At the '90s version of Vacation Bible School, the traditional flannel boards and "I love Jesus" songs just don't seem to cut it anymore.
In this era of sound-bite attention spans and schedules crammed with soccer practice and computer camp, Vacation Bible School leaders have found they have to innovate to compete.
So they employ creative themes, such as the tropical-oriented "Sonlight Island" at Faith Lutheran Church in Eldersburg, where each session recently started with a song by a Christian rock band. And many have switched from day school to evening or weekend Vacation Bible School.
And guess what? They're thriving.
"There was a time, say 10 years ago, when we wondered whether this was going to survive, if because of the competition with other kinds of camps, it would simply disappear," said Bishop George Paul Mocko of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
"This has not proven to be the case," he said. "One reason for this is the escalating cost of summer camps. So the old vacation church school, which is free, is back again."
In this Lutheran synod, Vacation Bible School attendance in 1988 was 4,915 pupils and 1,168 leaders; in 1996, the most recent year for which they have numbers, it's up to 6,181 pupils and 1,632 leaders. While few churches keep attendance statistics, many Bible school leaders said growth in the Lutheran church reflects a national trend.
The Rev. Norman Obenshain, who coordinates Christian education for a cluster of 17 northern Baltimore County United Methodist churches, said parents sometimes shop around and send their children to several Vacation Bible Schools a summer.
"The reason is that with both parents working outside the home, there is sometimes an interest in having safe activities for children outside the home and VBS is perceived as a safe activity."
Times have changed since Mattie Miles, a teacher and the wife of a Methodist minister in Hopedale, Ill., started the country's first Vacation Bible School during the summer of 1894. Now, with both parents working in many families, churches have found it easier to hold their Bible schools at night.
"The old classic kind of Bible school, which was run for usually two weeks in the summer with all kinds of volunteer women who had all kinds of free time, that kind of thing is done occasionally," Mocko said. "But we've become a lot more flexible across the board because you have to deal with children who are running off to Boy Scout camp, soccer camp, music camp, 16 other kinds of camps. And you also have working mothers, so you do not have that huge core of people ready and willing to do this."
At Faith Lutheran, the Bible school recently ran from 6: 30 p.m. to 8: 30 p.m. "We just don't have enough mothers available during the daytime," said the pastor, the Rev. James Stoltenberg.
But the evening hours provided an opportunity: Snag the parents. "We offer two or three different classes for adults. So it's more family-oriented," Stoltenberg said. One class usually deals with "parenting with values, another might be more biblically oriented, and a third might deal with relationships."
"Some years we have lots of parents," Stoltenberg said. "And some years, I guess they go to McDonald's for coffee" while their children are in class.
The biggest change in the classes themselves is that teachers try to engage the children in stimulating activities as much as possible.
You don't want to just tell the children a Bible story, said the Rev. Teresa Martin-Minnich, a religious education consultant for the Presbytery of Baltimore of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
"You really do something more than the superficial," she said. "You want to get into story through drama, audio-visual and arts and crafts."
An example: Don't just tell the story in Genesis of Esau giving his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew; make some lentil stew.
Churches get an assist from publishers who have designed more creative curricula. The Lutheran publishers Augsburg Fortress this year designed the HOPE (Hear Our Prayer Everywhere) World Tour, in which children learn how other children pray in the Holy Land, Thailand, Latvia, Namibia and Chile.
"Each day we'll be studying a different country and the children will be learning about a Christian child in that country, how they pray, their customs," said Lois Bailey, who will lead the ecumenical Vacation Bible School program shared by New Hope Lutheran Church in Columbia and St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic church in Fulton.
Chicago-based Urban Ministries Inc., which markets religious education resources to African-American churches, has a Vacation Bible School curriculum that includes a hand puppet called Brother Umee, religious tracts covering topics such as "What Color Was Jesus?" as well as drugs, sex, education, suicide and crime.