Reflections on Vacation Bible School and Religious Education

I was inspired to write this post after reading a bit of vitriol from Peter Burfeind titled “How Vacation Bible School Drove Millennials Away From Church.” Although I did agree with a lot that the author had to say, I thought his main claim was a little strong. I don’t see how Vacation Bible School (a series of only five sessions, each lasting roughly 2.5 hours, during a summer week) has such a powerful hold over young people that it would be the main factor in their departure from the church. But I could see some of what Burfeind was complaining about in religious education as a whole.*

Religious education is otherwise known as “Sunday school” or “CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine)” or just plain old “church school.” It consists of the once-a-week religious education classes that Catholic parishes hold during the traditional school year,** most often after Sunday Mass. These classes are taught by volunteers who greatly love their faith and their church but who may not have any teaching experience. I think that in my years as a religious education teacher (the Catholic Church calls us “catechists”), I was one of the few who (1) had never been formally trained as a teacher and (2) did not have children. So I suppose that would make me less qualified than most, although the only true requirements for the position are an ability to fulfill the time commitment to plan lessons and teach class, pass the Safe Environment Training course,*** and pass a criminal background check.

On the whole, volunteering as a catechist was greatly enjoyable. You learn about your own faith while teaching others, you get to laugh and joke with little kids, which is always entertaining, you get to help them make crafts and learn their vocabulary words, and if you’re lucky and have a small class, you get to interact one on one with them. Sometimes you do have to deal with minor discipline problems and the occasional parent who has a complaint, but it’s all a very small taste of what public school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis (which only made me more grateful that I never became a teacher and more admiring of those brave souls who do become teachers).

The greatest challenge of being a catechist is—duh—instilling the faith. It is incredibly difficult to do this when the parents of your students do not take the faith seriously. The kids are in class for one hour a week, but they are with their parents and at school the rest of the time. The hour they spend at Mass (that is, if their parents do in fact take them to Mass, which is a separate post) and the hour they spend in class could very well be the only exposure to religion that they get each week. For religion to become a part of a child’s life, it has to be discussed and lived at home. It has to become a part of that child’s culture. That starts with the parents and how they live their faith.

Anyway, back to Vacation Bible School. It’s essentially a microcosm of what students experience in CCD classes: learning about Jesus, playing a game, putting together a craft, singing a song, and eating a snack. All of this is crammed into a very short time, and it mostly ends up being a babysitting session. Any religious content kids experience and learn is not retained, again, because the parents don’t discuss it at home. I understand that Vacation Bible School is supposed to promote the message that Jesus Is Your Friend™, and it’s not a bad message, but too much of that and you start to get into the territory of moralistic therapeutic deism, which many argue is beneath the skin of most of the Christian denominations these days.

Vacation Bible School should emphasize justice and mercy; with all the feel-good stuff, it focuses too much on the mercy and not enough on the justice. Don’t forget: God is a parent, and like any good parent, He gets disappointed in his children when they misbehave, and for good reason. If you make a mistake as a Christian, part of your duty is to own up to it, reconcile yourself with God, and make efforts to not make the same mistake again. God is forgiving, but only as much as you truly are sorry for your sin.

Some may argue that Vacation Bible School is supposed to be about having fun and not about ramming hellfire and brimstone down kids’ throats, but there must be a way to balance it so kids have a healthier sense of right and wrong. Otherwise, how will their consciences be formed? They can’t walk through life thinking that they won’t be held accountable, or they will indeed turn away from the church because it is too soft and does not provide the framework needed to form a conscience and a rule-bound life. So in a sense, I do agree with the original article’s author that Vacation Bible School might not be conveying Christianity in the best possible way.

*I’m writing about religious education from a Catholic perspective; I don’t have much experience with it from the perspectives of other faiths.

**Still considered to be from August to May or from September to June. Your area may have “year-round” school, in which there is no long summer break but several two-week breaks scattered throughout the year.

***The course teaches a volunteer to recognize signs of abuse in children and how to report those signs to the authorities.