#GroupVBS and how we got into this mess
Even if you're not a churchgoer, you've probably seen the signs driving around your community over the past few years.
In 2014 it was WEIRD ANIMALS, curriculum and songs we used at my little Lutheran Church in a Chicago suburb. We had a record that year: 40 kids, and zero dedicated staff for children's ministry, just some energetic and talented volunteers who made it happen - and borrowed decorations and backgrounds from another local church. We also omitted some of the infamous Day 4 curriculum, which taught Jesus' bloody death on the cross and encouraged kids to, essentially, pray a sinner's prayer and be saved. In many of the mainline denominations who use Group curriculum, this made zero theological sense - believing in salvation by grace through faith, and an atonement that was more expansive than individual forgiveness of sins.
In 2015 it was EVEREST, and we welcomed more than 300 kids to my large Evangelical-style Lutheran Church in Orange County, Calif. At the last minute in 2015 we had to make some changes to the curriculum, though. And we diverted the charitable funds raised by the kids away from the default provider Samaritan's Purse, run by conservative Evangelical pastor Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham. Franklin Graham's statements against gay marriage and questions about the organization's financial practices, including misleading statements by Franklin Graham about his own financial benefit, encouraged us to direct funds toward the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's fund to support repair and rebuilding after the 2015 Nepal earthquake instead. The ELCA's fund promised monies would be funneled directly to local organizations in areas of need.
In 2016, I worked with our new children's director to create our own VBS, combined with deep sea theme and talent camp. Yes, it was a ton of work -- and our children's director, student ministry director, and entire staff and more than 200 volunteers did incredible work to make it happen. But we had complete creative control, and I'm not sure it was really that much more work when you consider the rewriting and reworking we'd had to do with Group curriculum in the past. More than 400 kids attended.
In 2017, my family and I had moved back to Minneapolis, home to countless Lutheran churches and large VBS programs throughout the summer. I noticed, though, that many of them used the same Group curriculum from that year: Maker Fun Factory. They all put their unique spin on it, but at the same time Group seemed to provide so many "extras," such as music, take homes for the kids, videos, etc. -- and you could share decorations with other churches -- that it just seemed axiomatic for large churches even in our heavily non-Evangelical area to choose Group curriculum.
As a parent, I thought the Group curriculum was ... fine. The kids had fun, and the music was catchy - even though in California we'd also made our own CDs when using Group curriculum, not using their provided music.
I didn't necessarily need all the little cute crafts or knickknacks Group included, like bracelets, that my son brought home. We had plenty of toys in our house, too many probably, and I was more concerned about what he'd learned about Jesus.
In 2018, I was working part-time at a church, but it was 30 minutes from home and not practical to send my son for VBS for two and a half hours a day, so we skipped. My oldest went to a couple of days of VBS across the street, where they usually planned their own innovative curriculum, but we were traveling again and he missed. That summer, I was also traveling to churches across the country as research for my book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump. In disparate churches from Florida to Texas to California to Pennsylvania, I still noticed a common thread. Group VBS was everywhere.
This summer, VBS is approaching again. My youngest is still too little, and I'm not sure I'll send my oldest. I'm still seeing signs everywhere for the latest trend, however. The most popular VBS by far seems to be ROAR, Group's latest offering.
About a week ago, I started seeing concerned posts on social media about this year's curriculum. Pastors and church leaders who had been griping about Group for years but still grudgingly using it had had enough. This year's curriculum is blatantly racist: encouraging students to act out a story in which they have to be slaves, referring to Africa as a country rather than a continent and not acknowledging the vast diversity of people and cultures in Africa, and even teaching kids to make clicking sounds to imitate an unidentified African (again, not specifying an exact country or culture) language. I'm indebted to Nicole A. Menzie for her helpful article on this topic, found here, in Faithfully magazine.
Last week, Christian writer Shannon Dingle tweeted a photo of Group's staff, which appeared exclusively white.