Long an important part of most stores’ year, Vacation Bible School (VBS) has become less of an emphasis for many retailers in recent times as churches shift in the way they buy and use children’s ministry resources. But some believe that a counterintuitive approach can breathe new life into this area of business.
Doing so requires a similar strategy to that adopted in another part of the store that is at the heart of VBS—the Bible. In the face of a wide range of apps and lower online prices for Scripture, a number of stores have successfully expanded their Bible departments in the belief that in-person help and look-and-touch selection trump downloads and discounts. In the same way, pressing in to VBS at brick-andmortar at a time when others are scaling back may be the way to go.
For while VBS usage may be dipping a little, it remains strong. According to Barna Research Group, almost seven out of 10 churches offered a VBS program in 2012, down from eight in 10 back in 1997. However, attendance may be dropping: recent exclusive research by Group Publishing found that average turnout has gone down from 88 children to 73 children, according to Children’s Ministry magazine.
For the most part, churches aren’t giving up on VBS, just changing the way they use it. Money is one problem, with congregations facing tighter budgets. Finding enough volunteers to staff the traditional weeklong program is another factor, prompting some churches to offer an evening-only or weekend version. And there is a growing trend toward independent and nondenominational churches choosing to create their own events.
At the International Network of Children’s Ministry, Executive Director Matt Guevera also sees churches moving away from traditional weeklong events to summer day camps that run throughout the summer. Leaders of such programs may not be looking for the traditional VBS box, but they are likely to need other and more resources over the extended life of the program.
That isn’t the only opportunity for stores, if they realized “how much their local children’s pastors need connection with other children’s pastors,” says Guevara. “Bookstores could be a hub for that.”
VBS showcase sessions that present all the new programs for the coming summer provide a chance for those in children’s ministry to meet others from different churches early in the year, but what about presenting some kind of ongoing networking opportunity for them? Stores “are in a position to be a gathering place for building relationships and furthering the kingdom,” agrees Corinne Lattimer, marketing manager for VBS at Concordia Publishing House.
“Our annual workshop does give churches an opportunity to network and to possibly help each other,” says Brenda Harrison, who, with her husband, Keith, runs an annual VBS presentation at their Lighthouse Christian Books & Gifts in Bedford, Indiana. “We encourage churches to share their decors and banners with smaller churches.”
Churches are already getting more cooperative about VBS, notes Lattimer. They’re “uniting in ways now that weren’t considered possible in the past,” she says. “They’re creating co-op groups to build and share decorating resources, they’re alternating years in hosting VBS to spread the resources, and they’re utilizing off-site camp facilities to outsource their VBS programming.”
Though some stores have dropped the VBS showcase from their calendar because of dwindling interest, the Harrisons believe it’s still important.
“It brings new people and others back to see the many resources that we have,” says Brenda.
Echoing that at Melberg Christian Book & Gift in Moorehead, Minnesota, owner Karl Bakkum says that at a time when it’s getting harder to maintain the store’s relevance to churches and leaders, the VBS workshop remains “one of the most important strategies in our efforts.”
The VBS connection is also an integral part of the year-round church supplies connection that is so important to CLC Bookstores. “It keeps that personal connection,” says Patti Maranon, assistant manager of the Moorestown, New Jersey location that draws people from around 50 churches for its VBS showcase. “We sell a lot of curriculum, too, during the rest of the year.”
With an eye to that year-round need for teaching materials and associated resources beyond just VBS, the Harrisons “have many novelties at our store year round— bookmarks and toys—that can be used by churches.”
While VBS leaders can go online to investigate materials, it’s so much easier to be able to look at all the different resources side by side, in real-life, Maranon notes. “It’s like buying a Bible,” she says. “You can go online, but most people want to see and touch. It’s the same with VBS.”
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Preview events help VBS directors get “the hands-on information they can’t get from a website,” agrees Jody Brolsma, executive editor for VBS at Group Publishing. “Churches really like to touch and feel before purchasing large quantities,” adds Tony Stogsdill, marketing manager for VBS and children’s curriculum with Cokesbury.
At the CLC workshop, attendees can take two or three VBS kits away with them for free―recognizing that some kind of church committee may need to make the final decision―and return the ones they decide they don’t want. They also get a discount on orders placed early.
Presentations by VBS publisher reps who are enthusiastic about their programs are an important part of showcases, but as with the Bible department, store staff also need to be informed about the similarities and differences between options, such as what additional resources are available and which programs are better suited to small churches.
“Leaders want to speak with people who are knowledgeable about a curriculum’s enjoyment—ease of usage, cost,” says Meaghan May, office manager at The Good Book Company, who has also helped lead VBS programs at her church. “The more you know, the easier it is for a director to visualize and get the sense of what they’re implementing.”
CLC stores make sure to have a good supply of ancillary resources when VBS season comes round: “a lot of churches will run out of things or only decide what to do at the last minute,” observes Maronon, “so we do our best to ensure we can make all that happen.”
Stogsdill endorses this strategy. “We continually hear from customers that they wish stores would carry more VBS ancillary products,” he says. “It’s hard for churches to know how many items they will need for their VBS each day/night, and they are usually unable to have products overnighted. Being able to get these items from the local store at the last minute is a huge need.”
As a sort of clearinghouse for VBS in their area, stores might also help by informing churches and shoppers which programs are being used where. Why? Increasingly, families enroll their children in more than one VBS program during the summer, so avoiding duplication―such as in Midland, Texas, where almost half this year’s offering listed in the local newspaper were the same―might be advantageous.
“Lots of families use VBS as a babysitting service,” notes Tina Houser, executive editor of KidzMatter magazine and a longtime children’s ministry leader. But she isn’t complaining. “If I can get the kids’ attention, I don’t care why,” she says. But if children end up repeating the same program “then you’re dealing with the boredom factor.”
One the VBS shifts that affects stores is “a trend away from using crafts”―and the need for materials―“and toward offering simpler ideas in its place” notes Stacia McKeever, VBS project manager for Answers in Genesis. In response, the publisher has started offering science experiments as a replacement or complement.
A typical VBS may still only be one week, but it’s important to remember that “the selling season is 16 months,” starting with the announcement of the theme usually a year ahead of time, says Lattimer. It’s also crucial to start early, says Bakkum, whose store hosts its VBS showcase in February. “It helps to have our name in front of our customers early on in the process so that they continue to think of us as a source for many different publishers’ materials,” he says.
One thing stores are frustrated by but can’t do much about is VBS suppliers’ going directly to churches. It’s coupled with a trend toward downloadable and digital resources that “I’m not sure is good news for Christian stores,” admits Houser.
But as an important part of children’s ministry, VBS is still acknowledged to be “the main growth agent for churches,” she adds. With that in mind, May believes that “if stores can be the place for directors to come and see the curriculum up close and then assist them in getting the word out by promoting a list of all of the VBS [programs] that are being hosted in the area, they could still keep themselves in the middle of the joy of VBS.”