VBS has taken a vacation at the Kingwood, Texas, church.
In its place is a program so popular that it has doubled in size each of the last three years.
While Kingwood was limping along for several summers, barely attracting 100 children to its traditional program, organizers are expecting more than 250 pre-registered kids in preschool through fifth grade to converge on its building in a few weeks.
What’s the draw? Well, drawing. And painting. And sculpting, mosaics, crafts, digital photography, woodworking, sewing and more.
“We could buy advertisements, we could pass out fliers, we could spend a lot of time and money promoting our Vacation Bible School and then struggle to compete with every other church offering a VBS, too,” said Shannon Rains, children and family minister at the 500-member congregation northwest of Houston.
“With Art Camp, we are filled to capacity right after registration begins. We have waiting lists. It is amazing.”
Art Camp began as the brainchild of several moms at Kingwood, who wanted an alternative to pricey summer art day camps for their children. In its first year, the four-day camp maxed out at 40, at a cost of $20 per child to cover needed materials.
By the next summer, word had spread to friends and neighbors. Excitement about the faith-integrated art camp boosted enrollment to 80. And in its third year, organizers began turning away campers after they registered 145 children at $35 each.
This year, Art Camp’s fourth, they’re expecting to set another record. Yet it’s not the numbers that excite Rains and other Kingwood members, but rather the opportunity to capitalize on children’s interests and capture their attention.
“The beauty of Art Camp is that every one of us are committed to sharing the Gospel with these kids,” said Rains. “It’s not VBS, no, but we work our faith into every project, every conversation. And they’re so receptive to that.”
Joy Clark, one of the camp’s co-directors, helped recruit teachers and helpers this year. She said doing something different has been rewarding for her and others.
“We really wanted to … draw people in and encourage people to come check us out,” she said. “Art Camp has definitely accomplished that goal.”
In spite of the camp’s success, letting go of Vacation Bible School hasn’t been easy for Kingwood members. As a nod to tradition, this year they plan to incorporate a VBS-style devotional into each morning’s opening session.
“We miss our VBS, absolutely,” she said. “But we are developing these great relationships with children and their parents who will volunteer to help and in the process get to know us. They get comfortable in our building, learn their way around, hear us naturally talk about our faith in the context of our lives and that wasn’t happening before.”
Brandy Vowels, a Kingwood member who also serves as co-director, said adults involved love being kids for a week, doing arts and crafts alongside their young visitors.
“It gets very messy, but it’s a lot of fun,” Vowels said. “You get to meet a lot of kids you wouldn’t normally meet from the community.”
This year’s theme is “Uniquely You” and Rains said the curriculum and projects are designed to teach children how God created them all differently to be just like he wants them.
Four-year-olds through second graders complete several types of fun crafts — made with everything from shaving cream to their own thumbprints. The older group, comprised of third through fifth graders, are encouraged to explore more advanced mediums and create keepsake projects like trays, wooden boxes and intricate prints, Rains said. The fee helps cover the camp’s $10,000 budget, and scholarships are available for children whose families cannot afford the event.
The week ends with an art show, exhibiting the youngster’s projects in a museum-style format and inviting families to come see all the different offerings. Rains expects this year’s attendance at the closing event to eclipse that on a typical Sunday morning.
“That in and of itself is a huge outreach,” she said.
Instructors are members at Kingwood who have expertise in different areas. During each session, Rains said they emphasize glorifying God with their talents and pointing back to him.
For those at congregations like Kingwood whose VBS programs may be sagging, she encourages them to “think outside the box.”
“We were holding onto a model that wasn’t reaching people,” Rains said. “By praying about different activities and being less traditional, we are reaching this many people.”