God's Politics

God's Politics

Diana Butler Bass: Sock Puppet Church

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 ( 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.

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posted June 26, 2007 at 6:02 pm

I agree w/ McKibben

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Will Scott

posted June 26, 2007 at 7:41 pm

awesome. Thank you Diana.

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posted June 27, 2007 at 9:09 am

I agree completely Diana! Great commentary! Adults seem to think that kids can’t be entertained these days without high production quality and flashy movies and graphics. What ever happened to making costumes out of bed sheets and drawing posters ourselves? Children are incredibly creative if we let them use their mind instead of handing them pre-packaged “fun.”

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posted June 27, 2007 at 9:16 am

I just re-read my post and realized I sound like such an old fuddy-duddy. And I’m not even 30. Ugh.

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posted June 27, 2007 at 10:27 am

While I don’t think it’s entirely fair to single out Wal-Mart, DBB has a point. When prepackaged stuff crowds out old-fashioned at-home creativity we lose something as a society.

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posted June 27, 2007 at 1:12 pm

good old nostalgic stuff. at my advanced age i often think on the past and all the close friends and family, neighborhoods. which are now hard to have. modern communications, diverse population, mobility, employment, all of these things and more have made this country and it’s churches huge. it ain’t gonna change so live it and love it. i do.

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kevin s.

posted June 27, 2007 at 1:14 pm

I wonder if this development isn’t based somewhat upon the success of pre-packaged home-school co-op type programs. These programs have allowed more parents to integrate home-schooling into their child’s educational plan more seamlessly, which is a good thing. So a Wal-Mart approach is good in some cases.
I agree with a lot of this post, though I’m not sure singling out PDL was fair. I would say this. If reaching people for Christ means “Wal-Martizing” the church, then I am for it. Who cares what I want? It’s not about me, it’s about God. There are plenty of churches available (including mine) that don’t use this approach, or use segments of it and disregard others.

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posted June 27, 2007 at 2:52 pm

So your mom used old dirty socks and some yarn while these big churches buys them prepackaged? a sock is a sock, What’s the difference how it is aquired?
Nowhere in your critique did you comment on what was being taught, why? Cuz you don’t even know for certain what the curriculum is, you’re judging it from the surface. This is so typical of critique of big churches. not that I am a big fan of big churches but I think it is unfair to lump them all into one basket. Is it a good witness to attack them for not doing it your mom’s old fashion way. The method isn’t as important as the result.
If you haven’t noticed, times are changing and we are living in a cup of noodles like society where everything is expected to be completed imediately (soup and noodles in 60seconds ).
I bet if your mom was running the VBS for a large church she’d probably welcome these prepackaged programs, or you’d be in the living room many months earlier, working countless hours on preparation. By them time VBS started she wouldn’t have the energy to care about VBS.
I love how you used a SECULAR book as a basis to criticize spiritual program. I would put these programs’ teachings up against what the Bible (the only book) has to say; then write a criticism and then a suggestion on how to better it. You’re just mouthing off cuz it’s no longer the old fashioned way and you’re judging with against your mom.

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posted June 27, 2007 at 8:12 pm

This is simply another step forward in the long line of systematic church practices guaranteed to “create success” that has been a part of protestant revivalism since Finney. As one who has both been responsible to staging these “events,” and one who currently pastors a church that continues to host them, I can affirm the appeal that these prepackaged programs have for busy people. What has been bothering me more in recent days is whether we are really evaluating whether VBS continues to be a viable spiritual formation model in a dual career, over programmed world. VBS programming is driven these days as much by inertia as an actual belief in the power of these programs to engender a love and appreciation of the scriptures in kids. VBS programs are marketed by religious publishers as much on the “cool factor” for the adults picking the curriculum as any theological or educational goal. And, let’s face it, VBS curriculum is a money maker for most religious publishers, something that contributes to the inertia. So, people sink lots of hours into “sock puppets” and creating environments for kids with little sense of an ultimate goal other than topping what has been done before.
Thanks Diana for being willing to suggest that the sacred cow of VBS be examined at a closer level.

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posted June 27, 2007 at 8:19 pm

I agree that we need to give sox education back to the church.

