Summer is here and that means that every church in America is hosting their own Vacation Bible School. Two summers ago I was ready for the summer season and by being ready for it, what I really mean is that I had my kids enrolled in every VBS within a 20 mile radius of our house. I didn't care how early I had to get up to get them to the VBS across town, I was doing it. It meant that for 3 hours I had alone time and they had something to do.
That summer we went to every single VBS in town and I started to feel quite icky by the end of the summer. I didn't feel icky for the reason that you think I did. You would think that I would feel icky for taking advantage of the VBS system and abusing each sweet church's open arms to my kids. Little did they know that when we showed up for the first day of the week and my kids whispered that they knew all the songs it was because they sang them last week at the other church across the street. I am fully aware that I took advantage of free childcare and snacks for my kids that summer. But listen, a mom has to do what she has to do to survive four children when their dads on the road. It's a matter of survival y'all.
The reason that I felt icky at the end of that summer is because 2 different churches called me at the end of the summer to congratulate Cayden on accepting Jesus into his heart. The sweet children's pastor told me how excited she was for Cayden and what this meant for his life now. I told her that he hadn't mentioned anything to me about this “conversion”. She was confident that he would and that I should just ask him about it.
I did ask him about it and he had no clue what I was talking about. He did retell the events that went down and in his words “the guy said if we went down to the front we could go to heaven”. Well, I would have went down too I told him! Then he ran off and continued playing legos with his brothers. He had no idea what went down and when I asked him about the prayer that he prayed with the person at the front, he had no idea what was said.
Then the next time I got the call from a different church it was the secretary called me to give the good news. She was so sweet and I felt awful for my lack of enthusiasm at my sons new found faith, but it just seemed rehearsed and as if I was a part of a survey she was taking for all new Christian parents. She went through the whole shebang about Cayden “accepting Jesus as his savior” and what he needed to do next. She invited me to the class on baptism and explained how important it was that he get baptized right away. I listened and did a lot of uh-huh's and let her go thru her spill, and then I told her that I would talk to Cayden about all this, but he hadn't mentioned anything to me about it and I'm not sure what really went down. She explained that he had come down and prayed the prayer to accept Jesus into his heart.
I again asked Cayden about this and he had no clue what I was talking about. At this point I was getting a little frustrated at the whole system I felt that I was a part of. This is where the icky feeling came into play. I began to feel as though my child was a number on some churches stats page that they were broadcasting and proud of, and yet he had no clue what they were talking about.
Now please hear me when I say what I'm about to say. YES people can find Jesus at VBS. For sure. Don't email me your story about becoming a Christian at VBS because I know it can happen. My point here is the “come say a prayer” “free ticket to heaven” sermons that are given to elementary kids are scary and a slippery slope to me. It is a concept that can lead people down a road of believing they are saved because of that prayer they said when they were 8, when in fact there's no life change and they aren't following Jesus at all.
My kids are at a VBS this week and although I want to sign them up for every VBS in town to give me some free time I look at it differently these days. My kids are all at a crucial stage in their life and their faith and for me the free 15 hours in a week is not worth them hearing a gospel that offers Heaven in exchange for a prayer. I love my kids hearing about amazing bible stories and how Jesus changes lives and changed our world, but I don't like them sitting in a room and hearing a message that ends with them raising their hand if they want to accept Jesus into their heart and go to heaven. Who wouldn't sign up for that?
So this year we are only attending one VBS at a local church with reformed theology. It's a sticky subject because I fully believe that someone can come to know Jesus anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances because I believe that God calls his children to him and then we respond to his voice. Is it possible for this to happen at VBS? Absolutely, a child can turn his life over to God at these events. I pray that my kids hearts are changed and running more towards Jesus after this week, but too many times churches can depend on the action of reciting a prayer to determine someone's salvation.
Here's a video that I love from David Platt where he addresses the concept of calling people to a prayer and then marking them off as being saved. I would love to hear your thoughts on this as well. Do you send your kids to VBS?
