By Kelly Carr
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a beautiful kingdom. Living in that kingdom were many children who had been given special gifts. Although a Great King created and watched over the kingdom and even gave these children their gifts, many of the young ones knew him not.
Some wondered why the children lived without such life-giving knowledge. Perhaps it was their parents, who had themselves long forgotten the Great King. Perhaps families had grown so busy with their daily work that they forgot their true purpose in the kingdom.
Whatever the reason, some children in the kingdom had never heard the amazing stories found in the Great Book. One citizen’s heart broke in two when she discovered this fact. She vowed to find a way to reach these impressionable young hearts with the Great Truth.
More Than a Fairy Tale
Storytelling is as old as time itself. God, the greatest storyteller, began our world with drama and power. Stories capture the attention of all ages as we connect our lives to the wonder of a tale.
How does God teach us? Through story after story about how he has approached and interacted with human beings. Sometimes they listened. Many times they did not. Yet he continued to reach out to them with his story of love, just as he reaches out to us today.
Reading the pages of biblical history, we are transported to times when God walked among his creation in a garden, when he suffered for the undeserving on a cross, when his Spirit first came to dwell in human hearts. God’s story of rescue and redemption gives us hope. We have a hero, and we are given the chance to live with him by our side. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of such an amazing-yet-true tale?
Still, we look around our world and see many people who don’t know about our hero. And we wonder—what can we do?
One place to start is by telling the amazing stories from God’s Word to eager young listening ears.
Many years ago a number of individuals and churches took it upon themselves to tell children the great stories of God during summer breaks from school. These efforts eventually grew into programs we now know as Vacation Bible School.
First Church in Boston sponsored a summer vacation school in 1866. This later grew into an entire summer semester of public school. In 1877, a summer session consisting of Bible reading and memorization combined with patriotic activities was held in Montreal, Quebec.
In 1894 Mrs. D. T. Miles, a minister’s wife, wanted a way to go deeper with children’s Bible teaching. She wanted to offer more than just Sunday lessons. So she gathered together 37 children, recruited some teenage assistants, and taught her students five days a week for four weeks at a park in Hopedale, Illinois.
Although these methods may not have looked exactly like our VBS concepts today, they likely inspired others to seek new ways to teach the Bible to children.
A Heart for Kids
What about the citizen of the kingdom whose heart broke for the kingdom’s children? Her name was Eliza Hawes, head of the children’s department at Epiphany Baptist Church in New York City.
Mrs. Hawes came up with a way to care for these children while also sharing God’s stories. In 1898 she rented space at a beer parlor on the East Side. Despite choosing an unlikely location for a ministry to children, Mrs. Hawes used storytelling, music, crafts, and Bible study to reach these young hearts. She called her program the “Everyday Bible School.”
Mrs. Hawes continued the school for seven years. During that time, Dr. Robert Boville of the New York City Baptist Mission Society became aware of her Everyday Bible School and saw the importance of Mrs. Hawes’s work. He recommended that other churches begin similar programs.
From that time on, these summer learning experiences went from individual efforts to more coordinated, church-wide efforts. With Dr. Boville’s efforts to spread the word, more Bible schools were created. Boville eventually founded the World Association of Daily Vacation Bible Schools to promote VBS internationally.
Yes, VBS spread worldwide. Just one example of this is recorded in India. In 1952, the South India Bible Seminary held VBS for 75 students. By 1961, over 33,000 children across the country of India were participating in VBS at over 100 locations.
Mightier Than the Sword
While all of these great VBS programs were springing up, teachers were putting a lot of work into creating their own materials. So in 1923, Standard Publishing offered a solution: they published the very first VBS curriculum.
That year Christian Standard ran announcements to let the country know Standard Publishing had created curriculum “making the teacher’s work easy.” Five-week courses were available for Kindergarten, Primary, and Junior students “wherein the materials for each teacher are complete in one book.” These hardbound books included lessons, games, music, and craft patterns.
In 1929 Intermediate curriculum was added. By 1948, Standard had divided the courses into grade levels in a 10-day format. Student books were also created. And by 1952, the material contained a single theme all ages would study each summer. This single theme across age levels helped coordinate such things as worship times and teacher training that are still beneficial for VBS experiences today.
Starting in 1961, one could purchase packaged crafts and visuals along with Standard’s curriculum. And in 1973 the Middler age group was added. Every year Standard continued to produce all new materials with a brand new theme.
By 1987, Standard had created more than 120 different tools for churches to use in creating their own VBS summer programs. And it was reported that more than 3.5 million children were reached using this VBS curriculum. By 1998, the statistic was over 5 million children.
The work Standard Publishing began 90 years ago continues today. Each year new materials are created so churches across the country and around the world can give the children in their communities an opportunity to learn about God’s Word and discover his great love.
An Audience Awaits
Imagine the cumulative total—all the lives that have been touched by VBS programs since those first efforts in the late 1800s. Perhaps you have your own memories of spending summer weeks with caring adults who used storytelling, crafts, and music to help you learn from the Bible. Perhaps you’ve watched your children and your grandchildren benefit from such programs as well. Perhaps you annually give of your own time to make a difference in children’s lives through VBS.
As you can see, VBS isn’t some fly-by-night notion. It’s a ministry that developed over many years, springing up from many people who were striving to find ways of hiding God’s Word in young hearts. VBS creators and volunteers continue to strive for that same goal today. And its importance has not faded.
Look around you. See the children in God’s kingdom who need to meet the Great King who died for them. Look at others who may know him but need to deepen their relationship with this amazing King. Will you take part? Will you spread the word? Will you share your energy? Will you make sure children find their way to the Great Book?
Will you tell the stories of our loving Hero? Because we know those who trust in him will live happily ever after—for eternity. T
Kelly Carr is a freelance writer in Cincinnati, Ohio.
StoryRunners is a ministry that trains individuals and churches to share the Bible through oral stories. They are particularly focused on using this Story Bible strategy to reach unreached people groups around the world.