God’s Garden, God’s City

If you are a user of The Sunday Paper’s Beulah Land feltboard, this review may particularly interest you, since (not by accident) this Vacation Bible School curriculum works especially well with Beulah Land tableaus accompanying its Bible storytelling. All the stories in the 5-day curriculum are rooted in or adapted from the “Salvation Story” script that is part of the Beulah 2 set of felt materials. This means that if you have the Beulah Land Starter Set and the Salvation Story set, you have everything you need to add a visual dimension to the storytelling portion of this VBS curriculum!

Beulah Land at NEWS

A review of the VBS curriculum, “God’s Garden, God’s City,” developed by Grace Pritchard Burson

Almost four years ago, in this space, I reviewed my daughter Margaret’s book, There Is a Season: Celebrating the Church Year with Children. Now I have the pleasure and privilege of shamelessly promoting the work of another of my daughters, the Rev. Grace Pritchard Burson.

Vacation Bible School, like the Christmas pageant, is the subject of a great deal of both nostalgia and amused contempt. Many of us look back on the fun we had there, the corny songs we sang, the snacks and crafts and water play and dirt and sweat, with that particular fondness reserved for memories of middle childhood. We may remember the songs (music sticks in the memory)—doing hand movements to “Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky … ” or bouncing up and down to “Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah, Praise ye the Lord!” If we are lucky, we will remember how we truly experienced God’s love from the hard-working teenagers and mom volunteers who ran the program every summer. Perhaps that was even what brought us into a relationship with the church.

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VBS is great. It’s fun, it’s hard work, it builds community. It’s also big business. And in a market designed to appeal to volunteer leaders and to draw in neighborhood children, publishers have chosen to put their energy into making programs easy for adults to implement, and appealing for children to attend. As a result, a program that—unlike anything else we do—brings children and the church into an intensive relationship for several hours a day, five days in a row, misses a precious opportunity to explore our faith story in deep and authentic ways. Instead, we get to choose one of a dozen or so annual offerings of canned programs based on easy-to-remember morals or doctrines and Bible stories chosen to exemplify those doctrines,[1] all wrapped up in a packaging deliberately designed to resemble a TV show or a theme park. Bright, goofy themes such as “Weird Animals: Where Jesus’ Love is One-of-a-Kind,” or adventure scenarios like “Everest: Conquering Challenges with God’s Mighty Power” or “International Spy Academy: Agents for the One True God” are designed around “single-point Bible learning” boiled down to one short Bible verse or concept per day, plus a “reinforcing” Bible story; but most of the appeal is centered on the adventure or similar theme, whose connection to the actual faith story tend to be tangential or contrived: “At Deep Sea Discovery VBS, [e]very kid will sail away each day saying ‘God is with me – wherever I go! He knows me, hears me, strengthens me, loves me, and sends me!’ Hands-on service projects and sea science will help kids experience a VBS adventure like no other!”

A program that—unlike anything else we do—brings children and the church into an intensive relationship for several hours a day, five days in a row, often misses a precious opportunity to explore our faith story in deep and authentic ways.

Several publishers also offer “cross-cultural” VBS programs, for example Group Publishing’s “Passport to Peru,” in which “all-new Bible Memory Buddies help kids remember what they learned long after VBS is over” … the Memory Buddies being Lola the llama, Rico the rooster, Charo the guinea pig, and so on, who lead the children in songs emphasizing each day’s concept: “God gives us comfort,” “God gives us patience,” … peace … love … joy. Each of these videos features a different Peruvian child or children, and describes how, in the hardships of their lives, God has given them the gift or virtue featured that day.[2] “Not an expert on Peru?” ask the publicity materials. “You don’t have to be! Real kids from Peru share their culture—and Christ—through short video segments in Opening and Closing Celebration every day at Passport to Peru VBS!”

The publishers of these programs put an impressive amount of work and skill into preparing them, and there is every likelihood that children attending them will have fun, make friends, enjoy crafts and snacks (and recorded music and videos, and prepared decorations, backdrops, T-shirts, take-home souvenirs and more), and absorb some sound moral lessons or concepts about God. They may even remember a Bible story, such as Noah’s ark or Paul and Silas in jail. But that still leaves us with the questions: How are we helping them to fit it all together? How are we stewarding this precious week with them to help lay the foundations of a faith that will outlast the memories of corny songs and messy crafts? How do we avoid the trap of encouraging them to associate, or even to identify, the very idea of faith with corny kid stuff, and simplistic moral lessons elicited by the leaders out of a seemingly random series of story episodes?

