Knight Ridder/Tribune
The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla., July 13--Every year when the weather heats up, the familiar white banners sprout on church lawns throughout the nation: "Sign Up for Vacation Bible School!"

But the days when the venerable, plain vanilla American institution known as "VBS" meant two weeks of stifling Sunday school are gone. Now the initials can mean snazzy programs and slick music and churches transformed into "environments" where even the snacks match the theme.

Across the denominational spectrum, churches are turning to curriculum specialists who translate the time-honored elements of VBS songs, Bible stories, moral lessons, games, and snacks and repackage them into jazzy presentations. This year, for example, one of the private companies specializing in summer Bible programs is offering an Australian Olympics theme: "Outback Games: Hope of Glory Jesus in You!"

"Kids are expecting bigger and better," said Judy Bolsma of Group Publishing, one of the largest providers of summer curricula. "They don't want to sit still and have someone just tell them the Bible story. They want to get involved."

Sanlando United Methodist Church in Longwood, Fla., which has one of its area's largest summer programs, is using a Hollywood movie theme this year, with a packaged curriculum from Group Publishing called "HolyWord Studios." As in summer Bible schools of old, a single verse from Scripture and a single moral are emphasized each day. What is different is the way the message is presented.

Bible school days at Sanlando begin and end with "Show Time!" in the sanctuary, which has been transformed into a movie set, complete with canvas directors' chairs, large megaphones, and shiny cut-out stars. Under flashing lights, Julie Warlick bangs a tambourine against her thigh as she leads contemporary Christian songs for more than 200 children. On a recent day, the gathering featured two versions of "Jesus Loves Me," the old, familiar one and a rock and roll rendition. "This is not choir," Warlick said. "This is worship. That's what I like about it."

Between the bouncy sanctuary programs, the campers move in small teams, called "film crews," through the church complex. Every few minutes, they rotate to activities, all labeled to reflect the theme. Arts and crafts are called Prop Shop. Story time is called Blockbuster Bible Adventures. Snack time is called Movie Munchies. When the crew leaders want the kids to settle down, they say, "Quiet on the set!"

For some congregations, Bible school provides a service for members, but it is also a way to reach out to the unaffiliated. At Sanlando, a week of learning skits and songs often culminates in a program at Sunday morning services, virtually guaranteeing a full house of parents and other relatives.

Even conservative churches such as Concord Street Church of Christ, which does not permit the use of any musical instruments during worship, are part of the trend. The colorful banner outside the Orlando congregation advertises "Veggie Tales Vacation Bible School," a reference to a wildly popular series of morality-themed videos that feature talking vegetables.

Inside the church, the shouts of more than 50 children and their loud singing voices reverberate off the walls of the sanctuary, which has been transformed into "Veggie Town." A painted, 90-foot skyline of the imaginary hamlet stretches along each long wall, from the front stage to the entrance in the rear. A cardboard facade of a city hall and courthouse has been set up where a pulpit might normally exist. There are several doors for characters to enter and exit, and two windows at which puppets appear.

LeAnn Ahrens, director of Concord Street's Bible school, said the program is making a comeback. For 10 years, until last summer, there was no summer Bible school at the church. Ahrens credits the current success of the program to the church's decision to link up with the Veggie Tales brand. The vacation curriculum they purchased from the organization provided a framework for the free, one-week session, which runs from 9 a.m. until noon.

For parents, the Veggie Tales approach is working. "We believe that children need exposure to the Word," said Frank Vassell of Union Park, Fla., who has two children in the program. "This is one way for them to get it in a simplified way."

Vacation Bible school doesn't have to take place on church grounds or at church camps any more. In Pennsylvania, a dozen churches using Standard Publishing's "Jesus Road Rally 2000" banded together to meet each morning at a local stock-car track, according to Kay Moll, director of the company's Bible school department, which produced the curriculum. Closing ceremonies were held between races on Friday night. "Kids can relate to a race of any kind," she said.

There are lots of choices for school kids during the summer, and it's no longer just soccer and scout camps. "Here in Orlando, there are so many theme parks and other distractions that whatever a church does has to be first-class quality," said the Rev. Keith Norris of Shenandoah Baptist Church in Orlando. "Things have to move faster today," he said. "Kids are used to half-hour sitcoms and cartoons."

And the competitive environment is not confined to Central Florida, experts say. "This is really a national phenomenon," said Robert Wuthnow, director of Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion. "The VBS program has to be a class act." Prosperity and the growth of specialty day camps in recent years have also had an impact. "Once, vacation Bible schools were the only thing available," Wuthnow said, "and now they're not."

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