Does VBS Still Work?

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How many of us, while growing up, attended a Vacation Bible School? Probably a great many of us.

The practice of doing VBS in the summers between school years has been going on for as long as any of us can remember. In fact, the earliest VBS in the modern era was likely started in 1894 by a public school teacher, D.T. Miles, who created a 4-week summer program in Hopedale, Illinois to train and engage with children in the summer. Though much of the arrangements and execution of a VBS look different today than back in 1894, the concept is essentially similar.

Some church leaders have asked good questions about the use of VBS in their specific cultures over the past several years. In these conversations there have been good questions asked about the role of VBS in churches of all models. One of my favorite questions to ask in these discussions is: how many of you attended VBS as a kid? Usually almost every hand goes up.

So, does VBS work in our churches?

Over the past week, the church where I serve hosted our annual Vacation Bible School. We had about 2500 involved in our VBS which last from Monday through Thursday. Our VBS runs in the morning, from 9:00-12:30. If we were to look at the programming side, the children involved have all the traditional bells and whistles of a VBS: crafts, music, Bible lessons, activities, and dramas that play out over the week. This is a model shared by many churches across the US.

I can honestly say that I think VBS is one of the best things churches can do to reach their communities and members and it leverages multiple cultural access points to allow a local church to do ministry beyond what it normally might provide during the rest of the year.

Does VBS work? Absolutely.

The next statement is: if it is validated and led appropriately. I’ve been involved in VBS weeks in small churches to mega-churches and many sizes in between. Each one has several shared keys to success that aid in producing an effective VBS.

A chief key to success is the appropriate validation and support for a VBS. This means high visibility in the church calendar, multiple mentions from the platform, the key church leader(s) encouraging people to attend, and appropriate budgeting support. For many churches, regardless of size, a great VBS begins with how well the leadership of the church plans for VBS and provides the means to accomplish a goal for producing a successful one. One of the great things that many churches do in bringing together a wonderful VBS experience is have an “all hands on deck” mentality for their staff. This provides an infrastructure of support from our key ministry leaders and helps distribute the burden of ministry across all levels.

Second, the leadership of VBS is crucial. Whether it is lay people or paid staff, the leaders of VBS are critical to raising up great volunteers, setting the mark for excellence, working behind the scenes to produce great environments, and leading the training of volunteers for the VBS. Everything rises and falls on leadership, says John Maxwell, and when it comes to VBS he is certainly on point. A great VBS can carry the energy and focus of changing lives in these young hearts like no one else.

Another key is outstanding environments. From the first moment a child walks in to the last day when they walk out, outstanding environments will have a lasting impact. As you can see from the photos above, the environment created in the worship center, sanctuary, or meeting room is key for getting kids involved and wanting to come back. Lazy efforts or high barriers to changing rooms and venues will have a resounding impact on your VBS experience. Children today are being brought up in a heavy media saturated time, and while we don’t play to that, we can leverage it to have fun.

Finally, VBS needs to be fun, fun, fun. This is the street front window for so many of our churches with those people on the fringes and margins of Christianity in our different towns and cities. One of the rules I’ve seen for the last 15 year in ministry is when you get the kids excited the parents will bring them back. Some of the best VBS experiences (from small church to big churches) have been when the kids are engaged with great teaching, fun worship, and terrific activities to bring everything together. We love getting kids on their feet, moving, and singing. Its amazing to watch a worship center full of kids singing, moving, and enjoying their time. In the drama you have a moment to speak to them in tremendous ways while also allowing them to hear the Gospel at an important age.

VBS works as well as we allow it to work. If it occupies a central part of your overall strategy there need to be intentional next steps in following up, providing other programmatic and connecting event strategies, and seeing that every new family is seen as a valued connection. Then, celebrate the win. Talk about it and praise the leaders. A properly praised VBS can be a great change agent for a church that desires to connect the Gospel with families and people in their community. It still works.


Follow Up: A Key to Growth

Well this week is our annual VBS at Sugar Creek. It is a highly validated event that brings in over 2,000 children into our ministry space, many of whom are from families whoa are not connecting regularly with our ministry. So by the end of our time we’ll potentially have several hundred new families for follow up.

