John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Being Honest About VBS

I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time among the cool churches (you know...Willow Creek and Saddleback and North Point and all their buddies). I’ve gone to their conferences and listened to their pastors. And, while I am not an advocate of all things megachurch, you can’t deny the fact that they’re doing evangelism pretty well. These churches are baptizing hundreds of people each year and creating a safe place for people to bring their spiritual questions and explore their faith. I’ve been in lots of these churches. And yet…. I’ve never one time heard anyone in a church that’s really evangelizing well say, “It was Vacation Bible School that really put us over the top.”

Can we be honest about something? You may have gotten saved at a VBS in the 1970s, but it rarely works like that anymore. More often than not, VBS is just free babysitting for people who already attend church somewhere.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad or evil. I’m just saying it’s not outreach. Or, if it is outreach, it ain’t working because these churches have taught kids the motions to Father Abraham during each of those years during which the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has steadily declined. In the last 25 years, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations declined by 10 percent, while the national population increased by nearly 30 percent. In that same time period, the average size of the average church in America decreased by 10 people. In an average year, half of all churches do not add a single new member through conversion growth. Most churches average one new convert per year for every 85-90 regular adult attendees.

I may never ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery or fly o’er the enemy, but I know the Lord’s army (“Yes, sir!”) isn’t making much progress here at home. At some point, don’t you think we ought to look at this honestly and say, “Maybe we should stop doing things that aren’t working and try something else”?

Christmas musicals, Easter pageants, Mother’s Day Out, preschools – these may all be a way of getting people who don’t attend your church to visit your building, but is that really the goal? Is the bar set so low that you’re ready to define success as "butts in the seats"?

A few years ago, a church in California did a summertime, 4th-of-July patriotic sing-a-long. They spent $1,800 renting a tent and sending out mailers to everyone in their zip code. Six visitors showed up. When they told me about it, I remember thinking, “You could have gotten more visitors if you’d just gone to the beach and told people, ‘I’ll give you $50 to come to this thing at my church.’”

Now, if you choose to do these things as a way of blessing your community – because you believe they need a place to sing “Joy to the World” in mid-December or watch fireworks light up the summer sky, then, by all means, continue doing them. If you want to do these things because doing them builds community among those who volunteer and it blesses the community, go ahead.

But don’t pretend this is evangelism. Don’t pull money out of the outreach budget for this stuff. And whatever you do, please don’t let the people in your church feel like they’ve done their evangelistic duty by volunteering for one of these programs or (worse still) simply giving money for them.

They may be good things, but they’re not evangelism.