How are we stewarding this precious week with them to help lay the foundations of a faith that will outlast the memories of corny songs and messy crafts?

“God’s Garden, God’s City” takes on this challenge with gusto. Its goals are simply different from those of the standard published program, and far more in harmony with the theology of progressive and liturgical congregations. As the program website explains,

This is a progressive, open-ended curriculum designed with several goals in mind:
1. To acquaint children ages 4-12 with the faith story in its entirety.
2. To present them with the venerable symbols of the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Zion, both represented with female imagery.
3. To connect them with deep and powerful traditions of spirituality, both old and new, that draw from these two sources, and to encourage them to make these traditions their own and to go beyond them in creativity and questioning.

Instead of using Bible stories as packaging or “reinforcement” for “single-point Bible learning,” the entire purpose of this program is to invite children into the arc of the salvation story, as a story, and to give them some powerful archetypal images for responding to it, in art, music and play:

The curriculum begins in the first chapter of Genesis and ends in the last chapter of Revelation. Needless to say, it does not incorporate every Bible story in between! … What this curriculum does is to provide the framework. The faith story is one story, but so often children (and adults!) don’t experience that way, but rather as a disconnected set of stories (and other chunks of text) with no obvious connections to each other. In the four or five days of this curriculum, the overall story arc will become clear: how God created humanity to live in a beautiful garden, but humanity made a wrong choice and was driven out into the hard world. How this pattern was repeated when God gave the people a city, but once again they were faithless and went into exile. How God sent prophets to call them back, and finally sent a Messiah, by whose life, death and resurrection we are all brought into the city of God’s love forever. All the other stories fit into this story, and if we know the big story, all the others make a lot more sense.

The five days are built around “themes” which are not morals or maxims, but archetypal locations: Garden, City, Exile, Home[3] and New Creation. In marked contrast to the typical VBS, which invests much effort in setting up exciting scenes or locations (Peru, a space ship, Mount Everest) that attract much of the children’s emotional energy but have a forced or tenuous relationship to the abstract or sententious daily Bible lessons, here the surroundings—sometimes constructed by the children themselves, in response to hearing the story—are themselves the “lessons.” These themes—this story arc and topographical imagery for the faith story and the faith journey—“have nourished generations of Christians (and Jews before them) over millennia.”

The imagery of the Garden invites engagement with the stewardship of creation; that of the City with current social issues as well as the ancient image of Jerusalem/Zion as an archetypal female figure on whom the people project their covenant relationship with God, their joy in peace and prosperity, their desolation in times of trouble and violence, and their hope for eschatological fulfillment.

“God’s Garden, God’s City” is written to be flexible, and readily adaptable to groups of various sizes and age ranges, spaces of varying configurations, and program days of different lengths. For each theme or day, the package provides two story scripts (one for the opening gathering, and one at the end of the program day, to bridge towards the next theme), plus suggestions for crafts, games and songs. The song repertoire intentionally includes traditional hymns and spirituals, as well as new music—in order to connect children with the spiritual riches of their forebears in faith and with the hymn canon of the Sunday congregation.

This curriculum is low-tech and affordably priced. It is formatted as a single .pdf document, some 45 pages in length, and costs $85.00 to download from the website. A half-dozen of the pages are graphics or simple worksheets for craft projects, and the curriculum may be bought without them, at the bargain price of $60.00. For an additional $25.00, the user can purchase membership in a private Facebook group to share ideas and questions with the authors and other users.

You can watch a brief introductory video on YouTube, originally made to accompany a startup crowdfunder:

“As a Christian formation professional, have you ever wished that Vacation Bible School had a bit more … substance? … “God’s Garden, God’s City” has no lack of joy and color, but it is also a profound experience that will usher your congregation’s children—and their leaders—into the fullness of the Biblical story. … ”

God's Garden God's City

Try it! Have fun!—and also, deep joy.

© 2017 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.

[1] The most popular publisher of VBS materials, Group Publishing, lists as the “six core features” of all its offerings “Single-Point Bible Learning, Easy Bible Reinforcement, High-quality Worship Music, Bible Exploration, Life Application,” and “Operation Kid-to-Kid™,” a follow-up mission trip opportunity for teens, for which the VBS children contribute money offerings.

[2] Some of these “cross-cultural” curriculums may also, insofar as one can tell from their descriptions and summaries, reflect problematical assumptions about cultural appropriation, paternalism, and so on.

[3] “Home” is omitted if the program is only four days in length.

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