Thirty years ago, almost every church in Forest Park ran a summer vacation Bible school. The program tended to be in the mornings, staffed by volunteer stay-at-home moms, with the 50 to 100 or more children coming mainly from member families. The focus was on learning Bible stories through crafts, puppet shows, games and clap-along songs.
Times have changed. Enrollments have steadily declined, and vacation Bible school directors have found the pool of volunteer moms to be shrinking. The result has been that only two congregations here – Forest Park Baptist Church and First United Church of Christ – are offering a vacation Bible school this year. And even they have changed the traditional model by scheduling their programs from the morning to the evening.
David Steinhart, pastor of Forest Park Baptist Church, which held its vacation Bible school June 21-25, said that although enrollment is low compared with 30 years ago, his congregation’s program is reaching many neighborhood kids and seems to energize the church.
Another two Forest Park congregations are departing radically from the way churches ministered to children in the four decades following World War II. St. Bernardine Catholic Church and St. John Lutheran Church are offering programs that are both more ambitious and, at the same time, serve fewer children.
Paul Lindblad, director of liturgics at St. John and music instructor and choir director at the Walther Academy, is running a choir day camp Aug. 2-13. Gone are the Bible stories and clap-along songs that were staples in traditional vacation Bible school. Instead, Lindblad offers six hours of instruction every day for two weeks in the areas of ear training, sight singing, vocal technique, stagecraft, stage presence and improvisation.
“This is serious music,” Lindblad says. The music kids sing at choir camp is all classical church music, some in German and some in Latin. The focus is not on what’s popular today but on what has stood the test of time. “Only the best is good enough for our children,” he declares.
Gone are the enrollments of over a hundred children. Last year, 13 kids were in choir camp, and this year Lindblad will cut off registration at 20. At the same time, one of the goals of the program is to include Forest Park residents who are not members of St. John. Only three of the children in last year’s camp were from families that belonged to the church.
Lindblad acknowledges it’s unlikely that families sending their children to the camp would join the church. He said that some people who worship at St. John regularly might stop coming if the church pressured them to join. He has adapted to this new reality by being flexible.
Most of the children who in the choir camp continue with Lindblad in the fall by joining the St. John Choristers. What he does to accommodate the many children who come from other congregations is to schedule their once-a-month performance near the beginning of St. John’s early service, so they can get to their home church in time for worship there.
St. Bernardine has also emphasized quality rather than quantity. Nineteen children between the ages of 3 and 9 participate in the daily Extended Summer Program. A typical day’s schedule includes doing board games after arriving between 7 and 8:30 a.m. After breakfast, the children participate in an activity focused on art, computer skills or reading. At 10 a.m., they break up into two age groups and work on such basic skills as reading, math, writing, social studies and science.
Director Dierdre Cannon said that one of the goals of the program, which is in its first year, is to “provide families with a good program over the summer in which certified teachers help children retain the basic skills they’ve learned for the next year of school.”
Both programs include time in the afternoon for fun activities. St. Bernardine’s children have spent time at the park, experienced a program on animals put on by the Forest Preserve and participated in a circus day. Children at the choir camp will visit a wave pool, go bowling and watch movies.