NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 31st. So glad you’ve joined us today. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Vacation Bible School.
Last summer, 2.5 million kids attended VBS, according to Southern Baptists who keep track of such things. They record more than 70,000 professions of faith, and more than $6-1/2 million raised for missions.
EICHER: Last week, Paul Butler paid a visit to a VBS program in Illinois and, while there, met a woman who’s been reaching out to kids in her small town for generations.
PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: It’s a comfortable July morning in Seatonville, Illinois: population about 300. A dozen or so children—and a handful of youth and adult leaders—line up outside Seatonville Community Church, ready to start another day of Vacation Bible School.
AUDIO: [Flag girls]
Inside, three girls are stepping into place clutching a couple flags and a large Bible—ready to lead the students in procession.
AUDIO: [Sound of music and pledges]
They march in and fill the first few rows of pews at the front of the church. They begin with the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag, then the Christian flag, and finally the Bible. It’s a scene that’s played out every summer here for decades.
AUDIO: [VBS program — Jesus Loves the Little Children]
Sunday School songs, memory verses, missionary stories, crafts, snacks, and gallons of juice. For many churches across the country, VBS is as much a part of summer as picnics and parades.
MICHAELS: It’s an outreach in the community. People are willing to send their kids.
Mary Michaels is a retired art teacher. Her eyes sparkle as she interacts with the kids. Her shoulder length white hair is the only hint of her age. She’s been a VBS volunteer since 1961.
MICHAELS: I just love the Lord and do things for the Lord. I don’t know, it just seems natural. You don’t ever quit serving the Lord. I like doing it.
This morning, technology isn’t cooperating. A new projector and computer aren’t working the way they’re supposed to—making it impossible to play the sing-along videos. But temperamental technology doesn’t trouble the 82-year-old Michaels. She pulls out her own laptop and the kids gather around as she leads the singing.
MICHAELS: We didn’t have videos years ago. We had overhead projector and the words would just be printed up there and I had to teach them the motions…When I was younger, it was easy to learn them and to show the kids how to do them. Now it’s hard, I think that comes with age.
This is Michael’s 56th, or 57th Vacation Bible School—she can’t exactly remember. She’s only missed two since joining the church. She’s seen a lot of changes over the years in how the program runs.
MICHAELS: It was a two week Bible school…those early years. And you can accomplish so much more with the kids. Some children listen and they’re just getting interested by Friday. It would be nice if I could have them another few days and talk to them and then the Holy Spirit would work in their hearts.
A recent LifeWay survey found two-thirds of families would send their kids to VBS if invited. So a few weeks ago, Seatonville Community Church canvassed the neighborhood. Turn out this morning is low, but Michaels isn’t discouraged: whether 75 students or 12, her calling is the same.
MICHAELS: I just try to love them…make them understand God loves them.
Michaels’ favorite part every day is the missionary story. That’s when she can present the gospel most clearly to the children. And she says they respond.
MICHAELS: Over the years it’s, you know, at least one every year…it’s just how God moves in their hearts. I also give them an opportunity to get back and fellowship with God…I try to help them pray.
After so many years of volunteering at Seatonville’s VBS, Michaels’ ministry stretches across generations. Children and grandchildren of former students attend each year. It’s not uncommon to bump into past attendees as she’s out and about:
MICHAELS: Just the other day at Walmart, I was looking for something and there was an associate there and she says, I remember you, you go to church in Seatonville don’t you? I said, yeah, I do. She says, I went to your Bible school.
After nearly six decades of VBS ministry, Mary Michaels doesn’t show signs of slowing down. But as she considers the future, she is concerned.
MICHAELS: It’s sad because we have so few younger people in the church…I’m worried about what’s going to happen to this church. We’ve been a light in the community all these years and I’m worried about it.
So Michaels pushes on. Hoping that perhaps some of the kids sitting in the front row this morning, or the youth volunteers in the back, will someday take her place.
MICHAELS: When a child comes and wants to accept Jesus as their savior, that’s like the ultimate, it’s just so wonderful. I know in heaven they’re rejoicing and my heart is just cheering, you know?
By the end of the week, attendance improved to 24 students, and four children professed faith for the first time.
MICHAELS: That’s why we have Bible school is to reach out to the children and teach them about God and how to be saved and they need salvation. They need God.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler reporting from Seatonville, Illinois.