Small Church – Big Adventure

When Pattie Sewell, pastor of Green Ridge Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Va. (, stopped one Sunday morning to talk to neighborhood children at their fledgling Kool-Aid stand, she quickly saw an outreach opportunity for her 70-member congregation.

“Are you the preacher?“ one boy asked. She said yes and asked him if he ever went to Sunday school. “No, I’ve never gone to church,“ he answered.

The next week, Sewell suggested to the church’s evangelism committee that Green Ridge host a Vacation Bible School for the children in her neighborhood, as well as in surrounding areas. VBS wasn’t in the budget, but everyone—including the congregation—agreed that telling these children about God and the Bible presented an urgent need. They stretched their dollars by borrowing African-themed VBS decor-ations from a nearby large church and by asking members to donate money for curricula, supplies and snacks. That year, 14 children, including several in Sewell’s neighborhood, attended VBS.

One of the boys who came now attends our church with his family,“ she says. Although she followed up with the others, so far they haven’t showed up in church. “But it was well worth the hard work,“ she says.

With publishers starting to release new curricula for VBS 2006, small churches around the country are gearing up for their annual summertime ministry. But as VBS continues to go high- and higher-tech in an effort to attract today’s entertainment-savvy kids, churches with limited resources and space are evaluating if all the money and work are really worth it. A May 2005 study by Your Church magazine showed that slightly half (53%) of small churches hold a VBS, compared to 70% of medium and large churches. The surprising news: The report also found that small churches attract a relatively large number of children compared to the size of the church. Small churches reach an average of 60 children compared to 110 for medium-sized churches and 164 for large churches.

As Green Ridge Presbyterian has discovered, VBS offers a vital connection to kids—the age group with the greatest probability of accepting Christ, reports a 2004 Barna Research Group study. The report notes that nearly half (43%) of all Americans who accept Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13.

How can your church overcome budget, space and manpower obstacles—and offer a VBS 2006 that attracts kids, keeps them coming back and ultimately, introduces them to Christ?



The average small church spends an average of $556 annually for VBS—about $250 below the average budget of $800 for churches overall. Some of the churches we talked to didn’t even spend $500. Here are some of their cost-cutting ideas, as well as a few from our editors.

Involve the congregation and let them know the needs. With a budget of $600, Memorial Baptist Church in Cincinnati drew almost 30 kids to its VBS last summer—about five more attendees than the church’s 25 members. “We began by sending around children in our church to members, asking for their spare change,” says Pastor Steve Wilson, who each spring begins to talk about the upcoming VBS event from his pulpit. The church also publishes a list of VBS needs in the weekly bulletins and encourages members to watch for used items at garage sales and thrift shops. 

Call on other churches. After noticing that several area churches in Monroeville, Ohio, were using the same safari theme her 150-member church had selected for its VBS, St. John’s Lutheran VBS Director Judy Haughawout asked if she could have or borrow their props and decorations. The churches quickly responded. A few weeks later, VBS learners wandered into St. John’s basement-turned-African jungle complete with life-like giraffes and lions, zebra art and a safari sunset. 

Create instead of buy. Props/decor-ations can consume a large slice of the VBS budget pie, especially when the materials are expensive. To cut costs,150-member Assembly of God Church in Naselle, Wash., ‘shoots’ line drawings onto butcher paper with an overhead projector, and artistic members paint the images. Then, they mount each image on cardboard cut from large boxes to make 4-by-6-foot life-size figures.

Go into the community. Drawing unchurched kids requires relationships with unchurched families. Meet and connect with people in your community by involving them in your VBS. A few months before VBS, stop by local businesses like grocery stores, restaurants and machine shops, and ask for boxes and crates. Ask if you can check back in a few weeks for more. Memorial Baptist regularly solicits moving companies for used mattress and wardrobe cartons—ideal for backdrops and cardboard cutouts for props. 


For a small church, space issues are often the highest hurdles. If your church doesn’t have enough rooms or its own building, VBS can seem like an impossible feat. Churches we talked to have innovated and improvised.

Go off site. Oakhill Community Church in Elgin, S.C., takes VBS to the children and at the same time reaches unchurched kids and their parents. Because the church of 80 members meets in an elementary school, an on-site VBS event isn’t an option. Last July, Pastor Doug Mize and several VBS volunteers traveled to a different neighborhood each Sunday and hosted an evening VBS Block Party. Since its launch five years ago, Oakhill has hosted VBS each year. The first two years, leaders operated it out of a member’s home. The next two years, they held it in the town’s community center. 

