An Alternative VBS: Arts Camp

An Alternative VBS: Arts Camp

“Arts Camp week fills our usually quiet old building with joy, song, laughter, and energy; as well as discovery and exploration. The Holy Spirit never fails to turn up in the most unexpected places.”

Arts Camp for VBS

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denver likes to dance to our own slightly different beat, even while we embrace the scripture and deeply rooted traditions of our faith. So, not surprisingly, we have a weeklong summer day camp every year. Also not surprisingly, it’s not Vacation Bible School.

We call it Arts Camp. Imagine a children’s bible study merged with art and music classes. We do not use a published curriculum, but create camp from scratch every year. This is not as horrifically challenging as it may sound, because of a dedicated team of church-based artists and leaders. Because I don’t pay for curriculum, I can pay these people an honorarium for their time and talent. Youth group members happily come back year after year to volunteer as Junior and Senior Counselors.

Like many of the best aspects of our Family Ministry, Arts Camp is the brainchild of my very talented predecessor. The first year camp was mine to plan and execute I was daunted. I’m a writer and a teacher, but have less than zero talent in visual art or music. I can sing okay, but no one’s ever asked why I don’t try out on American Idol.

So I reached out to our congregation for help and found everything I needed practically within arm’s reach; musicians and artists who are willing and able to spend time sharing their talents and knowledge with our campers.

Themes and Program

Like VBS, we organize Arts Camp around a central theme each year. We’ve done ‘Peace’, ‘Praise’, ‘Ecology as Social Justice’, and last year’s theme was ‘Who Is My Neighbor?’ This year’s theme will be Inter-Spirituality – an open-hearted exploration of many faith traditions and respectful incorporation of some of their practices into our worship.

We start our day gathered all together to sing and do the ‘programming’ portion of the day. This is when we do bible study in relation to the theme, play games that help the campers transfer their learning into their every day lives, do storytelling, and sing songs – old favorites and new – that fit with our learning.

The rest of the day is divided into art class, music, and drama, with a lunch break at noon. Art time is spent on theme-related projects using a wide variety of media. All of which are displayed for the next Sunday’s service before campers take them home. In music they’ve learned new instruments like hand bells and Native American flutes, composed their own songs, and learned new favorites that fit the theme. In drama they do a lot of role-playing and drama games as well as figuring out and then practicing how they choose to share the week’s explorations with the congregation on Sunday. We end the day with popsicles, joke or riddle telling, and games.

My job is to take care of the logistics and the theme-based programming; setting and announcing the date, registering kids, finding or creating scriptural lessons and games that fit, creating the schedule, lining up volunteers who set up and put away a simple buffet lunch and hiring the artists.

Planning and Details

In the spring I sit down with my creative team and we brainstorm everything we need for the week, using the year’s theme as a foundation. They each walk out of this meeting with an idea of what they need to plan for their portion of the day. Every year the planning becomes easier and smoother.

We charge $125 for camp (increased from $100 this year, after no increases for 10 years), which is less than any other weeklong day camp in our area. I have scholarship funds saved up for any child who may need them; no one is ever turned away for financial reasons. That fee includes all materials, lunch and a snack every day, pays the honorariums for the artists, and buys the camper a t-shirt to tie-dye. Most of the kids in our congregation have a collection of Arts Camp t-shirts from several years.

Finally, on the Sunday following camp, we celebrate the campers and their accomplishments at the main worship service.

Arts Camp week fills our usually quiet old building with joy, song, laughter, and energy; as well as discovery and exploration. The Holy Spirit never fails to turn up in the most unexpected places. Every year I breathe a huge sigh of relief and pleasure at the conclusion of another joy- and wonder-filled week of camp. If your congregation is looking for another way to do VBS, I highly recommend trying out your own version of St. B’s Arts Camp.

Christina Clark serves as the Family Minister and Youth Leader at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Denver, CO. She has previously written for Adoptive Families Magazine and and is the author of the novel “Little Gods on Earth.” Christina’s book Arts Camp, which walks the reader through several themes, was published by Church Publishing in 2015. 

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