In business one of the primary goals is to turn new customers into repeat customers. Repeat customers spend about 33% more than the same number of new customers.

For churches our bottom line is different. We shouldn’t be measuring things by how much someone “spends” or “gives” monetarily, but we should be measuring successes in terms of connection and involvement. The metrics are different but the goal is the same: assimilation.

Churches of all kinds see visitors and guests throughout the year. If you haven’t seen any for a while something is clearly wrong. No ministry is sustainable over the long term if there aren’t new guests and visitors, and it is even less sustainable if there is a lack of new people period. When we do see guests and visitors our primary obligation to them in the following week is to follow up and at least extend a welcoming greeting to let them know that our church is unique and might be a good place for them to return and check out.

From week to week one of the key activities a church staff should be involved in is the appropriate follow up with new guests and visitors.

There are some outstanding books and talks out there. Two that I recommend are: Fusion, by Nelson Searcy and Beyond the First Visit by Gary McIntosh. While there are others out there, including some great thoughts on first impressions ministry, these are a helpful way to get started. Some things that I’ve found work well with guests and visitors:

  • A handwritten thank you card with a $5 gas card. 
  • Having a person from a life stage appropriate group contact them and invite them to a group time.
  • Sending them a short 5 question, anonymous survey about their experience.
  • Snail Mailing a letter and short info guide about your church.
  • Phone call (even if voicemail) thanking them and letting them know we’re here to minister to them.


For many guests and visitors our facility is new and confusing. Clear signage and helpful welcoming people are going to be key in directing them to a comfortable place of worship. Being careful not to be too forceful while also caring enough to guide them is a great balance for ministry.

Summer is a great time to follow up with new guests and families. We should leverage this time wisely and find a treasure trove of new guests and visitors who can, through a couple easy moves, become engaged members.

How are you doing follow up? What are some successes you’ve had? Where do we all miss connecting with guests and visitors?

Jun 2013



The Tension of Reviving or Birthing

There are many tensions that exist in present day church growth and health conversations. One of the more impacting ones is whether we focus on new church starts or church revitalization.

In my home denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, this tension exists in many of the conversations taking place about long term strategy. Of course, this tension isn’t limited to just Baptists, it includes most churches.

It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

This mantra is one which I learned early on in my ministry while interning at the mother church for the college I attended. It reflects an honest, and perhaps a bit ambivalent, assessment of the challenges confronting ministers who go into established churches that have plateaued or are in decline. Southern Baptists have measured that 72% of our churches have plateaued or are in decline. As a result we have a overwhelming majority of churches that are in need of intentional ministry to repurpose and revitalize their ministry

As a result, we have heard a continued emphasis about church planting that has led many of my peers to go out and start new churches. This has had mixed results, depending on who you talk to, but overall I believe it is has tremendous Kingdom value.

However, for many of our largest and focal churches across the US, they have moved away from either church revitalization and planting. They are favoring the expansion of their ministries through multi-site church campuses.

So a new tension is introduced into the conversation, it isn’t just reviving or giving birth, but also multiplication. These large churches (for a host of reasons) continue to grow at significant rates while medium and smaller churches are seeing decline. If a measure of ministry successfulness is found in numerical growth (I don’t think this is either a principal or sole measure) than these multi-site churches are perhaps the most “successful” churches in the land. Yet their approach to church strategic growth is to perpetuate their own existence by expanding their influence through new campuses. For many small and medium sized churches, it is having the same effect as what happens to small business when Wal-Mart coming to town.

So, is their resolution to this issue? Not immediately. However, if we consider that these existing churches (the 72%) still have worth if we become intentional about sending new ministers into their midst there might indeed be a wave new growth that continues to provoke change in our communities and culture. Far too often the conversation has moved to the church planting and multi-site options as having the better answers.

Church revitalization remains an important, and perhaps, more opportune ministry. By leveraging existing facilities, perhaps with a strategic rebranding and some updates, the actual barriers to entry into a ministry sphere become lower than both multi-site and planting. By revitalizing our plateaued and declining churches we might be able to also revitalize the communities in which they live.