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posted June 27, 2007 at 10:04 pm

There’s a whole other question that we need to consider though.
The old timey sock-puppety VBS dates back to a period when more women, especially moms, were not wage earners. They had more time to dedicate not only to the home but to church projects like VBS. With many mothers working full-time jobs, the canned VBS materials may be a necessity for a lot of churches rather than a choice.
Now I don’t advocate pressuring women to leave jobs all at once, but we should at least be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that having so many working moms involves tradeoffs, and this may well be one of them.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 12:20 am

I grew up with the small type VBS you speak of and my mom was a very involved Sunday School teacher for many years and I have memories of flannel boards and simple songs. And when I started to teach Sunday School myself it was still kind of like that.
Now, 30 years later, it’s not like that anymore. But I find that when I have been a part of VBS in the past few years, it doesn’t really matter that the materials come out of a “can” — what matter is that I am making connections with these kids and am showing them God’s love through the life of Jesus. Connections are STILL BEING MADE if time is made to make them. The method isn’t really the main thing. . . it is whether we can make the bridges to people and build community through the methods we use.
If it were all about doing things the way we used to, then what point do we go back to? Do we say, “we must sit on a hill teaching and feed people with loaves and fishes”? No, because it isn’t about the method as much as it is about building community and that comes in many different ways all over our country and world.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 12:28 am

The world is changing and the time of old socks in the living room is vanishing. Kids are more interested in other ways to learn about Jesus. And if old socks works – that’s great! If it doesn’t – then move onto something that will get the message to kids. Kids are so different too. One size does not fit all. Some are creative and would love the arts…. others aren’t. There’s a mixed bag…. that’s what makes it so difficult.
Thanks for the article.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 9:05 am

So when the early church had everything on papirus or scrolls – that is what we should go back to doing? When trying to connect to a group of people that is so techno in their life – we should not use technology to reach out to them and communicate to them in a manner that they understand? When cirriculum can assist us in truly understanding other cultures that are coming into our community and become more inclusive – we should not take advantage of them so that we can be a church that knows how to minister in the 21st century? I think that the church has progressed from the shock puppet to VBS in a box is a good thing. The church over a thousand years ago tried to stop musicians from writing new music for worship because ‘this is all we need’ type attitude. This article is kinda on the same level. Individual creativism is great – but sadly we have a lack of time, 20% do 80% of the work in the church today. I believe if someone has been able to put a program together and can market it to other congregations to use to do Kingdom work – fantastic! Let’s be a 21st century church with the zeal of a 1st century church.
Blessings to all –

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posted June 28, 2007 at 12:28 pm

What I want to understand is why is this type of criticism SOOOOO common on this Blog. There’s like this conspiracy against the Big Churches.
There’s this suspicion and judgement and stereotyping of what they do or don’t do. You can’t lump them all together. Even though I don’t attend a large church, I know there are some that do good works. It’s amazing that I see other brothers and sisters just attacking them (though she did it under the guise of a sock puppet topic – it really is a bigger message/commentary she’s giving) and this blog is FULL OF IT. I’m not saying it isn’t warranted sometimes, but I’d rather see large churches on every block in town then the millions of Americans who rather worship NFL on SUNDAY mornings (for example) than go to church and worship our Lord.
Let’s stop attacking the big congregations and start helping them improve with the resources they have….

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Charlotte Ward

posted June 28, 2007 at 12:40 pm

I belong to Diane’s mother’s generation, and just finished cutting out fish kite shapes and winding yarn balls for God’s eyes crafts for our home-made VBS at the First Baptist Church of Auburn, Alabama. Our emphasis this year was missions. I got to tell the children about teaching English in China in the summers of 2000-01. Some of our members who go each summer to work with a church in Brazil told of their adventures. A representative of our local Community Market, the “retail” arm of the food bank, spoke, and the children gathered books and school supplies for one of Alabama’s poorest rural counties. Church members who have traveled extensively pooled the interesting items we have collected to introduce the children to the cultures of four continents.
Some canned programs are OK; I’ve helped with them, too, but I agree a local touch that involves the whole church is especially valuable.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 3:24 pm

Posted by: Charlotte Ward | June 28, 2007 12:40 PM
All fine and good Ms. Ward – but wouldn’t it be nice if DBB would have stated that in this day and age of ‘VBS in a Box’ some still sit and cut things out and wind yarn for VBS. She again makes it almost that the latter is more sacred or holy than the first. BOTH ARE GOOD! In a church of 800 to 1800 that might have a VBS of 300 to 500, the Box has alot of ‘helps’ for the people organizing the event. I too have wonderful memories of times gone by growing up in the church. But I also realize that it is a new age and day and people are being pulled in every direction with children and other responsibilities. VBS in a Box, Church Music in a Box, Community Service in a Box. I am in support of anything that will assist in getting the church to focus on the main thing.
Be blessed –

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posted June 28, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Diana, I appreciate your comments and articles. I read them whenever I can. I agree with the point you are making that we can over-program things in the church these days. But I recently finished a stint as a Bible Adventure teacher at our church’s VBS, called Avalance Ranch by the way (you gotta give ’em credit for catchy names and themes). I got to experience the wonder and imagination of kids as my partner and I “immersed” ourselves in stories about Rahab; Joshua crossing the Jordan and winning the battle at Jericho; Namaan; and of course Jesus’ resurrection. What a rewarding time for me to hear them ask questions and then share their concerns for friends and family members during prayer time. Kids from all over our city came to VBS for 5 nights and even gave out of their own pockets to raise 3 times the goal for a camp for underprivileged kids. The other beautiful thing about this VBS was that five local churches combined their efforts to “create” the Bible school over four or five “work nights”. Now granted they didn’t use socks, oil cloth and permanent markers, but they worked together in community to make an impact at not just one but five different churches in the area. It was a beautiful picture of what we can do together as the body of Christ. I hope this gives you a blessing and hope for what we as a body can be about. Blessings!

