The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Saturday, August 6, 1994               TAG: 9408060047
COLUMN: Issues of Faith 
SOURCE: Betsy Wright
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   90 lines


THIS PAST spring, I did some work for the Methodist-Presbyterian campus ministry group - Wesley-Westminster House - at Old Dominion University.

Part of my job was running a craft table in one of the dorms. For three hours every Wednesday afternoon, I'd sit and chat with the students, while creating do-dads.

One day, a coed announced that she was going to make an ODU key chain for her mom.

``Oh, she'll just luuuve that,'' replied her friend in a sarcastic tone.

``Yea, I know, but it's kind of like those things I used to make for her in Vacation Bible School . . . totally useless and tasteless. She'll love it!''

Then the young woman looked at me, beamed and said: ``You know, I just realized it, but that's what this reminds me of. This reminds me of Vacation Bible School. . . . Gosh, that was so much fun!''

``Yea!'' said her wise-cracking pal, ``I used to luuuve Vacation Bible School.''

That time the friend wasn't being sarcastic. She was being sincere.

At that moment, I realized that Vacation Bible School is one of the greatest evangelism tools of the Christian church. It's upbeat. It's purposeful. It's fun. It leaves a lasting impression.

What more could you ask for when looking for a way to get out your message?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Vacation Bible School program. It started in 1894 when Mrs. D.T. Miles, a Methodist pastor's wife, decided to give the children of Hopedale, Ill., something to do during the summer.

Miles, a former public school teacher, enrolled about 40 children in that first Bible school, which lasted four weeks. Parents contributed $1 per child for supplies, and the Bible Society donated Bibles.

Classes were held in the local school, and an adjoining park was used for recreation. Miles and her teenage assistants led the children in singing, storytelling, contests, recreation and crafts.

The notion took off like wildfire. By 1907, the trend was large enough that a national association was organized.

Today, the national association is gone, but individual denominations run their own programs. Every summer, millions of children attend VBS.

Just like my craft-making friends at ODU, I luuuve Vacation Bible School. At my own church, I've directed one for five years. It's a big job for me and the other 35 adults and teens who run the program. It takes a huge chunk of time, energy, money, food and TLC.

What's the payoff? For me, it came the day I heard those college students talk so positively about their experiences. Those girls had never talked about church, God or anything remotely religious. They had never showed any interest in my pamphlets about campus ministry. They girls seemed almost suspicious of my motives when they heard I was with a ``church group.''

Then one mentioned Vacation Bible School and the whole mood changed. They became animated in their discussion and even told me what church they belonged to back home. They became ``regulars'' at the crafts table.

I believe they opened up to me because they remembered something good about church. They remembered a time and place when they could innocently enjoy crafts and recreation, learn about God and Jesus Christ and have fun too!

Gee, what a concept!

So if it's a given that Vacation Bible School is such a great thing, why is this an Issue of Faith? Well, I've heard of many churches abandoning their programs because of low attendance or because it costs too much.

Don't do it! If you have to move heaven and earth to hold on to a Vacation Bible School program, do it. It might mean being creative - holding a night time intergenerational school, busing in kids from another area, merging with another church, or switching to a senior citizens program - but don't give up. The church needs this kind of positive stuff.

Taking a break. Tomorrow I'll be leaving for a weeklong Appalachian work camp with some of the youth and adults from my church. The week after that, I'll be running my church's Vacation Bible School program.

So for the next two weeks I've invited two avid readers, David Smiley and the Rev. Joan Hedrich Wooten, to be my guest columnists.

I've asked the two to do a face-off on this question: ``Is the institutional church necessary?'' On Aug. 27, I'll print the Reader Response to these guest opinions, and then on Sept. 3, I'll give a wrap-up of the debate along with my two cents on the issue.

I hope you enjoy the lively debate on this important Issue of Faith. MEMO: Every other week, Betsy Mathews Wright publishes responses to her

opinion column. Send responses to Issues of Faith, The Virginian-Pilot,

150 W. Brambleton Ave., Norfolk, Va. 23510; call (804) 446-2273; FAX

(804) 436-2798; or send e-mail to bmw(AT) Deadline is Tuesday

before publication. Must include name, city and phone number.

by CNB