Sharing God's love with children
On most days, he's simply called "Pastor Tom."
But 174 children, 75 youth leaders and other volunteers got to know him as "VIP" or "Very Important Panda," while attending vacation Bible school this summer at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Naperville, Ill.
Dressed in a panda costume for a week, Tom Grevlos, senior pastor, led prayers, joined the children in singing and joined other church leaders and the children in talking about the Bible story of the day. The congregation used the vacation Bible school curriculum "Pandamania," which is based on Psalm 139.
"The natural gift of children is that of imagination," Tom says. "And vacation Bible school feeds the imagination in so many ways. The costumes, music, games and crafts make an impact in helping tell the story of God's love in a joyful, fun way."
This summer ELCA congregations throughout the country, like Our Saviour's, will share God's love with young ones -- some of whom have never attended worship before -- often in child-friendly, unique ways.
For example, children attending vacation Bible school at Edison Park Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Chicago, are learning about Jesus' childhood through "Hometown Nazareth."
"It's something kids can relate to," says Michael Lyda, who directs children, youth and family ministries. "Jesus had a family, a home, a school and a place of worship. The curriculum humanizes Jesus and makes him more real to kids."
To better understand life during Jesus' time, the congregation has transformed into a carpentry shop, allowing children to make wooden sheep with cotton balls; a synagogue school; a food market; a farmer's field; and a quarry, where children will dig for rocks to make necklaces.
Children attending vacation Bible school at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Park Ridge, Ill., are exploring Bible stories through different cultural perspectives.
On Latino/Latina Day, children learn about Ruth traveling from her homeland to live with her mother-in-law, Naomi, in a new culture.
"A lot of Latinos today live in a dual culture. They live in a very different place, yet are still connected to their old customs," says Jeannine Oakes, who directs children, youth and family ministries. To convey Ruth and Naomi's friendship, children will make friendship bracelets that day.
During the week, children also will learn how Europeans who immigrated to the United States spoke different languages, just as the people did in the story of the Tower of Babel.
Through vacation Bible school, kids come together in community, focus in on a specific theme, and get to know God and God's love, Jeannine says.
"It's wonderful to see the youth grow as leaders and the little kids get excited about seeing their team leaders. By the end of the week, they are best buds," she says.
Parents continue to thank Laura Nylen, special events coordinator for child and family ministries at Our Saviour's.
"They tell me that their child had such a great time at vacation Bible school, and they felt very welcome here," she says. "We all came together because we know vacation Bible school is important. Planning takes a lot of work, but it is well worth it."
Laura describes vacation Bible school as a "huge outreach opportunity," and other church leaders agree. More than half of the children who attend vacation Bible school at Our Saviour's, St. Luke's and Edison Park Lutheran, are not church members.
After vacation Bible school ends, Edison Park Lutheran Church will continue to reach out to children and families, offering movie nights and trips to such destinations as Lake Geneva, Wis., the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the Jelly Belly factory in Kenosha, Wis.
"It's a good opportunity for families to get hooked into other activities at church, so we can get to know them better and keep in touch with them," Michael says.