When I was a girl in the 1960s, one of my favorite parts of summer was Vacation Bible School at St. John’s United Methodist Church of Hamilton in Baltimore. That, of course, makes me sound like a church geek—as if I was eager to go to church five days running instead of only on Sunday. But it was not the five days I looked forward to; it was the weeks before when my mother prepared for VBS.
Every June, she bought yards of oilcloth, pulled out a large collection of permanent magic markers, and created colorful signs announcing the upcoming VBS. She would draw all sorts of pictures, based on biblical themes, with playful graphics that came from her imagination. I was not allowed to touch them—she said that the markers would stain my clothes. But I think she wanted full artistic control of the project, as these signs graced the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. Before she married, she wanted to be an artist, an ambition she sacrificed to a 1950s vision of motherhood. The VBS signs served as her yearly art show, with Harford Road as her personal gallery.
She would, however, let me help with the crafts. We sat on the living room floor sorting through old socks, bits of yarn and fabric, old buttons, and pipe cleaners. From these scraps we would sew sock puppets of biblical characters. We made Moses and Pharaoh, David and Jonathan, and Mary and Jesus for our amateur productions in the church’s handmade puppet theater. We cut up old Christmas cards for shellac projects and paper-mache collages. We made Bible map stencils to mimeograph and color. And we built the Temple at Jerusalem from sugar cubes.
Preparing for St. John’s VBS took weeks—with pieces of the Bible, in the form of yarn, paint, colored paper, and sugar cubes, scattered all over the house. It was a glorious theological mess and I loved it.
My daughter is now nine. It has been a long time since I attended summer Bible school, and now it was her turn for the childhood ritual. As I investigated local programs, however, I was in for a big surprise: Vacation Bible School now comes in a can.
All the programs were pretty much the same. Christian publishing companies have developed Disney-quality VBS weeks bearing names like “The Plunge,” “Holy Land Adventure,” “Quest for Truth,” “Great Bible Reef,” and “SonForce Kids.” Prepackaged, these “complete Bible adventures” come in large cans (admittedly, one arrives in a woven basket) advertising that they contain “everything you need” for a successful Bible school, “just add kids”!
Clearly such programs entertain children—while serving as an evangelistic tool to reach parents and gain new church members. No doubt they ease the creative burden of countless VBS teachers across the land. Buy Vacation Bible School online, then recruit some teachers (assuring them this will not take too much of their time), unpack the can, and invite the children. An easy, quick way to learn the Bible and grow the congregation.
Lately, I have been reading Bill McKibben’s fine new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. McKibben argues that growth—based on “hyper-individualism”—does not create human happiness, health, and wholeness. Rather, local community and close connections make us happy. We must shift away from a Wal-Mart economy to what he calls a “deep economy,” defined as “the economics of neighborliness.” Less stuff, he suggests, will create more connections by transforming the human economy and makes a “durable future” for the planet.
Although McKibben writes of economics, his argument carries over to faith. Successful American churches are Wal-Mart type congregations, built on the idea that bigger-is-better, hyper-individual faith, and entertaining programs meet an infinitely expanding religious market. That vision creates a culture of religious sameness across the country—indeed, across the globe—that subsumes local cultures in its wake. Want your church to grow? Attend the latest pastors conference offered by a celebrity minister. Do 40 days of purpose or seven steps toward mission. Put on a dazzling Christmas spectacular. Buy Vacation Bible School in a can. You, too, can have a successful church if you lay out the cash.
My mother is nearly 70, has had two heart attacks, and is slowing down. When I think of her—as I do a lot these days—I remember sitting in the piles of scraps, creating biblical worlds together. I remember making the Virgin Mary out of a sock. I remember the deep economy of being Christian, of practicing our faith in the living room with scissors and glue, not the size or success of our congregation. I remember our neighborhood church, small and quirky, where we produced our spiritual lives with our hands and from our hearts.
I no longer want to belong to an efficient church, a big one, or even a successful one. I just want to be part of a good sock-puppet church. And, as I have traveled this year, and spoken to many thousands of Christians, I had heard them, too, longing for sock puppet church, a deeper congregation, a community that stitches memory from scraps, one that (as McKibben says) “rebalances the scales” of our religious economy—and, in the process, may well transform the world.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of the award-winning Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper, 2006). Her daughter is not attending Vacation Bible School this summer, but Diana is collecting socks to spring a puppet project on her in August.