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Pam Shaw

posted June 28, 2007 at 4:15 pm

This article makes complete sense to me. I am part of a “quirky” church — we’re not polished, we’re not Wal-Mart sized. What we are is real. And over the years, lives are transformed and people come alive, as we love one another just as we are, encourage one another to learn and give each other permission to grow. Sometimes we bump into each other, but always we are ready to hold onto one another when we stumble. We run a homegrown, highly popular, Vacation Bible School. Over a five-day period, the Spirit is visible: children and the youth and adult volunteers are transformed by making a deep connection in a loving, trust-worthy community. God gives us everything we need, right where we are. I think we need to trust that more.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 6:39 pm

I appreciated your article very much. I understand the feeling of loss as the personal relationship your mother put into her VBS seems lost. I attend a very small church and we do a VBS program each year, and yes, it comes out of a box. This is because, as another comment mentioned, more people have less time to create a program from scratch. In our church we have older people, working people, and young mothers. Our VBS hosts about 70 children each year, a bit jump from our normal 15 Sunday schoolers. I’m a teacher and I have taught a class during VBS for the past few years. One might think preparing a class would be a piece of cake for a teacher, but frankly, I’m a bit planned out by the time summer comes, I’m not a Bible expert, and the group dynamics are different (groups of children basically categorized as preschool, early elementary, late elementary and jr high, jr high and high school). I know that our VBS delivers the same personal conviction and loving care as your mother’s did. The message isn’t affected by the package (sock or box), but by the people delivering it. The part that saddens me is that the chidlren lose another opportunity to use their creativity to think through and synthesize the information in their own way.

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posted June 28, 2007 at 8:27 pm

Let’s go back to singing “Climb, Climb up Sunshine Mountain” while we’re at it and get rid of these modern, repetitive, repetitive, repetitive, worship choruses. They’re getting as bad as the Psalms, for crying out loud!

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posted June 28, 2007 at 11:00 pm

I loved this article. It’s great to have creative people using their talents for the Lord in church. What concerns me today is that people like Diana’s mom are being squelched in today’s churches. People only want the box methods, none of this personal stuff.

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Cheryl from Australia

posted June 28, 2007 at 11:50 pm

Diana’s reflection on the past is interesting and idealistic. But all methods are valuable for our work with children for the Lord. In a rural isolated setting we use packaged and original concepts – it is the love with which we prepare and present and pray that makes all the difference. We all have different gifts and life pressures – but working with children is a joy no matter what resources we use.

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posted June 29, 2007 at 10:20 am

Around here there almost seems to be a competition as to whose VBS has the catchiest title or theme. Western ranch-type VBS vies with an Indiana Jones-imitation at the church down the street with the one over on that corner doing something else out of a can. Each year a different theme coming from a different supply house and chosen with the hope not just that it will be attractive to the parents and kids but also that the church on the other corner won’t choose the same package for their VBS.

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posted June 29, 2007 at 10:37 am

From this post, I hear the importance of parent/adult participation in a child’s spiritual growth. Both my children and I love VBS and yes it is VBS in a can. In a “canned” VBS, a church can pick and choose what parts of the prepared curriculum they want to use. I have seen the suggested mission project done and I have seen someone with a heart for local missions rewrite this center to help the kids learn about and meet a local need. Both are effective as local and world missions need support. A church can switch out a craft, make their own sign etc… because each item is ordered by the piece. The great thing about “canned VBS” is that it is easy to use and allows people without a lot of Bible knowledge to be successful and scripturally accurate.

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Sue Van Stelle

posted July 1, 2007 at 8:09 pm

Recently I learned that that term “sock puppet” is a term now used for something like someone’s fake identity on the internet. So when I saw the title, “Sock Puppet Church,” I was expecting an article about churches that are somehow misleading or deceptive.
Which goes to show how context is everything.
As a director of Children & Youth Ministry, I am all too aware of canned programs that promise “success in a box.” I am also all too aware that a “successful” VBS may not necessarily lead to more mature followers of Jesus.
I am fervently grateful that I do not have to invent from scratch a VBS program every year. I think the point of this article was not that “VBS is a can is bad” and that “old fashioned is good,” but that a program, no matter how good or how slick or how easy it is, does not necessarily lead to Christian community nor to Christian maturity.
I do think that “VBS in a can” has the potential for creating a context in which community can grow. “VBS in a can” is like any tool: the results depend on how expertly it is used, and to what end.

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