“Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
-1 Timothy 4:12
Teenagers: The Secret to your VBS Success
Every year it gets harder and harder to find adult volunteers for a full week of VBS. Very early on in my ministry, I decided that we would run VBS with the minimum number of adults required for safety, and then rely on teens and tweens to fill out the body of volunteers. It was the best VBS decision I ever made.
Start ‘em Young
In children’s ministry, it is easy to fall into the habit of focusing on program activities for the very young. Yet it’s the older elementary kids – the ‘tweens’ – who are most at risk of drifting away from church. These are the children for whom sports and other activities require increasing amounts of time. Developmentally, they begin to exhibit a sense of independence and a desire to spend free time with friends. If church programming seems too babyish, they will stop participating. Our solution is to make them VBS helpers at a very young age and empower them to be leaders in this ministry.
How young is too young? How old is old enough? Honestly, there are no hard and fast rules. Often, at their request, we have 4th graders who ‘help’ with snacks, and 5th graders who still wish to be ‘campers’ and rotate through the different activity stations. I allow each child to decide (in advance) how they would like to participate.
Regardless of whether they attend as a helper or as a camper, they benefit spiritually from participation. Teen and tween helpers learn the VBS lessons. Better yet, they teach those lessons to younger children! For little kids, there is nothing better than having a big kid as a buddy or a teacher.
Teen Volunteer Logistics and Details
For safety reasons, any minor helper – tween or teen – must still register for VBS, so that I have emergency contact information. I waive the registration fee, but I ask families to make a small donation to cover the cost of providing snacks for helpers. Prior to VBS, I require all helpers, no matter how young, to attend a training session where I review youth protection policies and safety practices. I have a special permission form for helpers’ parents, so that the parents are aware that their child is receiving training and is expected to act in accordance with the guidelines. Youth who are middle school and older are required to fill out a standard church volunteer application.
Our VBS program runs every afternoon for a week. Helpers gather daily to eat lunch, and while they eat, I take advantage of that time to work with them. I explain how we are interpreting the theme of the day in our activities, and I emphasize the scriptural connections. This is a rather stealthy way of doing formation/Bible study with the teen and tween helpers.
Coaching and Training my Teen Volunteers
I also review the safety procedures and give directions on managing young children, and I repeat these guidelines every single day. We practice the songs and block the skit.
Once children arrive, older teens shepherd groups of campers from station to station. Tweens with adult supervision run craft activities, help with games, and prepare and serve snacks. For safety, I always have an adult in charge of outside games, an activity where injuries are most likely to occur. There is also an adult who the designated first aid responder. I oversee dropoff and pickup to facilitate the safety of our campers. There are other adults in the building – our clergy for example – who are on call in event of an emergency.
By modeling VBS to rely on teen and tween helpers (with adults present primarily for safety and oversight), we have created a wonderful multi-age program that fosters a sense of ownership and connection. Best yet, in asking them to lead the little one, teen faith formation is magnified in ways that I never could have imagined.
Lisa Brown recently accepted a position as the Director of Digital Ministry with Membership Vision. Building on her work in Children’s Ministry and Communications at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA, she helps churches connect to people and to God in the digital space. An active member of Forma and Girl Scout leader, Lisa is passionate about enriching the spiritual lives of people. Her book “The Best Do-It-Yourself VBS Workbook Ever” will be published in early 2017.
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