Perhaps at this crucial moment in our churches we can embrace an ethos that motivates us to consider the all important starting of new churches an campuses alongside revitalizing established churches.


Strategic Ministry Units

We’re all probably familiar with the standard “life-cycle” chart that describes organizational growth, maturation, and decline. The chart usually looks like this:

Life Cycle Basic

For any organization there are seasons of growth, maturation, and either renewal or decline. Churches across America see this trend just like other organizations. This life cycle graph can be worked out differently for different organizations or entities. Sometimes the growth stage is shorter, other times it is longer. Ultimately, every organization sees this life-cycle curve come into reality.

Churches in particular are subject to this life-cycle and see it repeated in various churches at different times. There are many reasons why a church, following a season (or two) of growth suddenly plateau and then, eventually, decline. For churches in America, 80% are plateaued or declining. Sometimes it has to do with changing demographics in their area, other times it is established leadership unwilling to commit to change, also there are crisis moments that impact the church and cause people to leave. Whatever the reason churches will see this life-cycle play out. The challenge for church leaders (just like other organizational leaders) is to recognize when strategic decisions must be made to alter the life-cycle curve.

Leaders who are able to understand their place on the life-cycle chart can make appropriate moves well before a crucial organizational moment arises. However, if leaders are not aware that they are entering a time of plateaued ministry growth there is another key moment prior to either a time of renewal or decline. This space provides time to make strategic decisions concerning the eventual direction of the organization to either decline or renewal.

 One of the ways that successful leaders move their ministries to renewal instead of decline is by starting new strategic ministry ventures or units. Just like a strategic business unit can add value to a corporation and provide new avenues of growth, strategic ministry units can create several key forces to move a church from plateau to renewal. These key forces that are created include: new staff, fresh opportunities for vision to be articulated, organizational synergy, and a new entry point to connect with those outside our church.

Strategic ministry units often arise out of crucial conversations with key leaders that provide innovative new ministry avenues to renew and, often, energize a local church. Types of strategic ministry units include:

  • Small group unitsLife Cycle SMU
  • Outreach ministry opportunities
  • Partnering with other local ministries
  • Multi-site campus expansion
  • Life stage ministry
  • Athletic outreach
  • Alternative worship service
  • Family ministry


Other examples abound. The central idea here is that strategic ministry units provide an opportunity to change the course of an organization’s natural life-cycle. These strategic ministry units don’t have to be high cost or have high barriers for implementation. One of the central ideas in implementing them is, however, high validation from the senior leadership of a church. For highly structured church staffs, lower departmental staff can be tasked with carrying out the objectives (and certainly even in the development of units) but the new ministry unit will only grow as much as far as the leadership level which the primary motivator is given.

Many churches that need to break out of season of plateaued ministry can implement strategic ministry units to provide them the impetus to move from a pathway of decline to an avenue of renewal.

We’ll be talking a bit more about strategic ministry units a bit down the road. However, they are vital components of crafting an effective ministry playbook for healthy churches.

How have you seen strategic ministry units benefit a church? What are some examples of strategic ministry units that you’ve seen work? Where are some land mines along the way?


Generational Divides

Growing up in a multi-generational church, I encountered people who had, themselves, grown up attending church in a horse and buggy and other, like myself, who had only know going in the family car. It was a diverse church with a rich love for Christ. Differences in generations did cause some inherent friction.

Robert Webber’s book The Younger Evangelicals was one of the first books I read immediately following graduation from college. As I served as an intern at my home church before heading off to seminary, it was an important text to soak in it contents. We stood, in the summer of 2001, at an important crossroads culturally and spiritually. Unbeknownst to us all, we were about to enter into a social earthquake perpetuated by the acts of September 11, 2001.

Webber’s book speaks to a great many things and is a wonderful read. One of the consistently good things he does in the text is to develop charts about the three unique generations within our churches and how they approach Christianity uniquely. This chart is adapted from his text:

Each of the three generational categories refer to believers who reach adulthood during that particular space. While I’ve adapted some of the dates and descriptions based on my own research, much of this is still Webber’s original thought. It is a good chart detailing how unique generations view different aspects of Christianity. (They are fairly general observations and not definite categories, there are always exceptions and nuance.)

