Over the years, the Center for the Ministry of Teaching’s (CMT) Top Picks have consistently come from the same three or four publishing houses. The reviews on these pages are focused on publishers of VBS programs we have reviewed over the years. The CMT annual reviews that will continue to come out each spring will still have information about current programs, including costs, daily themes, and use of scripture.
We are recommending that in the future, users go directly to the publishing houses they prefer for their VBS programming. Leaders can start looking for programs earlier in the year that are consistent with their theology and pedagogical preferences. VBS programs will continue to have a range of themes and unique foci, but we expect underlying pedagogy and theological stances of publishers to remain the same.
Publisher reviews for VBS programs we have reviewed in the past are included below, listed alphabetically.
Abingdon consistently uses both biblical narrative and African American culture and history to introduce children to each year’s theme. While the underlying message and energy of the music could be enjoyed by all races and cultures, the supporting materials reflect the music, syntax, and visual representations of the African American community, its primary audience. Goals typically encourage children to embrace the love of Jesus and find strength within themselves.
Every day children are introduced to a biblical concept or character that illustrates the love of God along with people who empower the African American community, such as Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan who were recently featured in the motion picture Hidden Figures, among others. Many of the leaders featured in Abingdon’s VBS programs are working today to improve the lives of people of all ages. Background information about these leaders is extensive and could be used for other programming.
Quality of music continues to be a major strength of Abingdon’s VBS. The outreach component is designed to create programming throughout the year that relates to the VBS theme and the featured African American leaders. Activities each day include an opening worship skit with song and dance, structured Bible study time, and time for reflection through crafts, snacks, and music. While the Abingdon programs include a music and movement rotation that is lively and fun, they do not have physical activities or a game rotation.
Cokesbury Publishing reflects a mainline, Methodist interpretation of scripture that emphasizes God’s deep love of humanity and the ability of people to be in relationship with God. Unlike many VBS programs that focus on the crucifixion or resurrection, Cokesbury consistently emphasizes God’s presence in our everyday lives and living in relationship with God. The VBS resources are centered in biblical narrative and include a section on helping children make a commitment to Christ, which churches in the Episcopal tradition that emphasize baptism as the rite of initiation, may not use.
The materials are gender inclusive and include diverse cultures and races. While some of the stories obviously have male characters, these roles could easily be played by either gender in drama reenactments. The mission suggestions are engaging with options that could be easily adapted to most faith communities.
Music is easily adaptable; the leader book contains both sheet music and lyrics. Videos for gathering activities are engaging but not overly active. Every activity area (science, drama, missions, among others) has ideas to adapt activities to different learning styles, local VBS traditions, time limits and more. The craft and science rotations are both easy to do with clear instructions, and often call for donated materials rather than purchased items.
All activity areas, including mission suggestions, can be adapted to fit a budget and local focus. Overall, Cokesbury offers adaptable, well-rounded VBS programs that can be offered with large or minimal budgets.
Concordia Publishing House
Concordia Publishing House (CPH) is the publishing arm of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Its VBS programs in both English and español reflect its mission to provide “products and services that are faithful to the scriptures and the Lutheran confessions.” CPH products are theologically more conservative than those produced by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is in full communion with the Episcopal Church.
While the activities in CPH VBS programs are age appropriate, the language is not. Scripts and teacher directions assume a mature theological vocabulary. Concepts such as sin, the devil, and resurrection are used frequently without being explained. Each day teachers are told to focus on sin, such as, “Our hearts are sinful, so we don’t want to listen to or receive God’s Word.”
The openings, closings, and storytelling guides are highly scripted, allowing leaders no leeway for their own words and little space for learners’ own thoughts. Learners are not encouraged to explore or discover their own experience of God. The overall themes and animated characters are often inviting and even whimsical, which is at odds with the heavy-handed theology.
