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Bible school programs are a popular summer activity

| Thursday, July 11, 2002

Children at St. John's Lutheran Church of Highland in McCandless learn Bible lessons with the help of bugs.

"The reason we picked this curriculum is because it has a theme that even the smaller kids can get into," said Tracy Nardina, church youth director.

The church's vacation Bible school theme this summer is "Bug Safari," which features bug-shaped snacks, songs, crafts and stories for children ages 3 through 10.

"Each day we talk about a bug and how it can relate to a Bible lesson," Nardina said. "For example, we used the firefly to show that God is our light."

Each summer, local churches provide vacation Bible school as a way for children to learn faith lessons in a safe, fun environment.

Marlene LeFever, director of church relations at Cook Communications Ministries, based in Colorado, said about 215,000 churches nationwide conduct vacation Bible school for more than 1 million students. While studies show the number of churches offering summer programs has been stable for the past five years, LeFever said such figures might not be the best indication of how many children participate in these programs.

"Some churches have linked with other churches in their community and held vacation Bible school together," LeFever said. "If all vacation Bible school children held hands, the line would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean 4 1 / 2 times."

Nardina said she and other Christian education staff members chose the "Bug Safari" curriculum from Group Publishing Inc., one of about a dozen publishers nationwide that provide curriculums.

"One company had an extreme sports theme, another had a circus theme," she said. "We did not think that smaller kids could do many of the extreme sports activities, and also we did not want to deal with the whole scary clown thing."

The "Bug Safari" kit includes directors' guides, videos, tapes, games and crafts. A basic kit costs $60; additional items cost more. Organizers said total costs for a church range from $400 to $600.

Nardina said the parents of the students at St. John's pay an enrollment fee of $10 or $15.

Sheryl Haystead, managing editor of the children's and vacation Bible school curriculum at California-based Gospel Light Publishing, said publishing companies offer lessons built around a single theme. Themes change annually and are developed over the course of two or three years, she said.

"The first year is thinking and planning, and the second is the writing of the curriculum," she said.

Gospel Light was founded in 1933 as a Sunday school curriculum and book publisher. It began offering vacation Bible school curriculums in 1951.

"For approximately 20 years, we have had unified themes for all ages," Haystead said.

Karen Pickering, Cook Communications product developer for church resources, said innovative instruction techniques seem to be a factor in the popularity of these programs.

"Churches have used themes for the past 15 years," Pickering said. "But I think the way it is being presented is different."

Now, many churches are using a site-based approach. Instead of sitting in one class with one teacher, students move throughout the day to different classrooms with different teachers.

"It's a break, it's their fun time, so it shouldn't feel like they are sitting in school," Nardina said.

Ninety-two children are enrolled this summer at St. John's weeklong school, which has 25 volunteers, ranging in age from 12 to 60. Nardina said enrollment has held steady the past five years.

Laura Lankes of the North Side is a volunteer who has a 4-year-old son, Nicolas, enrolled in the program at St. John's. She attended St. John's vacation Bible school as a child.

"It was the best part of the summer," Lankes said. "It is a good way to introduce children to God and the Bible."

Each day at St. John's, children are split into age groups. They participate in music, recreation, and arts and crafts activities after Bible lessons.

Nardina said lessons must be modified each year to keep children interested in coming back.

"They made ants with pretzel rod antennas, and they also made bumblebees out of Twinkies during snack time," Nardina said.

Lankes said Nicolas seems pleased with the program.

"At home, he keeps singing the one song from class," she said, laughing. "He really loves the beginning and end of the classes when they sing.

"He also likes making bugs and bringing them home to add to his collection."

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