Hi Jamie! I don’t have any children myself (still newly married!) but I do volunteer with VBS and am also a high school girls youth group leader and I very much agree with you on this topic. I know our church has excellent theology and tries to avoid those large numbers of semi-forced ‘mass conversions’ (sorry didn’t know a better way to call it). Accepting Christ is such a profound and personal decision I know I myself get a little icky feeling when at a youth event a speaker is almost pleading for those to stand up to show that they have made a personal decision for Christ or rededicated themselves as a result of that weekend retreat. Too me it begs for drama and emotion (not that those are a bad thing) but to really push that is a manipulation of an individual’s spiritual life. So…now that I had my soapbox to stand on I will stop 🙂
Thank you for sharing your feelings about this!
I remember at a youth camp called Impact, the speaker (Dave Edwards) made a statement that sticks in my mind to this day…..”I will not let emotion break the heart of God.” It was that very thing you are talking about…..people get caught up in the tender music, the “good feeling,” the get-out-of-hell-free card. They sob for a moment, raise their hand, and go on about their merry way, coming home to the same stuff that they promised to leave with God. Relationship should not be just a feeling…..what if our earthly friends only loved us when we made them feel good, then left us or cursed us when times got bad? Same with God….to truly be saved means to trust Him 100%….to believe His word is 100% true. Being a Christian is not “a good feeling.” It can be one of the hardest roads to take, because we know the world is against us most of the time, we wrestle with the flesh, we know we are going to stumble. Like y’all said, these “mass conversions” seem all well and good, but who all truly makes the commitment ? I pray your boys do keep on the Christian path and truly make the commitment to become men of God. Great article! Many blessings to you!
Hey I was really looking forward to watching that video. Is the church where I work censoring the content or is the link bad?
it might be censoring it, b/c i believe that it works.
thanks for writing this Jamie…almost wrote my own “VBS” post but would have been for different reasons. Your reasons are much better and I think valid concerns (especially in TX where Christianity is cultural). (and I couldn’t get the link to work either…I’m using Chrome? may be the problem?).
I “rededicated my life” every single summer at youth camp as a teenager. I’m with you on this. I often wonder who is walking around having said a “magical” prayer, but never experienced the life-changing, grace-filled, fruit-bearing commitment to Jesus.
At our VBS we do not push the issue. We talk about repentance, and turning towards Jesus, but do not do an altar call for the kids. VBS is a really exciting, emotionally charged time for a lot of the kids, and its really easy for them to get all caught up in moment. I know a lot of people look for kids to make commitments during that time, but Jesus will find them when its the right time. Its a process, and a lifestyle, not a moment.
We were attending a big church in Houston. Last year my kids attended vbs there and I got a letter left outside the doorwhere they kept the pile of the kids stuff from that day telling me that my child had accepted Christ. It was a form letter giving you instructions on the next step to take to get them baptized . I was appalled. They’re pushing the kids through the system so fast that they don’t even have time to tell the teachers to tell the parents or have someone make a call? They’re attending this week too and I’m already expecting another letter, probably for the same child.
I LOVE THIS!!!! Thanks for saying what I didn’t have the guts to say! Yes- I feel the same way about VBS as well as other groups for children. I wish these programs would get past the conversion moment and foster the child’s life in Christ. We are so caught up in the moment and each summer we start again at square one. It seems to me (at our church) that vbs, youth groups, wednesday night programs, etc. have become either an extension of the school day or a wild and crazy free-for-all. Our church seems to be fixated on giving the children a taste of what church community is like, but little taste of Christ. We focus on getting together- we eat more than any church I’ve ever been a member of- but there’s very little teaching. I don’t know- I’m at a crossroads between the traditional church and contemporary church. And it seems I am a teensy bit bitter. Sorry;)
I agree completely with your opinion on this issue. I was also saved twice. The first time I prayed with my Sunday school teacher and I knew fully what was going on. I admitted I was a sinner, Jesus is the son of God, and prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. After that prayer my teacher told me that no matter what I did for the rest of my life I would go to Heaven when I died. She asked if I had any questions and I said, “so if I change my mind right now, and turn away from God I would still go to Heaven?” And she said yes.