At the same time, CPH provides quality planning materials, including job descriptions, schedules, and online resources. Starter kits provide supplies and ideas that include huge posters for decorations. Music is often upbeat and memorable, and snack suggestions are fun and healthy overall.
- Marketplace Series
- Weekend Series
- Annual Program
Group Publishing has three primary VBS products each year. In its Marketplace series, Group takes VBS participants back in time to other places through immersive and intergenerational programs located in sites such as Rome, Babylon, Egypt, among others. Group’s weekend series is designed for user efficiency and convenience, requiring just two 2.5-hour blocks of program time with the children combined with an optional 20-minute celebration during Sunday worship. Group’s annual VBS programs are designed as week-long rotation models with mixed-age groups of children led by an adult or teenager along with station leaders. For its primary VBS product in 2018, Group offered for the first time an español/bilingual version.
All three programs demonstrate Group’s signature attention to logistical detail, as well as its heavy focus on atonement theology. While the programs often focus on one positive Bible message, the sessions dive quickly into graphic explorations of darkness and sin. The emphasis on atonement theology prioritizes the death of Jesus over his life and teachings. The effect of such fear-based experiences on young children will likely be guilt rather than wonder – quite the opposite of the positive emphasis of most VBS programming.
Activities for each group are age-appropriate and easy to use. Materials are visually appealing and well-organized, although the cost of supplemental materials, especially for crafts, add significantly to overall costs. Upbeat music selections fit well with Bible verses and support daily themes. Video quality and production value are very good.
MennoMedia typically veers away from more frenetic VBS resources that provide constant activity to emphasize reflection and contemplation when appropriate. Some VBS leaders prefer quieter, more reflective activities to counter a culture that is always plugged in and moving. Others find that MennoMedia’s low-key, unplugged approach appeals to some volunteers, who are less interested in creating elaborate decorations and more drawn to identifying appropriate spiritual practices for children.
Session themes, which come from carefully selected biblical passages, reflect sound scholarship and interpretation. The Mennonite church has a long tradition of strong Christian formation practice, which is reflected in the learning activities and program structure. Theologically the materials focus on God’s presence and embracing love for all people. Both the rhythm of the program and its primary messages encourage learners to a deeper relationship with God.
The activities and structure of the program are developmentally appropriate for the targeted age groups of the VBS program. Materials are well-organized and easy to understand. Teachers are given a range of options for each activity area to meet their interests and skill sets.
At the same time, the mission component for their programs seems to be an afterthought. VBS leaders may want to find a local outreach project that coincides with the annual theme. Music selections are often disappointing. Over the years music has been solid, but stodgy.
MennoMedia VBS programs are also easy to alter to meet programming needs at other times of the year, such as Lent.
Descriptions by Orange publishing of their annual VBS programs made us optimistic in the past that positive themes would help these resources overcome the CMT’s usual reservations with this publisher. It hasn’t turned out that way.
The activities in the Orange programs are flexible, well-constructed, and clearly explained, and the media materials are beautifully created and impressive. A congregation could have a lot of fun participating in Orange VBS programs, and even make some interesting crafts. Detailed guidance is also provided for less experienced coordinators, and the program is attentive to including parents by integrating lessons at home.
All of the materials are provided through pdf and other downloads. For some, this delivery method makes the most sense for its portability. For others, printing out director and teacher guides is time consuming and costly. Orange also provides a network of support through its website and offers free graphics for general use or for social media.
But the bottom line is that these materials are intended for evangelical churches with sin- and salvation-oriented theologies—and with megachurch-type infrastructure and culture. The themes and Bible readings for the individual days are not by themselves objectionable, and a theologically savvy director with time to tinker could make it work. Still, creedal churches will probably find it more trouble than it’s worth to adapt the recommended daily messages (which permeate all the materials) into a coherent, age-appropriate theological approach more in line with formation built on the baptismal covenant.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Issue: Spring 2018, Focus Issue – VBS, page 10-11