Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary has offered Vacation Bible School reviews for more than 15 years. While the themes, decor, and availability of digital materials have changed over time, the underlying theology of VBS curriculums remain consistent with the theology of their publishing company. This is why we have started including information about the publishers with our yearly VBS reviews. We believe it is vitally important to make sure the curriculum you choose aligns with your community’s theology and/or to be aware of how you might need to adjust and adapt for your context.
Cokesbury Publishing reflects a mainline, United Methodist interpretation of scripture that emphasizes God’s deep love of humanity and the ability of people to be in relationship with God. Unlike many VBS programs that focus on the crucifixion or resurrection, Cokesbury consistently emphasizes God’s presence in our everyday lives and living in relationship with God. The materials are gender inclusive and include diverse cultures and races. The mission suggestions are engaging with options that could be easily adapted to most faith communities. Every area (science, drama, missions, among others) has ideas to adapt activities to different learning styles, abilities, local VBS traditions, time limits and more. Cokesbury’s VBS programs include music, promotional materials, additional online resources, and many support options for the planning process.
While the activities included in Concordia VBS programs are age appropriate, the language is less so; it assumes a mature theological vocabulary. Concepts such as sin, the devil, and resurrection are used frequently without being explained. The openings, closings, and storytelling guides are highly scripted, allowing leaders less leeway for their own words and little space for learners’ own thoughts. The overall themes and animated characters are often inviting and even whimsical, which feels at odds with the theology.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – World Hunger
ELCA World Hunger is an outreach initiative of the Evangelical Lutheran Church In America. Using the power of congregations, ELCA World Hunger reaches communities in need through raising awareness and working to feed the hungry. As a program of the ELCA, they believe “through Jesus Christ, Christians are freed through grace to live faithfully, witness boldly, and serve joyfully.” The ELCA believes all people are created in God’s image; having confidence in God’s grace means being willing to take risks in discovering God’s plan for the church.
Group Publishing consistently offers creative, colorful programs with excellent support that smooths the rough edges of VBS programs in churches of all sizes. Group’s primary VBS programs are designed as week-long rotation models with mixed-age groups of children led by an adult or teenager along with station leaders. Group sometimes offers weekend VBS options as well. Activities for each group are age appropriate and easy to use. Upbeat music selections fit well with Bible verses and support the daily themes. Group’s emphasis on atonement theology, apparent in all of their VBS programs, can be heavy-handed at times.
Illustrated Ministry (formerly Illustrated Children’s Ministry) is a publishing house that prioritizes an open and inclusive theology and diversity in its content and images. The team behind Illustrated Ministry are artists, writers, and pastors, with an eye to how children learn and churches create intergenerational community. These creators represent various mainline Christian denominations. Activities are made for group and at-home use, enabling congregations to build continuity between church and family. Projects are downloadable and affordable with a size-to-price payment scale.
Lifeway Christian Resources
Lifeway is a major provider of Christian resources primarily for the Southern Baptist Convention. Its materials are intended for evangelical churches with sin and salvation oriented theologies and with megachurch-type infrastructure and culture. Lifeway VBS programs primarily focus on salvation and the need for everyone to be converted of sin by the Holy Spirit. The tone of the curriculum, both for the participants and the leaders is heavy-handed, with little emphasis on God’s love. Despite themes that sound uplifting, the central message lacks the joy that the Christian life promises. Creedal churches will find it difficult to adapt the recommended daily messages (which permeate all the materials) into a coherent, age appropriate theological approach more in line with formation built on the baptismal covenant.
Shine typically veers away from more frenetic VBS resources that provide constant activity to emphasize reflection and contemplation when appropriate. Some VBS leaders prefer the quieter, more reflective activities to counter a culture that is always plugged in and moving. Others find Shine’s low-key, unplugged approach appeals to some volunteers, who are less interested in creating elaborate decorations and more drawn to appropriate spiritual practices for children. Session themes, which come from carefully selected biblical passages, reflect sound scholarship and interpretation. Theologically the materials focus on God’s presence and embracing love for all people. Both the rhythm of the program and its primary messages encourage learners to a deeper relationship with God. Shine curriculum is co-published by Brethren Press (Church of the Brethren), and MennoMedia, (Mennonite). These churches have a long tradition of strong Christian formation practice, which is reflected in the learning activities and program structure. Both the activities and structure are developmentally appropriate for the targeted age groups of the VBS program. At the same time, the mission component for their programs seems to be an afterthought. VBS leaders may want to find a local outreach project that coincides with the annual theme.
Orange Publishing VBS programs include activities that are flexible, well-constructed, and clearly explained. The media materials are beautifully created and impressive. Materials include take home resources for parents, adaptations for differently-abled children, videos, and engaging music. These materials are intended for evangelical churches with sin and salvation-oriented theologies. Orange curriculum uses masculine pronouns for God and binary language for humanity. Creedal churches may find it more trouble than it’s worth to adapt the recommended daily messages (which permeate all the materials) into a coherent, age-appropriate theological approach more in line with formation built on the baptismal covenant.