#GroupVBS and how we got into this mess

Author's Note: I have many close friends and colleagues who work in churches who are using Group's ROAR VBS this summer. Please know this post is not about criticizing you. I am indebted to the many incredible children's and youth ministry leaders who have taught me over the years, and I want to support you in all I write and do. This post is instead about the ways our Church - our whole Church nationally and world-wide - needs to support you, to give you the ample space to do this important work, and find better ways to support you in your ministry. Also, Group has (finally) shared some hopefully helpful modifications to some of the problematic curriculum. If you're doing this VBS this year and in a bind, I direct you here to a link to download updates. With you in this ministry journey and seeking God's guidance, Angela

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.

Full disclosure: I've done some Sunday school curriculum writing for Sparkhouse, which is a Lutheran curriculum provider that has done some VBS curriculum in the past. Our staff wasn't much more diverse. 

So much wrong here, though, right?

My point in this piece is not so much to debate whether or not the curriculum is racially problematic and/or racist. As a Pastor, I'd avoid using it for a number of reasons, primary among them the way it would affect children, especially African-American children, to reenact generationally traumatic slavery. The treatment of Africa as one monolithic place and culture is also a way to reinforce racial stereotypes and deny complexity of culture to places where people usually don't have white skin. The same is true when people talk about "Asia," as one monolithic place.

Being racially and culturally sensitive is admittedly a growing edge for all of us, especially those of us who are white. I know as a Pastor I've said and done things that are probably racist, and I'm working on it and trying to learn and to be true to Jesus' Gospel, which goes against the teaching of white supremacy, and instead unapologetically affirms and defends the humanity and spirituality of each individual person.

Still, working on it and learning requires engagement and openness and willingness to be questioned, none of which was evident in Group's original response to criticism. Their response, published on Group's VBS Facebook page, focused instead on denial and misdirection. It also focused, as "apologies" often do, on intention rather than result. It seemed clear that experts on culture sensitivity had not been included in the conversation and consulting people of color about this curriculum had not taken place.

Group's response suggested that the problem with the curriculum was that people did not like Biblical stories that were "ugly." As too often happens in contemporary American Christian culture, those who would attempt to proliferate messages that are hateful and unjust hide behind a veil of supposed Biblical accuracy. But is it accurate to Jesus' Gospel to dehumanize an entire continent of people, and mock another group of people who speak a certain language by teaching kids to imitate its sounds?

Is it true to Jesus' Gospel to subject children to reenact situations that their ancestors may have been forced to live under? Does it really make sense, ever, in an America still wracked by racism and generational trauma borne by slavery, to make slavery into a game?

Are there not other ways to teach these lessons?

How about listening to people who have been subject to slavery, particularly to African Americans who carry the generational trauma of American slavery and institutionalized racism in their bones? How about consulting African immigrants to share about their unique culture and beliefs? 

I don't think that anyone writing curriculum for Group was being intentionally malicious. First, writing curriculum is HARD! I think it's harder than writing papers, essays, or even - in a way - books. You have to write supply lists and keep kids occupied and be super creative. All of which I'm sure Group's writers were trying to be. They do a great job with graphics and fun and music and obviously have found a way to create curriculum that works in a variety of contexts.

But what happened at Group is what always happens when we create echo chambers for ourselves. When we don't consult people with different life experiences and different backgrounds than ourselves. In those cases we often create products or tools that are offensive or hurtful - yes without meaning to - but a lack of intent does not equal a lack of hurt or damage. 

Which brings me to the point of this writing.

How did we get into this mess? When I say we, I'm speaking here to my Christian siblings, especially my white Christian siblings who work in churches that have used Group curriculum.

We've used it for years for a variety of reasons, many of us with our own misgivings that we swallowed down or dismissed.

There's a few things going on here.

There's the role of overwork in church culture, a role that only grows as church finances shrink and fewer people are asked to do more.

There's the role of never enough: never enough staff, never enough hours - and the reality of modern pastors and church leaders and staff being asked to be and do more in new ways made possible by technology. We are all expected to be eminently available in ways that our predecessors wouldn't understand.

There's the role of burnout and fatigue. The lack of willingness to fight yet another battle with dwindling volunteers and participants. 

Just do what everyone else is doing.

So we have. So we did. 

Now, many of us are faced with having purchased VBS curriculum that is inherently racist and problematic, not to mention theologically completely off-base for most of us.

Group technically allows returns, but not once the curriculum is opened. And you can't see the curriculum until it's opened.

So you see the problem here.

I want to offer some tentative steps forward for all of us, as we look at this mess, as we look at the goodness that VBS has been for so many of us (I attended and later volunteered as a junior high and high school student, and I've enjoyed being a part of it as a Pastor and parent).

1) Church leaders need to start from scratch and reevaluate VBS. Why do we do it? What are our goals? What do we need to do it well? How can we do it well in our context? Do we need to work with other partners?

2) Entire churches need to support VBS with their money and volunteers, even if they're not parents or children.

3) Parents need to modulate expectations for church activities. Maybe you need to pack your own snacks. Maybe your kid won't bring home a big bag of stuff (I think most of us would be totally fine with that).

4) Should VBS be free or should churches charge for it? An important conversation to have -- and either answer can be right, depending on your context.

5) As Christians, we should be more purposeful about our decision-making. That might mean removing some things from our pastors' and leaders' plates so that they have the capacity to spend more time making decisions like these. If theology and treatment of children and families are paramount, then let's give our leaders time to prioritize these things - and not fixing the toilets or strategizing the budget or dealing with angry staff or parishioners.

That's my take. And as upset as I am hearing about the Group curriculum this year, I can't say I'm totally surprised. It's been heading this way. This is our wake-up call and an opportunity to do things differently.

My awesome experiences in VBS as a Pastor and as a Mom - ironically all pictures take place in churches where curriculum was created in-house that year.

And as a final PS - if you were blindsided by this discussion - especially my sibling leaders in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other predominately white denominations or churches, can I point you to a fantastic book by a friend of mine, Lenny Duncan? Pre-order it here.


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