This summer, I’m treating myself to one week of day camp for my two oldest children. I’m a stay-at-home parent, so this week is a luxury for me, but summer camps are not a luxury for most parents in America. If you work, your kids need to be somewhere supervised. Allow them to go free range, as many of us remember from our own childhoods in the 1980s or earlier, and you risk the judgment of other parents and even the possibility of legal action.
In a June New York Times editorial, KJ Dell’Antonia described the realities for parents trying to piece together affordable summer childcare. The current system (or lack thereof) is difficult to navigate at best and unjust at worst. The article whipped its way through my social media feed, which is largely populated by parents of young children, many of whom struggle to scrape together childcare.
A few of my acquaintances wondered if there might be potential for the church to be responsive to this need. Maybe it was just a matter of more vacation Bible school. But most churches are already aware that VBS is not working as well as it once did. Churches struggle with finding enough volunteers, enrolling enough kids and finding a schedule that actually works for families who need something for their kids that fills an entire workday. Congregations have been experimenting with everything from evening VBS to Christian soccer camps.
If VBS needs a reboot, perhaps we should start by revisiting its origins. The vacation Bible school movement had its beginning over a century ago in New York City when the wife of a medical missionary noticed that children had no place to go in the summer. She designed several weeks of curriculum and activities and started meetings in a beer hall. She saw a need in the community and worked to bring a solution to people outside of the church walls.
What if instead of trying to reboot VBS to fit our own needs, we asked the community about theirs?
I’ve been the staff person in charge of VBS at several churches. When we wonder how VBS needs to change, there’s always a note of nostalgia. Remember when we had twice as many kids? When families structured their vacations around VBS? And there’s a desire to go back to the good old days. But this is the wrong starting point. What if instead of trying to reboot VBS to fit our own needs, we went out and asked the community these questions: If we could do something for children in the summer, what would that look like? What would be helpful to you?
I asked a friend who is a single parent what that would look like in her community. The difficulty for her is finding childcare to cover the edges of her schedule. There are almost no camp sessions offered in the first and last weeks of her daughter’s summer vacation and there are many programs whose daily schedule is too short for someone with a 9-to-5 job. I suspect there are churches in her town that could, with some energy, creativity and commitment of resources, fill in these gaps.
Every community is likely to have slightly different needs. Finding a way to address those needs, rather than the wants of our congregations, would be radical hospitality. This hospitality would be experienced by children, who would discover that God’s people love and care for them, and their parents, who would feel supported in their efforts to care for their families and fulfill their vocation. It sounds to me like the sort of radical hospitality Jesus was talking about when He invited children to come to Him.