Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Lauren Lewis, 7, flexes her muscles with Grace Oh, 9, Justin Oh, 7, Joseph Oh, 10, and Beka Lotshaw, 7, during the music class at the annual vacation bible school at Level Creek United Methodist Church in Suwanee on Tuesday. The four day camp offers six stations including music, snack, recreation, science and all purpose crafts.
SUWANEE -- As church leaders and volunteers around the city put on Vacation Bible School sessions this summer, many could relate to Jeremy Lawson, who himself wrapped up a VBS session at Level Creek United Methodist Church on Thursday.
"There's no doubt it's exhausting, it's a lot of work," said Lawson, Level Creek's pastor. "But at the end of the week, when you collapse into your La-Z-Boy, you feel this sense of tremendous gratitude for what you're able to do. It's the best tired you'll ever feel."
The timeless summer tradition of VBS continued again this summer at churches around Suwanee, such as Shadowbrook Baptist, Epiphany Lutheran, North Gwinnett Church, Level Creek and Peachtree Road Baptist Church. The churches may schedule them in the morning or evening, but that's largely where the differences end.
Church leaders at multiple denominations said VBS, often through arts and crafts, and hands-on science projects, is a way to introduce Christianity to children as young as pre-kindergarten.
Jeff Sorrow, Shadowbrook's minister to children, said the main goal for VBS is for each child to have a relationship with Jesus Christ by the end of the week.
"This is our biggest outreach to the community that we do," Sorrow said. "That's kind of our M.O.: Connect to the community through Christ."
At Shadowbrook, which held its VBS in early June, Richie Sissom, associate pastor for music and worship, said the theme was to explain, "how amazing (Jesus) is, and how awesome he is over creation."
And the closing assembly each day was akin to a rock concert, Sissom said, with catchy music, hand signals and high-pitched screams.
Many churches purchase a themed curriculum, often from a Bible publishing company, that includes scriptures, lesson outlines and songs that follow the theme of the week.
Shadowbrook's theme was "Amazing Wonders Aviation," from the publishing company Lifeway, which referenced the Psalm 147:5 scripture.
Level Creek used "Operation Overboard," from Cokesbury publishing, which has the tagline, "Dare to go deep with God."
This curriculum and technology are two of the most noticeable changes over the years for the summer staple.
Level Creek focused on hands-on science projects, that were paired with a daily Bible scripture, to deliver the message. On Tuesday, for example, one science project was to use corn starch, which could be a solid or a liquid.
Mary Lou O'Rouke, a long-time volunteer at Level Creek, and a former director of the church's VBS program, said she remembers the days of pencil and paper activities, when the lessons were built around memorization.
Now real life connections are made through things like corn starch, lava lamps and color splashes, O'Rouke said.
"This is a high point for our Christian education for our children," she said.
The magazine Christianity Today has reported that while the roots of VBS began in the late 1800s, Cincinnati, Ohio-based Standard Publishing is credited with the creation of a full-scale curriculum, material and a single theme divided by grade level in 1923.
Technology, with extensive music and graphics, is a recent change, Lawson said.
"It's in the medium," he said. "The message, if you boil it down to its most common denominators, it's always, 'God loves you.' But it's how we communicate that message. We bring in big screens and we have these video segments."
While the bells and whistles are neat and shiny during the week, Lawson said the production isn't something he remembers long after he attended VBS as a kid.
"I probably couldn't tell you a single lesson," Lawson said. "It was the connection, and I think the overall sense of 'This church cares about me, they want me here, I'm not a burden, this isn't something they feel like they're forced to do.' There's this excitement everyday you got up, and couldn't wait to get there, and sad to see it go. Building this foundation of faith."
Of course, as a father to children who attended the week's VBS, Lawson can relate to parents who need some relief from the backseat sing-a-longs of VBS themed music "months after VBS is over."
The size of each church's program ranged in size. Shadowbrook averaged 430 kids each day, with about 200 volunteers, while Level Creek had about 55 kids with 30 volunteers.
While these programs are designed to reach youngsters, the adults admit they also learn from the activities, themes and messages. Lawson and O'Rouke said the VBS event turns into a church-wide production as college students return to help, and people who typically teach an adult Sunday school class get involved.
"What I've learned is how surprising it is how much the kids teach us about God," Lawson said. "When they come in, and their eyes are wide, and they can't believe these stories we're telling them, or these activities, and so many of the volunteers walk away at the end of the day feeling like they've received more than they've given."