Vacation Bible school for Unitarian Universalist kids?

Children catching butterflies
© Agnieszka Kirinicjanow/iStockphoto

Summer is here, and for many middle class families the annual quest for what to do to keep the kids occupied has already begun. Whether it is necessary child care while parents work or enrichment activities for children who are less likely to entertain themselves than previous generations were, there are many different camp options out there.

Local day camps can focus upon athletics, exploring nature, or just plain fun, and may be organized by a YMCA or other community organizations. Other day camps are religiously themed. Many churches offer Vacation Bible School (or VBS) day camp programs. Should a Unitarian Universalist parent enroll a child in a VBS?

While I am a firm believer in teaching Unitarian Universalist children the stories of the Jewish and Christian sacred texts, and I know several Unitarian Universalist parents who have sent their children to VBS programs to educate their children in this fashion, I believe a word of caution is in order.

Most VBS programs presented by Christian churches are carefully crafted and designed with the specific goal of bringing in un-churched families to worship Christ and are often couched in seemingly secular environmental or popular themes. A few years ago, a dinosaur-themed VBS was advertised in my area. Seeing the billboard, my son was eager to attend, but when I called to inquire about it, it turns out that this particular program presented the idea that humans lived at the same years as the dinosaurs! Had my outspoken 8-year-old son actually attended, I have no doubt that he would have likely caused a real problem when he told them in matter-of-fact terms that dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years—long before humans inhabited the earth.

The summer VBS program has become a big-budget industry in recent years. Churches pour lots of money into curricula and other resources, which are sold by Christian organizations to evangelize children who are unaffiliated with a congregation or strengthen children’s ties to the church they already attend. Sending Unitarian Universalist children to many of these evangelical programs could confuse children who are in a very critical stage of faith development that involves identifying with the particular qualities of what makes their religious tradition unique and special.

One alternative, of course, is sending your child to a Unitarian Universalist church sponsored VBS or some other weeklong camp presented by UUA affiliated organizations (such as RE Week at Star Island, MountainCamp at the Mountain, and many district or regionally planned family-oriented summer camp opportunities throughout the United States). More and more UU congregations are learning about the importance of offering summer camps for children and are developing their own programs or purchasing curricula (such as Chalice Camp, written by two Unitarian Universalist religious educators). These congregations have come to understand that through a summer program of their own, Unitarian Universalist children could develop deeper connections with one another, deeper understandings of themselves as Unitarian Universalists, and a greater capacity to be articulate about our faith. In a weeklong camp, children are also able to create relationships and to explore subject matter (such as oppression and anti-racism work) on a deeper level that is just not possible in a traditional weekly Sunday school model.

If no such program exists in your area, and you want to send them to a summer Bible program, it’s prudent to do some investigating to find a program that is compatible with your family’s world view. Or send your child off to a VBS program armed with the knowledge that many people believe in the truths presented by this program, even though we as Unitarian Universalists understand there are many truths out there.

Published by

Michelle Richards

Michelle Richards is a credentialed religious educator and religious education consultant for the Central Midwest District. Previously, she was the director of religious education for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart, Indiana, for seven years, and the chair of the Central Midwest District's Religious Education Committee. Richards is the author of "Come Into the Circle: Worshiping with Children" and "Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting," both from Skinner House Books.

  • Ryan Slevin

    I would have a hard time sending my child to VBS, not because of what they taught but because of how my child might react.u00a0 If she pushed back, offered a differing opinion or another point of view for a different faith tradition (which is highly encouraged in UU RE), I fear how she would be received.u00a0 Perhaps this is an ungrounded, unfair fear…but it would keep me from sending her.

  • jkuemerle

    Our congregation (the UU Church of Kent, OH) has a Hogwarts themed program where for 4 days in the summer and 3 in the winter we dress in robes, teach classes themed like those in the Harry Potter books and ensure that we teach good principles in those classes. u00a0We just finished our sold out summer session of 80+ kids with at least 10 who we couldn’t fit in and almost half of them were new to the program (and thus introduced to our church).nnI really like the idea of UU churches offering a summer program as I feel that we as a religious organization should do more outreach and I think there is great value in summer RE programs that are an alternative to the heavy handed VBS tactics.nnIf anyone is interested in information on our Hogwarts program there is information on our website: and I’d be glad to discuss any particulars of how we organize it with anyone who would like to build their own.

  • Anonymous

    Could you contact me at, I’m so interested in how you organize the Hogwarts Summer Camp. u00a0We currently have a 3 day Chalice Camp but would LOVE to use the Hogwarts idea!

  • Anonymous

    Love the Chalice Camp model!u00a0 My son will attend his 3rd year and thankful his younger sister is old enough to attend this year as well.u00a0 The growth in a week – both personally, socially & spiritually – is noticeable.u00a0 They make new friends and strengthen old, come out seeing themselves as more than capable of spiritual thought, develop an age appropriate understanding of social issues that are important to UUs and think deeply about what they can do in this world to make it a better place even as a child, and feel more connected to the church and our principles. If you have it in your area, send your child.u00a0 If you don’t, talk with your Minister and RE/RGL Director about starting one up.

  • Matt Koch

    I agree with Michelle that it isu00a0definitely important to investigate the VBS that your child may attend.u00a0 With that being said, I have sent my kids for several years and they have loved it.u00a0 It has provided a way for me to talk about the Bible stories theu00a0kids have learned and discuss them within a UU framework.u00a0 They attend an ELCA camp (liberal Lutherans) so I feel pretty comfortable that they stick to mostly the stories and theme and away from some sort of political or inaccurate historical perspective.u00a0 I agree, thought, having a UU camp would be awesome! (this is tracey, not Matt)

  • Vanessa Johnston

    Our wonderful RE Director at First Universalist of Denver started a Chalice Camp for our kids this summer and it was fantastic! There were only 15 kids this first year, but I’m sure it will grow.  Now I don’t have to be jealous of my Christian friends and their annual VBS anymore.