One of the challenges that arises in a multigenerational church is having all three of these perspectives present as we do life together, church together, and spend time together. Notice how the different generations approach even basic things such as worship type or our underlying theological approach.

As a result our churches and church leaders must find ways to bridge the generational divide and appeal to all facets of the church. One way that has developed over the past twenty or so years is having unique worship services that are usually age segmented with different styles. We then must find ways to bring people together outside of that or our churches remain polarized and fail to accomplish some of the basic functions of church life.

There is certainly more to be said about this kind of a chart, but perhaps it is a worthwhile starting point. When we look at how the progression has taken place it is compelling to consider how flexible our churches and ecclesiology can be to minister to so many unique generations.

What are you seeing in your churches when it comes to generational divides? Do generations divide or do they find space together? What are some wins you’ve seen happen in creating effective cross-generational ministry?

May 2013



Strategic Gaps

“A strategy gap refers to the gap between the current performance of an organisation and its desired performance as expressed in its mission, objectives, goals and the strategy for achieving them.” (source: strategic gap)

“A Forecasting technique in which the difference between the desired performance levels and the extrapolated (see extrapolation) results of the current performance levels is measured and examined. This measurement indicates what needs to be done and what resources are required to achieve the goals of an organization’s strategy.” (source: Business Dictionary)

Maybe as a kid you rode your bike on the sidewalk (because the street is too dangerous.) You’ll remember how the sidewalk would have a seems in the concrete every several feet? Now think of what might happen if you’re riding along and an entire section of concrete is missing. What will you have to do? You’ll have to get off your bike, walk around, or maybe try to pedal your bike through grass on the side. Either way your progress is inhibited and it takes away the smoothness of the ride. Its kinda of frustrating. 

One of the challenges of leading organizations like churches comes as we attempt to move from point a to b to c to … whatever point in our strategic vision only to find our work disrupted by gaps in the process. These gaps come from a variety of places. Imagine, if you will, that strategic gaps are like missing parts of a sidewalk.

This is how strategic gaps are experienced in your church. They mess up a smooth ride.

Strategic gaps stand between an articulated strategic vision and an accomplished that vision. They often arise from shortcomings in leadership competencies and resources for sustainability. Of course that simply means: lack execution.

All too common is an instance where the existing strategic plan is unknown or constantly shifting. In these instances, gaps become gorges that swallow your functionality and inhibit progress as an organization. In churches this happens just like in other organizations (because we really aren’t that different functionally.) The senior tier leader(s) are unable to frame and cast the strategy to the staff so they can go out and accomplish to goals. Along these lines poorly informed subordinates are unable to accomplish goals they know nothing about. This leads to the image of riding your bike at night without a headlight and hitting one of these gaps in the sidewalk. Ouch!

Constant assessment of the vision, strategy, and results helps in both identifying and filling gaps before they are met on the pathway. Doing a consistent strategy review with key team voices will aid in reducing strategic gaps.

Critical to any strategic review is knowing when and who: when to have this check up? and who to invite? Not everyone on your team has a voice that matters equally in this process. Also, it is not entirely essential to have all ministry areas represented. If the results measures indicate that a gap exists in, say, the groups ministry. Then it is important to visit with the groups staff leadership, then possibly involving lay people in the process. This isn’t a singular meeting, but possibly a series of meetings which openly discuss (in a safe environment) reality and end up with results.

Of course one the larger challenges for too many churches is that they lack resources to acquire and hire individuals who have high talent and an ideal gift set. Not having the best individuals occupying the right seats ultimately leads to more of a skills gaps than a strategic gap. However, alignment with the overall strategic vision is central to accomplishing your goals and minimizing gaps.

One final thought: Several studies of significant organizations have looked closely at the issues of strategic gaps and how they impact the final accomplishment of a vision. They all have discovered that 70%-80% of failure in accomplishing a strategic plan comes from execution mistakes and not a faulty plan. We should remember this, it isn’t our plan that is creating a rough ride it is probably is our inattention to strategic gaps that is doing this.

What kind of strategic gaps are common in churches? What do we call them in the real world? How do we bridge the gap?