Sitting under a tropical forest canopy, surrounded by such colorful critters as Esme the macaw and Cleo the monkey, scores of children will soon be learning about the Parable of the Mustard Seed from the Gospel of Mark, and memorizing Philippians 4:1-2, "Grow and be happy in your faith."
Almost as soon as the school year ends, churches in Toledo and across the country begin opening their doors for children to attend Vacation Bible Schools.
The popular summertime programs feature music, games, crafts, and plenty of Bible lessons for children ages preschool to junior high.
VBS programs are produced and packaged by national Christian publishing firms, and this year's comprehensive, polished programs are built on themes featuring kid-friendly rainforests, tropical islands, chemistry labs, athletic fields, and amusement parks.
Bill English, owner of the GoodNews Christian Bookstore in Northwood, said he hosts a VBS preview every winter in which representatives from publishing houses meet with local church leaders to discuss - and to sell - their packages.
"Vacation Bible Schools are a substantial part of my business," Mr. English said.
Most churches buy at least a starter kit, and many add additional supplies such as booklets, crafts, posters and other decorations, music discs, and videos.
Mr. English said investments can range from less than $200 to more than $1,000 per church.
Whatever VBS theme a church chooses, all programs share one common purpose: to preach the Gospel.
"For us, the goal is to bring more children to Jesus so that they can have faith in him and to spread the Word of God to others," said Lori Kohler, one of the organizers of Resurrection Lutheran Church's "Amazon Expedition" Vacation Bible School, slated for July 7 to 11.
At Resurrection Lutheran, VBS planning sessions began in January, organizer Jackie Wheeler said. The committee sorted through the myriad packages in search of a program that suited their church's needs and doctrines.
Resurrection, at 2250 Holland-Sylvania Rd., Maumee, is a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
"We try to keep our focus within the ones recommended by our synod, which tends to be pretty conservative," Ms. Wheeler said. "And if there are things we use that we don't necessarily agree with, we'll edit them."
Resurrection's VBS organizers posted signs throughout the Maumee neighborhood and mailed invitations to local children and families.
While the average Sunday attendance is about 125, the VBS program typically draws another 125 children each year, according to the Rev. Brent Brutlag, pastor.
"It's kind of a big production," he said. "The big thing we do is a big closing on Friday evening and that takes a lot of planning. We rent out ice cream machines, we've rented out rock-climbing walls and those bouncy things. Then we invite the parents back to hear the children sing the songs they learned. We make a big effort to reach the community."
Resurrection doesn't charge children to attend its VBS but sets aside money in its budget every year for the summer program.
"We never want money to be an excuse not to hear about Jesus," Pastor Brutlag said.
A spokesman for the Christian Booksellers Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., said she knew of no group that compiles comprehensive VBS retail data. Each publisher collects its own statistics, but few are willing to reveal them, she said.
Overall, the Christian retail industry generates more than $4.6 billion a year, according to CBA research.
The State Convention of Baptists in Ohio hosted VBS previews and clinics across the state in April, promoting LifeWay Christian Resources's "Outrigger Island: Living God's Unshakable Truth" curriculum.
"VBS is still the most effective outreach event on the church calendar, resulting in about one-quarter of the baptisms in Ohio churches," the Ohio Baptist Messenger newsletter reported.
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