I also rushed into baptism and didn’t even understand the purpose of baptism at the age of 10. I know some people believe that all you have to do is pray a prayer, but I wasn’t taught about the lifestyle changes or how to read my Bible. I don’t agree at all with what i was taught at that age and it is alarming. I just simply went about my way till I recommitted myself to Christ in high school.
I definitely agree with you. I’m a teacher in a Christian school for kindergarten. My Bible curriculum constantly ended with the suggestion “take time here to give children the chance to pray with you for salvation” or something along those lines. I always skipped that part. Instead I focused on teaching them what salvation is, and what repentance means. Certainly I encouraged them to talk to me, or mom/dad if they had more questions about having Jesus in our hearts and being saved. But I never directly said “who wants to pray with me now” because I know that kids will generally do what a teacher tells them is the right thing, not because they actually understand what they are doing. That’s why I was “saved” at seven, and then “again” at eleven in the church parking lot after a sermon, when I realized that I hadn’t really known what I was doing the first time and I realized that I all I had done was say they right words. But I was too ashamed to tell my parents, because they had been so proud of me the first time when I prayed with my mom.
what has been the best way you have seen children’s ministries lead kids to christ? i was never comfortable with the altar call at vbs, but wondering what other ideas are out there to help kids come to an understanding of the gospel in a real way during a vbs or other children’s event.
Well said… ran into the same thoughts and emotions last week during a outreach to thousands of children in Austin with the exact same approach. Difficult to watch despite honest intentions from all involved.
I want to say up front that, as a single mom (who, by the way, accepted the Lord at VBS; I know you said not to go there, but I couldn’t help myself !) I can certainly relate to your need to have a few hours to yourself! As I read your blog about your family’s VBS “adventure”, it hit home that there certainly does seem to be, at minimum, a lack of communication between the thoughts of the VBS workers and the experiences of the kids. However, by the end of the blog, I did have some nagging uneasiness. I don’t mean to sound overly critical, but can’t help thinking that you got what you “paid” for…you were looking for free babysitting and snacks, with a little God thrown in, and that’s what you got. It doesn’t sound like you checked out any of the churches first to find out their beliefs, doctrine, or procedures, but were simply looking for activities to keep your children occupied. Because I certainly agree that the “say a prayer-that’s it” is dangerous, it is up to us as parents to make sure that is not the approach at the VBS to which we send our children. When it comes to the souls of our kids, we should be at least as diligent in finding a church/VBS as we are in choosing a preschool or daycare! Becoming involved in the organization and implementation of your church’s VBS is vital to insuring the Gospel is presented in a way the children can understand it and respond appropriately; and follow-up at home after the first “salvation experience” with questions, discussions, Scripture, and explanations would have gone a long way in making sure another “salvation experience” didn’t happen at the next VBS. In addition, maybe finding other “babysitting” activities for your children would allow you the time you need to yourself; then, by not needing VBS time to re-charge, you could volunteer at your church’s VBS, becoming part of the solution to this problem. It is our job as parents to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; while the church may play an important role, nothing the church does is as important as what we teach them, by words and by example. So, don’t be afraid of VBS, as it truly can be a tool to bring a child into a saving faith. However, do your research, be an active participant, and help your church help you to follow up on VBS teaching/experiences, not only with your own children, but with other children whose parents see VBS as babysitting as you once did.
Hearts and lives are at stake, not numbers on an annual report for the state or association. I couldn’t agree more. These are souls, won or lost for Christ and we don’t want to mislead children. We do not ask kids to come forward at our church, but ask them to talk with a leader personally or remain in large group situations (after others leave) for counseling. We then have one-on-one conversations, time in scripture, prayer, conversations with parents, and point them to a specific class we have to help them understand repentance and the cost of discipleship. I have several thoughts on the whole subject, which is not only about VBS, but happens at other weekly and special events, too.
We don’t want to hinder someone from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ, but ultimately, it the Holy Spirit who leads. Be careful who you leave in charge on counseling kids so that the conversation is biblically sound/child-appropriate, and the Holy Spirit, not the counselor, moves. Kids should not be coerced. We’re not giving out free tickets to heaven and it’s NOT as easy as ABC! Most younger children have a hard time grasping repentance.
