Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Landry King, 6, tosses a softball at a target on a dunk tank during the carnival celebration after the week long vacation bible school at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church in Norcross last week. Colin Garrett, 6, Christi King, Wanda Calhoun and Christina Garrett look on as Landry hits the target.
NORCROSS -- Organizers say vacation Bible school, that American summer tradition involving arts, crafts, snacks and Christian values, is often a leading outreach tool for area churches.
Ever since what many consider to be its genesis -- when in 1894 an Illinois educator decided to devote whole summers to teaching Biblical lessons -- VBS has continued to evolve in order to keep children engaged in its messages of fellowship and salvation.
To step into a VBS session these days, Bible school attendees of the past might not even recognize it. Gone are the days of "butter cookies and Kool-Aid," said Susan Rowe, who oversees VBS at McKendree United Methodist Church.
"It's gotten to be a really big deal," Rowe said. "Used to be it was very simple ... it wasn't nearly as big as it is now."
She said that kids these days "aren't going to just sit down in a classroom, listening to teachers talking about the lesson, because that's a lot like school, and they just got out of school."
Rowe said a typical day at McKendree's VBS (which begins this week at the church) is structured around children rotating to different stations all over the church -- such as a craft station or drama station -- in 15 minute increments: Each activity built around an all-encompassing theme.
She explained that even the daily snack is a way to teach lessons.
"On Day 4, for instance, the theme involves castles, knights, horses, Renaissance times, and the snack is 'Crown Rounds,' which is a bagel with fruit and cream cheese on top that make it look like a king's crown," she said, adding that such details help drive the lesson home in a different way for different times.
Susan Rutledge, who oversees VBS at Peachtree Corners Baptist Church, said times have indeed changed, but the message is the same: "We want them to feel God's love and to feel his arms around them at all times."
Rutledge said that getting that message across means doing it on the children's terms: "The days of coming and sitting still in church are over. The church ministry is an active ministry. It's a fun ministry. We're trying to instill in children that having faith in God is fun. It's not burdensome. It's not a list of dos and don'ts."
She said that's the philosophy that governs VBS at the Norcross church, which had nearly 400 children last week. Among them, 9-year-old Annie Heaton.
The girl said she likes the music, "learning the different songs and hand motions," as well as the Bible stories, "because you get to learn about all the miracles."
Her mom, Heather Heaton, said the teachers at VBS are "so energetic and put so much time and energy into teaching in a fun way. It presents church to (kids) in a way they've never seen before."
That's the whole point of children's ministry, Rutledge said: "Kids have to be excited."
"VBS has to stay current to keep the kids' interest," she said. "Children today are different than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago and 30 years ago."
Rowe said VBS is changing with the times. "It seems like everything is bigger now. When I was a kid, if I lost a tooth, I got some change and maybe a note from the Tooth Fairy. These days, you have to sprinkle pixie dust, and there's a whole production, a whole story that goes with it."
Added Rowe: "Everything is just on a larger scale, and VBS is one of those things. It's the way the world has gotten, and it's the way church has gotten too. People have short attention spans, and it's that kind of society where people aren't just going to sit down and listen. You have to get them moving, get them involved."