VBS making a local comeback

The Rev. Gene Farmer, pastor of Riverview Baptist Church in Loudon, sets up props for Vacation Bible School.

Vacation Bible Schools are returning to the community following a tough 2020.

A staple in many youth ministries, VBS was canceled in several churches due to COVID-19. This year, many local churches are planning for the beloved children’s event.

This year’s theme for many Southern Baptist congregations is Destination Dig.

“VBS 2021 is headed to present-day Israel where discovery awaits at Destination Dig,” according to Lifeway’s VBS website. “Kids will unearth more than dirt as they dig up exciting evidence that proves biblical events were not just stories. As junior archeologists, kids will explore real-life archaeological finds that have helped to uncover the truth about Jesus!”

Youth at Riverview Baptist Church in Loudon began VBS adventures Sunday and will continue nightly through Thursday, the Rev. Gene Farmer, church pastor, said.

He said church leadership felt comfortable resuming children’s ministries gradually.

“As things in society started opening back up, and people’s comfort levels with the vaccines and things of that nature have been materializing stronger, and we’ve seen an influx of our people coming back into the congregation and sanctuary worship times,” Farmer said. “The church felt they were good with the children being less susceptible to the virus and most of all our workers have been vaccinated. We felt pretty comfortable going forward with VBS this year.”

Farmer said this year will be set up similar to previous iterations — with some changes.

“We have maybe compromised a little bit as far as our outreach,” he said. “We did not go door to door this year inviting people. We did it mostly through social media and through our associational office here in Loudon County and, of course, by word of mouth. We just felt like maybe that was the right approach.”

Farmer suspects attendance could be affected by the changes in outreach.

“I believe we will be probably much lower than previous years just because of one reason — awareness,” he said. “Without being able to do all the door-to-door community outreach, the awareness may not be as abundant but also people’s comfort level. We believe certainly we’ll be down, so I really don’t have a great feel. We’re expecting anywhere from one to 100.”

In case numbers are higher than expected, the church prepared for up to 150 children.

Loudon Cumberland Presbyterian Church saw big numbers for VBS by expanding to a virtual platform.

The Rev. Beth Brakebill, pastoral care pastor, said VBS was going to happen “no matter what” this year, with the church choosing a “hybrid” situation.

While hosting in-person meetings, VBS was also recorded and livestreamed. Brakebill said 44 activity packets were requested by online viewers, some as far as Pennsylvania, Alabama and Montana.

“They could participate live, virtually, or they could go back and rewatch it later,” Brakebill said. “But we had close to 200 people each night logged on, joining us virtually. Then we had the opportunity for kids to come live and in person. The biggest night we had, we had 16 kids live and in person. Then we had about another 10 adults that were there either helping or watching. We did it outside. It was all outside in our church yard and lasted about an hour, and it was fantastic.”

Hosting VBS gave Brakebill a sense of normalcy and relief.

“I told somebody about halfway through the week that it almost felt normal,” she said. “It was a lot of normal and a lot of excitement. We even ended up — a lady came in and brought dinner each night for all the participants. We had ice cream every night when it was over and just the fellowship was so very special. Even the kids, you could tell even the kids felt how special it was.”

Other churches, such as First Baptist in Loudon, however, are still figuring out if VBS can be a reality.

“Right now, we’re kind of waiting,” Teresa Wood, church member, said. “We have not finished planning whether or not we’re going to be able to do it. Our pastor is out of town. ... We’re supposed to meet to discuss it. We haven’t finalized any plans yet.”