Don’t hinder, but don’t push a child into baptism. Continue conversations between home and church. In the western church, we often have things backwards. PARENTS, not the church, are to be the primary spiritual influencers of their children. Parents, don’t pass this torch to someone who only spends 40-50 hours a year with your child (within a group), when you have thousands of hours with them in that same year. YOU will impact them spiritually, either negatively or positively. It’s your choice. Kidmin leaders are your support and sounding board and can provide resources to help YOU lead.
Allow kids to process and learn without pressure. God has them on a journey and is drawing them to Him. Kids understand things with a kid-size heart. Continue to pray and have conversations and ask The Lord to guide you as you share the greatest love story of all time, then watch the Holy Spirit change lives!
I think it is important for you to realize that David Platt subsequently apologized for the statements he made at Verge, and then voted to support a resolution made by the SBC which affirmed the appropriateness of the “sinners prayer” as a response to the Gospel. It would appear that he came to realize that the straw man he built and subsequently tore down was exactly that, a straw man. Using this video as support for a stance is misleading.
It is perplexing to me that someone who appears to have a blatantly consumeristic view of VBS would be surprised that their child “was saved” multiple times at multiple VBSs. This appears to be a parenting issue, not an issue of dangerously dangling a gospel that promotes easy believism.
Helen, thanks for your response. Yes I didn’t say what denomination those churches were, but it’s an issue I have with most of the churches that fall into that category. You are so right that parents should do their research and that was the last summer that our kids attended VBS at any churches besides that one church I mentioned that they go to now. I actually wasn’t only looking for free babysitting – although the four hours a day in the middle of summer are nice 😉 – but I do enjoy my kids learning about Jesus through these events. In no way do Aaron ever rely on church or VBS to teach our kids about God and I didn’t think I was saying we were in this article.
I still stand by my feelings about this form of salvation experience for kids is not okay. That was what the main point of this article was. Cayden had absolutely no idea what he was signing up for, and yet if you get any report at the end of the year these church will brag about the 100’s of salvation experiences by children at their VBS, without all of them being real conversions at all. Again hear me clear … you can FOR SURE 100% get saved at a VBS … I am just not a fan of asking kids who wants to go to heaven and not hell and come down and say a prayer and you are in.
Thanks again for your conversation about this! I love healthy conversations!
Your question is one I ponder a lot in my job as the Director of Children’s Ministry at The Austin Stone – the same church that Aaron and Jamie are a part of. We don’t do “altar calls” in our ministry, because many kids desire to please their leaders, or respond simply because they feel like they are supposed to. If we were asking kids to raise their hands, or come forward to respond, I would fear that they were just responding out of a need for approval, or because they want to go to heaven, as Cayden did in Jamie’s example.
However, every now and then I think about all the stats I hear from other VBS events, and I wonder if we’re missing an opportunity. As Jamie said, kids do get saved at VBS events… are we hindering the gospel by not giving more blatant opportunities for responses?
What I’ve come to accept is that if God is calling a child to himself, I couldn’t get in the way of that if I tried. And similarly, I can’t do anything to force a child to true faith and repentance.
Where we are right now is that we do present an explicit gospel message and invitation whenever the occasion presents itself. Sometimes that’s because the curriculum content for Sunday points directly to a salvation message. Other times it’s part of a planned teaching series. Regardless, when we do “spell out” the gospel and how to respond, we don’t say the next part, “And if you want to do this today, raise your hand/come forward/say this prayer.”
Instead, we say “If you believe this, and would like to become a Christian, I want you to tell your parents or your small group leader today. They’d love to tell you more.” I believe that if God is really bringing a child from death to life, they will take that next step. And many have! But because there is no immediate praise or public acknowledgement of the decision, our hope is that less kids feel less pressure to please us by responding.
I’ve also heard of churches that rarely give these invitations, but instead to a regular class to teach parents how to share the gospel with their own kids. I think that’s a great idea that we haven’t yet implemented.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on how to share the gospel with kids well. I’m sure we still have a lot of ways we can improve.