (Note her themes from 1995 to 2001.) She became the VBS editor in 1998 when I moved to a different department. For her, “a great highlight” of creating VBS programs was “hearing from churches how God used the materials to lead children to Christ.”

Rhonda identifies her most memorable theme as “The F.R.O.G.S. Club” in 2001. That theme focused on the character traits of Forgive, Respect, Obey, Give Thanks, and Serve. She chose that theme because “during that time, the public schools were emphasizing ‘Character Counts,’ and this theme helped kids learn the Biblical foundation for character traits.”

2000s

Peg Arnold

Peg Arnold

In 2001 Peg Arnold became the VBS editor (later called the creative manager). One of her favorite tasks each year was working with Regular Baptist International to develop a missions project. She also enjoyed “hearing reports of VBS used in countries around the world and of children reached for the Lord.  She loved visiting a VBS in Costa Rica and seeing children there accept the Lord as Savior.”

Peg further shares, “I have always enjoyed thoroughly decorating the church for VBS week, so I enjoyed developing a variety of themes—castles, jungle, space, tropical island, dinosaurs, bugs, seashore, and more—new every year. I enjoyed the challenge of designing lessons that would be interesting, understandable, and valuable both to kids who had attended Sunday School their whole life and those who had never been to church before and knew nothing of the Bible or the salvation message. I praise God for the privilege of being part of the team at Regular Baptist Press.”

Peg says her favorite theme was always the one she was working on at the moment. But the 2009 theme especially stands out in her mind: “Polar Extremes: All of Me, All-Out for God.” The heart of that VBS theme, she says, was the greatest adventure of all: knowing and loving God. The lessons challenged students to give their whole being—heart, soul, mind, and strength—to God in worship, love, and obedience.

“The more people know about God and His love, the more they will want to learn about Him from His Word, desire to spend time with Him in prayer, and join with other believers to express love and worship. Warmed by God’s love, they can then express God’s love to other people.”

2010s

Peg retired in 2018 as the longest-serving VBS editor to date. At that point, Joshua Mason assumed leadership of the department and continued to expand it. One addition is the worship DVD that he introduced in 2019. “Our worship DVD adds another dimension to our VBS music and makes it more adaptable to various settings,” he says.

Joshua Mason

Joshua Mason

Josh has a passion for VBS. “Being the VBS creative manager is like no other job on earth. It is exciting, intense, and filled with plenty of variety! Being a part of capturing the hearts of children for Jesus Christ is a wonderful privilege and responsibility. I love to learn of churches being encouraged through many children who are saved or growing in Christ. It’s exciting how VBS can bring a renewed passion for ministry to a whole church. I am thankful to be part of this ministry, which continues to make such an impact through so many churches and in such a variety of ways.”

His favorite theme? “Wonder World Funfest” for 2021, which he worked on in 2020. “As always, the activities, worship videos, crafts, and graphics were exciting and fun. But even more than those things, in a year in which so many things were called ‘unprecedented,’ working on a VBS theme about the One Who is extraordinary—our Savior—was a wonderful comfort.”

Evangelistic Emphasis

The distinctive that has set RBP VBS apart since its beginning is its strong evangelistic emphasis. RBP views VBS as more than a day camp with some Bible stories thrown in. Rather, VBS is an effective outreach for churches. In fact, for many churches, VBS is their strongest annual outreach.

This evangelistic emphasis shows up in the Bible lessons. All the lessons, starting with the Pre-Primary Department, include a gospel presentation and an opportunity for students to accept Christ as their Savior.

Other VBS resources also show this evangelistic thrust. The 2021 introductory kit includes a salvation poster, a gospel bookmark, three gospel tracts, a Family Fun Sheet, and the book Welcome to the Family. In addition, customers can order a John 3:16 animated tract, as well as a beach ball, a soccer ball, and wristbands that help people share the gospel through the colors of the Wordless Book. Churches can even use Good News bracelet Kits as a craft project.

RBP VBS is endorsed by the largest evangelistic outreach ministry to children—Child Evangelism Fellowship!This strong evangelistic emphasis has led Child Evangelism Fellowship, the world’s largest evangelistic outreach ministry to children, to recommend RBP’s VBS programs. “VBS is a great way to reach children with the love and truth of Christ, and RBP does a wonderful job of providing a VBS kit with strong biblical content and a daily presentation of the Gospel. Child Evangelism Fellowship® is happy to recommend Wonder World Funfest as a VBS kit that can help churches achieve the goal of reaching children with the Gospel.

