"Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School!" (Repeat until your head explodes.)
The small Baptist church in our small Baptist town wasn't developed with the child in mind. Sundays featured stuffy sermons in a stuffy hall, where excess movement and fart sounds were frowned upon. The preacher spoke of a mighty, fearful God on high, repeatedly reminding all those in attendance of the wages of sin (an unhappy life on earth, followed by an unhappier one in the fiery lakes of Hades). Nothing was fun about church. Church was for feeling unworthy, and tight uncomfortable clothes.
But Vacation Bible School? It was everything church wasn't.
For two weeks every summer, the big yellow bus would roll, packed tight with screaming kids, beckoning others to join the fun. Cultish? You bet. But the advantages of VBS were legion: No tight clothes, snacks galore, tons of games and crafts, and most importantly, it virtually ignored damnation.
In fact, God was rarely brought up. When it comes to attracting kids to religion, God (especially the Old Testament one) is a public relations nightmare; turning people into salt, raining fire and pestilence down upon the wicked, rescuing Moses' people by splitting the Red Sea… and then leaving them to wander the desert for 40 years.
Instead, VBS is all about Jesus--because Jesus is more fun. He's the softer side of God, protecting whores from bullies, raising people from the dead, and pulling off awesome magic tricks like walking on water. Of course, there's the Mel Gibson side of Jesus that adults drool over; nails through the palms, skin whipped off the body, and the famous crown o' thorns. Suffice it to say, at VBS, crucifixion is verboten.
Even then, Jesus makes up roughly only 18 per cent of VBS. The majority of time is spent on awesomely fun activities only marginally associated with organized religion, like playing Red Rover on freshly cut grass. VBS is a great place to learn Red Rover technique; such as running full blast at the most nervous girl in class (Karen Fortenberry), and seconds before the collision, slipping under the arms as if sliding into second base. Afterwards, one is looked upon with great admiration--and all because VBS takes the time to develop the skills children need to succeed.
Now let's sing! "Riiiise and shiiiine and give God the glory, glory / Riiiise and shiiiine and give God the glory, glory / RISE and SHINE and (CLAP!) give God the glory, glory / Children of the Looooord!"
They don't sing songs like this in adult church, or frankly, any songs that were written post-Mendelssohn.
Now it's craft time! Pick your favorite bible character, and recreate their face using a paper plate, magic marker, and yarn. Jonah is good, because you can draw whale guts on his face. Next, let's run out to the gravel driveway, pick out some hefty rocks, and using glue, paint, and varnish, construct a paperweight duck. What does a paperweight duck have to do with burning in hell? Not so much. Such is the beauty of VBS.
True, VBS has sermons; non-threatening bible stories involving lambs, shepherds, and the golden rule. But these tales are almost always illustrated using cutout paper figures stuck to a felt board--an endlessly effective teaching tool virtually ignored by stuffy felt board-hating pastors. This education is later rewarded with the best reason to attend VBS: pitchers of mouth-watering red Kool-Aid, and metal sheets lined with teeth-destroying sugar cookies. Though both could be easily purchased at the store, the combination of the warm sun, fresh green grass, and laughing children cramming their cookie holes with treats pushes the VBS experience out of the ordinary, into the idyllic, and finally… the religious.
Puberty arrives, and the world changes. You're too old to attend VBS, but are invited to the Summer Christian Teen Camps. Things are far more serious here; no cookies, no games. God is back in attendance, along with the crown of thorns. We have our own crown of thorns--acne--and our embarrassment at being alive would be overwhelming if any of the older teens acknowledged our existence. It's home to the Mel Gibson Jesus, a camp designed to help us make the transition from lambs and paperweight ducks to sin and death.
The VBS bus still rolls through the neighborhood, the chanting still the same. But a teen is too old for baby religion, and so is given two choices: accept the hard pews and harder God of adulthood, or slink off into the woods to smoke cigarettes.
Neither serves cookies.