Nearly 300 children got on their feet, ready to worship.
Children barely older than toddlers clapped and sang to worship songs next to the parents and teenagers who were helping at Franklin Memorial Christian Church.
The church lobby was decked out in crepe paper, cardboard cutouts and tissue paper in a tropical jungle theme to teach children about Jesus and exotic animals. A person in a bear costume danced on stage.
Vacation Bible school at Franklin Memorial Christian Church and at churches big and small across the county is a summer tradition and, despite the obvious fun the kids were having, serious business.
Churches spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on vacation Bible school, wowing kids with themes that are woven into the decorations, games, Bible lessons and even the snacks.
Organizers say it’s worth it, since the weeklong camps often are the biggest community outreach effort for a church.
“(Vacation Bible school) is one of the best and easiest ways to introduce church to kids and young families,” said Lauren Sanford, director of children’s ministry at Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin.
At some churches, only half the children who attend Bible school are church members. The rest are friends and neighbors.
The goals are to teach children about Jesus and to reach families who don’t have a home church, said Dave Whitehead, executive pastor of Stones Crossing Church in Greenwood.
Kids are encouraged to bring a neighborhood friend. Church members tweet and post a Facebook status that they are planning a Bible school. Large placards around communities advertise the program.
“Our goal is to share the love of Jesus with as many community members as we can,” Whitehead said.
Vacation Bible school takes major time and planning, organizers said, because today’s kids need a spectacle to stay interested.
Churches buy elaborate themes complete with curriculum, including games, songs, snack ideas and video DVDs. They often supplement this material with carnivals, inflatable water slides and bounce houses.
Whitehead said the idea is to make church fun so families will want to return.
“If there are kids who aren’t happy and having fun in church, families won’t come back,” he said. “We have to make church attractive to young families.”
Vacation Bible schools compete with television, sports and other camps for students’ summer attention, said Jennifer Porter, children’s minister at Franklin Memorial Christian Church.
Themes and other activities help keep church interesting to kids. The standard on what is considered entertainment is higher now, she said.
Countless hours were spent turning Franklin Memorial Christian Church’s lobby and sanctuary into a tropical jungle. The idea was to make sure kids remember what they saw, Porter said.
“We want it to be a knock-your-socks-off, gigantic impact for them,” she said. “I want it to be something they haven’t seen before.”
When the children’s parents attended a vacation Bible school, they likely looked a lot different, said Donna Smith, director of children’s ministry at Gracepoint Church in New Whiteland.
“We remember VBS, we remember the cookies and Kool-Aid,” Smith said. “It used to be you went to VBS, you go to a class and stay in that class,” she said.
Smith and church volunteers are planning a spy theme vacation Bible school at their church in July. Each child will get a passport and will decode messages from the Bible.
Smith said planning an elaborate program takes work, but it’s worth it.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of prayer, but the reward is wonderful,” she said.