Use every ounce of space. If your church has a small building, survey every area and think outside the typical bounds of sanctuary and education rooms. Assembly of God Church in Naselle, Wash., rotates learning centers (teaching/Bible story, music, crafts, snacks/recreation) in all five of the church’s rooms, including organizing the craft area in the foyer. 

Get creative. One small church in San Diego uses its VBS learning areas to enhance the overall theme and maximize space. More than 50% of the kids are unchurched. Leaders rotate learning centers and divide rooms into six to eight class sections (groups of six to eight kids) with blankets or something that fits the theme. “Last year, my son’s group met in a life raft in the corner of a room, and he loved it,” says one parent. The rotating groups are only together in their “rooms” for 25 minutes.


Whether it’s VBS, community service projects or Sunday school, volunteer shortages plague all churches. For small congregations, this obstacle can often be the deciding factor in hosting or not hosting VBS.

Rotate learning centers. Like hundreds of churches across the country, Ranch Chapel in Crooked River Ranch, Ore., uses learning centers, eliminating the need for teachers for every age group or class. 

Take turns. At Memorial Baptist Church, VBS volunteers help other small churches in the area with their VBS events, and in turn, those same churches send people to Memorial Baptist for its VBS—enlarging both churches’ volunteer base. 

Partner up. Contact other small local churches and band together for one large VBS that doesn’t drain your resources. 

Kids will enjoy the big group feeling, and each church avoids volunteer burnout. 

Go to the experts. Involve your community by enlisting local artists to create murals, props and backdrops. Tell them about the overall theme and give them creative freedom to ‘wow’ you. Think nighttime. Host VBS in the evening and resource a whole new group of volunteers—tapping into working mothers, single professionals, and youth and college students with summer jobs. 

Involve youth and senior adults. Publishers have wised up and many now provide VBS materials that require little set-up time and easy-to-follow instructions for atypical leaders like youth and senior adults. Be proactive and ask for some face time with these groups; let them know you need them.


While VBS offers a place for children to experience Scripture in a kid-relevant way, it’s also a prime opportunity for outreach, introducing children and their families to church and possibly Christ. For Memorial Baptist, VBS outreach starts months before the actual week when the church begins planning its annual kids carnival. The free event, held one week before VBS in the church’s parking lot, familiarizes kids and their parents with the church. They also learn about the upcoming VBS. At the front registration table, children complete a contact card that Memorial Baptist uses for sending VBS reminders. The church also passes out VBS fliers in May during the community’s Memorial Day parade.

“We try to leave parents with a sense that we believe their child is special,” Pastor Steve Wilson says. The church’s first VBS saw 17 children accept Christ.

Richard Cary, pastor and VBS coordinator at Assembly of God Church in Naselle, Wash., adds that VBS must be founded on weeks of prayer before, during and after VBS, specifically asking God to draw kids and their families to the church and then to Himself.

An outreach-focused VBS starts at the top, says Melissa Kinlaw, VBS director for Oakhill Community Church’s neighborhood VBS Block Party, which last July drew mostly unchurched children. She credits Pastor Doug Mize. “He makes it clear that our purpose is reaching the unchurched in our community,” she says. “And that’s why we decided to take VBS to the streets.” Each night, Oakhill volunteers brought worship music, Bible lessons, themed snacks, crafts, games and balloon animals to between 15 and 25 kids. The children felt comfortable in familiar surroundings, and parents were thankful for the interactive, wholesome activity, Kinlaw says. “As parents arrived to pick up their child, we thanked them, told them about our church and invited them to a service.” After VBS, Kinlaw, Mize and other VBS leaders contacted every family who came to the Block Parties, presenting each child with personalized certificates of attendance. “It gave us a reason to make the visit,” Mize says.

At VBS, Mize saw some kids make decisions for Christ; others rededicated their lives. And some of the families Oakhill reached last summer now regularly attend the church. “It was amazing to see these kids so hungry for the truth of the Gospel,” he says. 

“This is more than just talking about outreach. This is going out and taking the time to do something for people you’ve never met. This is missions by any definition.”   

by Kathryn Lay and Yvonne Gonzalez

Copyright © by Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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