The Fruit

The Lord has used RBP VBS programs to teach the Bible and communicate the gospel to many people. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that these materials have reached hundreds of thousands of kids and their parents in the last 50 years. You may have professed faith in Christ at—or as a result of—a VBS program using RBP materials. Or maybe your children were saved through a week of VBS using RBP materials.

The impact of these materials is not limited to the United States. Churches in Canada and several other countries use RBP VBS materials. And every year churches in India report hundreds of kids saved through RBP VBS programs. Only the Lord knows the full extent of the impact of these programs.

Looking Ahead

So what’s ahead for VBS? Joshua Mason shares these thoughts.

We must be aware that children come to VBS from incredibly diverse backgrounds and beliefs, and many influences compete for their hearts. So in the future, I believe children will need the attention-getting impact of VBS more than ever to break through the noise around them. VBS must always be honest with what it takes for children in the real world to grasp God’s Word and grow in the Lord.

It’s also important to keep developing programs that reach all children in the way they learn best and to make sure VBS can thrive in any format or setting. This calls for tools like appropriate digital resources and technology. The right resources and the unique gifts and talents of a VBS staff in a local church—these are a powerful combination God can use to keep reaching children for Christ through VBS.

The VBS scene has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. Several well-known publishers have dropped their VBS lines; some of those that remain do not have an evangelistic element. But after 50 years, RBP has maintained the same high quality of Bible teaching and gospel outreach that makes it the choice for thousands of churches every year.

Don Anderson has served the Lord at Faith Baptist Bible College and at Regular Baptist Press. He served as RBP’s VBS editor from 1984 to 1998. Don and his wife, Ellie, are members of First Baptist Church, Arlington Heights, Illinois. This article was published in the Baptist Bulletin (March/April 2021).

 

RBP VBS THEMES

2022Kookaburra Coast: Awesome Adventures in God’s Glory

2021—Wonder World Funfest: Amazed by Our Extraordinary Savior

2020—Big Fish Bay: Hooked on God’s Mercy

2019—Giddyup Junction: Taking God’s Love to New Frontiers

2018—Camp Moose-on-the-Loose: Discovering God’s Forever Forgiveness

2017—Over the Moat: Drawbridge to the King

2016—Cowabunga Farm: Growin’ with Our Faithful God

2015—To the Edge: Encounter the God of the Universe

2014—Arrow Island: Choosing God’s Way

2013—Investigation Destination: Follow Clues to the King of Kings

2012—BugZone: Transformed by Our Big God

2011—Rev It Up! Full Throttle for God

2010—SeaQuest: Diving for God’s Treasure

2009—Polar Extremes: All of Me, All-Out for God

2008—DinoDetectives: Digging for God’s Truth

2007—RescueZone: Saved by God’s Power

2006—Set Sail! Spread the Good News

2005—Jungle Adventure: Discovering God’s Love

2004—CastleKids: Choosing to Serve the King

2003—Trailblazers: Following Our Faithful God

2002—Space Station 2002: Exploring Our Awesome God

2001—The F.R.O.G.S. Club: Forgive, Respect, Obey, Give Thanks, Serve

2000—Celebrate Life: From the Beginning to Eternity

1999—Hiking the Heights: Jesus Leads the Way

1998—Cactus Caravan: Jesus Is Life

1997—Meadow Mysteries: Magnifying Christ

1996—Ready, Set, Roll: Winning God’s Way

1995—Polar Expedition: Tracking God’s Truth in VBS

1994—Outback Odyssey: Discovering God’s Answers

1993—The Great Dinosaur Hunt: Digging for God’s Truth

1992—Voyage to the Deep: The Depths of God’s Love

1991—Amazon Adventure: Telling the Good News

1990—Exploring God’s Way

1989—Treasures in Christ

1988—The Bible: My Light

1987—Building Lives for God

1986—Climbing God’s Way

1985—A Changeless Christ for a Changing World

1984—Mining Gold from God’s Word

1983—Running the Race God’s Way

1982—Making Christ Known around the World

1981—Exploring God’s Answers

1980—God’s Way of Victory

1979—Footsteps of the Savior

1978—Christ Our Pilot: The Bible Our Answer

1977—God’s Way for My Life

1976—Life and Liberty in Christ Jesus

1975—Finding God’s Answer

1974—Living Life God’s Way

1973—Jesus: The Son of God

1972—The Bible: Your Answer

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