NASHVILLE (BP) -- When Shane Garrison was a little boy, the chasm between his non-Christian home and the local Baptist church was just too wide to cross. But, one summer, Vacation Bible School became his bridge.
"I grew up in a home where no one had any association with God or Jesus or a church," Garrison said. "It was just never talked about at all. I knew there was a church in town, but I didn't think it was someplace I could go. It was for other people. But one summer, VBS became a bridge ... a way for me to get from my house to the church."
Garrison, assistant professor of educational ministries at Campbellsville University, was the keynote speaker at LifeWay's 2013 VBS Preview events this winter. LifeWay hosted more than 3,500 VBS leaders at events in Fort Worth, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Kissimmee, Fla.; and at LifeWay's Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center. VBS leaders attending the preview events will return to their states and associations to train thousands of local church leaders.
Every year more than 25,000 churches host VBS, enrolling nearly 3 million children and adults, resulting in an average of more than 80,000 professions of faith in Christ.
Leaders learned about the Colossal Coaster World-themed VBS taken from 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment." The curriculum will challenge kids to face their fears and trust God on the roller coaster of life.
Breakout sessions at the preview events emphasized decorations, music, crafts, age-group teaching, outreach and follow-up. Participants were encouraged to make VBS an evangelistic event to reach unchurched children in their communities.
Garrison told attendees there are three categories of kids in their towns:
1. Children of believing parents. These kids are growing up in a home where both parents know about Christ, have accepted Him as their Savior and are interested in the children learning about Him. The parents attend church at least semi-regularly, he said, and they probably say a blessing before meals. They teach their children about faith and expose them to the Gospel.
2. "50-50" kids. These kids grow up in a home where one parent is a Believer, but the other isn't. They probably attend church or church events occasionally, Garrison said, and they likely have been exposed to the Gospel in some way.
3. Spiritual orphans. These kids have no spiritual influence in their homes. Neither parent is a Believer. Their home life may be stable or completely dysfunctional. There is no Gospel presence for them, and they don't attend church. They don't know anything about the Bible or what it means to be a Christian.
Garrison said he was a spiritual orphan. His grandmother decided he needed to go to VBS one summer, so she made sure he was up and ready each day.
"I don't know that she was so intent on me learning what VBS offered as much as she was just determined that I wasn't going to stay in bed all morning every day that summer," he said. "So I went."
He reminded VBS leaders these spiritual orphans don't know "the church rules."
"To me, VBS looked a lot like school," Garrison said. The morning celebration, he said, was like a school assembly; snacks were like lunch; the preacher was like the principal; recreation was like recess and craft time was like art, he explained.
The similarities ended on Wednesday of that week, though, when he heard the preacher explain the Gospel.
"I'd never heard that Jesus loved me," Garrison said. "I didn't know my life could be any different. I didn't know I was supposed to close my eyes and bow my head when we prayed," he said. "So I was watching him pray and listening to every word. As I thought about what he was saying, God reached down and spoke to me -- directly to me -- and I couldn't believe it!"
When the pastor asked if anyone had prayed that prayer with him and wanted to talk, Garrison said he didn't know any better than to yell out, "Me, me!"
"You may be unwittingly erecting a barrier to the spiritual orphans if you are planning your VBS around your own church kids," he said.
Garrison, who serves as transitional pastor of Living Grace Church in Campbellsville, Ky., said he understood that church parents want their kids to have a great time at VBS, but he implored leaders not to forget about using it as an evangelistic bridge.
"VBS might be the only time during the entire year you have the opportunity to reach these spiritual orphans," Garrison said. "It may be the only time they get to come to your church."
He urged leaders to turn their hearts away from the priority of decorations, the music, the crafts and snacks.
"This year, make the spiritual orphans your priority," he said.
VBS leaders can find more planning tips and tools on LifeWay's VBS blog at www.lifeway.com/vbs.
Polly House is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Go to www.lifeway.com/vbs for more information. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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