Virtual VBS: Virus forces new twist on old tradition

Becky Wolcyn (left) and Emily VanHatten record their teaching sessions for the island-themed “virtual VBS” at North Isanti Baptist Church overseen by director Angela Larson (not pictured). The elaborate backdrops were painted by church member Myla Douglas.

It’s one disappointment after another for local families as cancellations pile up for favorite summer activities like fairs, festivals, pools and vacations. 

Most churches have also felt the squeeze to cancel their long-standing Vacation Bible Schools. But Angela Larson, VBS director at North Isanti Baptist Church in Cambridge, wasn’t willing to give up the ship that easily. 

Planning for the pirate-themed “Mystery Island” VBS began months before COVID-19 hit, so Larson decided to carry on but make the June event “virtual” – accessed through the church’s website. 

To plan, she drew from her five years experience as director of past VBS weeks with themes like Ocean Commotion, Camp Kilimanjaro and Time Lab, which was highlighted by a visit from a “Back to the Future” DeLorean on opening day.   

Larson answered questions recently about how she came up with the new plan and what families need to know to access the free virtual week of Vacation Bible School. 

Q: How many kids are we talking here? 

“Last year (with the theme The Incredible Race) between day and evening sessions, we had 260 kids. My very first year, the highest day had 80 kids. Now we have over 80 people volunteering for just the morning sessions.” 

Q: What happened on a typical VBS day in previous years? 

“The kids arrive and have different rotations: a lesson time, craft time, snack time, game time. They have an assembly with a drama and some worship songs, so I have leaders in charge of all of that. To show you how we’ve grown – back in Year One, I was in charge of everything. Now there’s just so much that we’ve created this team that really runs on its own.”

Q: How did you feel when it looked like you’d have to cancel? 

“I was very sad to see how quick so many churches were posting even in March they were canceling plans for August. I didn’t want to be one of them. I really wanted to find a way to do it and engage even if we get 100 participants. 

“The message of “Mystery Island” is the attributes of God – well, we have kids and families really wanting to know that. They’re asking questions and wondering what’s going on, and there’s so much uncertainty that I don’t know of a better time to be able to give this message.” 

Q: How did you get the idea for a “virtual” VBS? 

“We kind of went with what the schools are doing. The kids are used to logging in, watching videos, picking up packets. Then we took that framework and went to the board of the church and the elders and said, ‘This is what we’re thinking,’ and of course they came back with their questions, and we answered them. And we finally said, ‘Yup, this could work.

“How we’re executing it took about two weeks to really vet, go through all of the troubleshooting and scenarios and how it would look. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no history of doing this. It’s not like I can look up and say, ‘What did ABC Church in Montana do last year?’ because nobody’s ever done this.” 

Q: So what can families expect from the virtual VBS? 

“(Once families register on the church website), we’re going to deliver boxes to homes on Sunday, June 7. We have 300 kits that we’re making. In the box they’re going to get a t-shirt and five bags. You’ll have a Day One bag, a Day Two bag, etc. In that Day One bag will be sections of paper clipped together so you’ll have a lesson-time packet, a craft kit (with all the craft supplies), a Mission Moment kit, and a snack recipe card.

“The online videos are designed to go along with the bag. The lesson time video will go along with the lesson time packet, so you can either watch the little 10-, 15- or 20-minute video online and then do the worksheets, or you can just do the worksheets.”

Q: What’s online besides the lesson videos?

“We normally have a live drama at our VBS. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, so we do have a recorded drama that will be introduced by (our local) Buccaneer Brennan every day. There will be a video of how to do the craft, plus a video of a science experiment that goes along with the lesson for the day. 

“One of the big things the kids love is our songs with hand motions. We’ll have a couple daily song videos. They won’t be done by our local kids because of COVID restrictions. 

“There’s been a lot of video shooting and editing happening. (Associate pastor) Dan Mulder and I are doing that.” 

Q: What’s the time frame for utilizing the online videos? 

“On Monday, June 8, at, we’re going to load Day One in the VBS section with the videos for toddlers through grade 5. On Tuesday, we’ll load Day Two and so on. For the week of June 8, you cannot binge VBS. But after that week, you can. 

“The nice thing is that we’re going to leave these links up for quite awhile. If you can’t do it that week, you can do it in July. Or if the kids are going to the grandparents’ and they’re looking for something for the kids to do – ‘Let’s pull up this website, and we have these daily activities.”

Q: What if you get more than 300 kids responding? 

“We have 300 boxes to give away, but even if you are the 315th person, on that webpage we’re going to have PDFs of all the handouts. Anything you would have gotten in that box as a printed handout, we’ll have links on the webpage so you don’t need to get a box.”

Q: What are you hoping families take away from virtual VBS? 

“My goal for this week of VBS is that families know they are cared about. If anyone is apprehensive about going into a church or hearing God’s story and trying to figure things out – it’s an easy way to be introduced to that.   

“We just want to give. There’s no catch. There’s no Ponzi scheme. We want the Cambridge-Isanti community to know that our churches exist to serve them. If people need help – people are struggling at all different levels – we’re going to have resources. Email us. It sounds all churchy to say, ‘If you need to be prayed for’ – if that phrase is kind of weird to you – but if you just want someone to listen, that’s what churches do.” 

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