VBS: A Low Cost Summer Activity For Kids Or Cause For Parental Sticker Shock?

VBS, also known as Vacation Bible School has been a traditional summer activity for kids in the southeastern and mid-western regions of the U.S. Structured days spent making macaroni art, plaques with Bible verses, and all of those prizes earned by memorizing and reciting passages from the New Testament are happy memories for many parents and grandparents hoping to give the children in their lives the similar memories.

VBS Goes From Store Brand Cookies And Macaroni Art To Big Business For Publishers

The long-held belief that VBS is an inexpensive way to give Mom a break has taken hits in some circles. The notion of hot summer days spent in cool church basements reading booklets, playing dodgeball, and pausing midway through the day for a Kool-Aid and Duplex Cookie break is, for the most part, a thing of the past.

Over the past two decades, VBS has gone from being a fun summer activity for kids (churched or otherwise) to a profitable industry for religious publishers.

Parents who have taken to discussion boards such as Mamapedia after experiencing sticker shock when trying to find VBS programs. While some posters question the practice of charging for attendance to Summer church activities, many parents find the fees, which typically range from $10.00 to $25.00 per child for a week of activities, snacks, a t-shirt, and sometimes a CD of the songs used in the program, to be reasonable. The upper end of fees, ranging from $50.00 to over $100.00, often include premium items as giveaways. Some include pricey rentals for the last day of VBS. Members of the Mamapedia board mentioned bounce houses, petting zoos, and miscellaneous equipment rental throughout the week as reasons VBS can cost as much as it does.

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As has been the case in previous years, many publishers offer themes based on current trends in entertainment for children. This year the successes Cokesbury’sSurf Shack” and Standard Publishing’sDeep Sea Discovery” showed the companies correctly anticipated the popularity of “Finding Dory,” Disney’s sequel to “Finding Nemo.” Beyond direct affiliation, parents often seek out churches offering the popular programs. While they can bring otherwise unchurched kids in for a week of fun activities for a week in the summer, many of them have proven to be very expensive.

Two Reports Reveal The Tough Reality Of The Impact Of VBS On Church Resources

The flip side to the fees, the hard sell, and a growing number of children with parents who are seeking places for them in VBS programs is the economic reality of keeping a church open. In 2012 and 2013, two studies on attendance and outreach, one conducted for the Annual Congregational Report for the ELCA, and the other a study of the state of Vacation Bible Schools in American Protestant churches conducted by The Barna Group painted a sobering picture of the financial health of churches in today’s economy.

“First of all, a church’s budget plays a key role in its VBS involvement. Churches with annual budgets of $500,000 or more are more likely (91%) to offer VBS than churches with annual budgets of $150,000 or less (56%). This trend is in keeping with the practical costs of VBS in terms of curriculum resources, snacks, craft materials and more, and the reality that VBS is typically a free (or very low cost) program for participants.”

One slide from a presentation of the 2012 ELCA report as posted by writer at Network is a Verb, a blog devoted to following trends in church networking, shows a shocking 50 percent drop in attendance in Evangelical Lutheran churches. The ELCA is one of many denominations that often play a role in creating structured summer activities for kids. A decrease in active congregants means fewer resources for activities like VBS.

Even though this was a trend that reached its nadir in 2012, The Barna Group study in the following year showed many churches were tightening their belts. Sixty-eight percent of all churches, roughly two out of three, offered VBS. This is down from a national high of 81 percent of all churches participating in VBS in 1997. While there has been a stabilization in some areas and some recovery for some denominations, shrinking resources in the form of funds and available manpower has meant many congregations have taken a hard look at how much they can realistically invest in VBS.

In spite of so many factors that have proven to be challenging, many church still offer no to low-cost options for parents seeking VBS as a part of their kids’ summer fun. While VBS as a summer activity for kids will continue to evolve, it isn’t going away any time soon.

[Photo by Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images]