Mention "VBS" to me, and my first association with those letters is "Visual Basic Script" or "Visual Basic Source," not "Vacation Bible School." But I've heard some of my Christian friends talk about it in those letters, so I have to keep reminding myself. The first word of the term can be misleading: it refers to the school happening during summer vacation, when there's not supposed to be school. That also makes the term an aspiring oxymoron.
We'll forget the semantics and move on to my recollections of VBS at the Presbyterian Church of my youth. It's one week of songs, crafts, 16-millimeter movies, and some food, all culminating in some presentation during next Sunday's service.
No VBS is without a theme. I wish I could remember what themes Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church in Raytown embraced over a slice of my boyhood, but I do remember one involved adding a paper rainbow to the top of a Kansas City Royals baseball cap.
What's memorable is that at least one of these themes involved starving children in a third world country. On the first day of one session, one of the leaders held up a picture of some boy, whom I shall call Pedro because I forget his real name, and talked about how tough it was for Pedro to farm because of the drought.
Mind you, we are years from Sam Kinison's explosive rant on third-world hunger: "You're living in a [bleepin'] desert! Move!" We are also years from white middle-class youth absorbing hip-hop slang. So at this time, it is completely possible for the little children to sing, "We're going to send a hoe to Pedro" without them collapsing into snickers. If such a chorus were attempted today, a red-faced worship leader would quickly shoo the kids off to crafts and make a mental note of yet another word rendered unusable by popular culture.
I hated VBS. I hated the dumb songs, the throwaway crafts and the focus on kids in other nations who needed food when we had starving kids in Kansas City. Why weren't we helping them? Even at a young age, my still-forming mind must've detected something inherently wrong with sending charity to peoples who were suffering mainly because of their oppressive governments. You want aid? Let's send in air support to bomb the heck out of the regime that's keeping you poor.
Nowadays, it's much different. My church runs a VBS focused on helping children learn about GOD and how to live for HIM, which is the way it should be. The kids get to make a mess like on Double Dare. We don't do pseudo-missionary work; our mission is to reach the majority of people in Tucson who aren't coming to church and get them in the door. By reaching the kids, you reach the parents.
Elsewhere, VBS is taking on a slicker look. In my youth, church teams would have to brainstorm ideas for a theme. Now you can buy a VBS kit online like the ones I found here. They have cooler titles like "Power Lab" and "Kingdom Rock." No Pedro anywhere, unless somebody comes in one of those Napoleon Dynamite shirts.
Church school has come a long way since my scoundrel youth. I'm glad because we don't need more youth disconnected from the church, wondering what they're doing singing about other kids they don't know for a GOD they know they should love but aren't sure why.