By Diane Stortz
When you’ve already got the best VBS on the market, what do you do to stay ahead of the rest?
So the children’s ministry staff and volunteers and the children of LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, got a unique sneak peek at Standard Publishing’s 2009 VBS course, “Studio GO! Game Show,” as they used and tested it as their 2008 VBS.
“Standard Publishing has always included focus groups and surveys as part of our VBS theme research,” says Ruth Frederick, director of children’s product. “We’ve tried to increase the amount of customer engagement and input each year. This year we included a field test.”
Standard selected LifeSpring as the church to host the field test partly because it’s the home congregation for a number of Standard staff. “We could visualize the spaces, determine what we needed for decorations, and we already had relationships with many of the people from LifeSpring,” Frederick says.
LifeSpring’s enthusiasm for the project also influenced the selection. Monica Roberts, LifeSpring’s children’s minister, says the field test offered a great opportunity to her staff. “We have a pretty deep team of experienced volunteers,” she explains, “and we wanted to give them a chance to use their insights to impact for the good. We also knew it would add an extra spark of energy for our kids, the opportunity for them to be involved in taping and having a camera crew around.”
Parts of the VBS training and promotional materials were videotaped during the field test.
“This was a unique opportunity,” Roberts adds. “No one else in the city would be using this course this year.”
The field test involved conducting and evaluating an actual week of VBS using the “Studio GO! Game Show” materials. “From the beginning we wanted to be very clear that for us this was a field test,” says Frederick, “but for the kids this was a real VBS. We had what we needed to pull that off. The only difference was that most materials weren’t finalized, so we could change and improve based on the field test.”
LifeSpring volunteers and Standard staff planned together. “LifeSpring site leaders read and evaluated activities before VBS,” Frederick explains. “During VBS, a Standard staffer was paired with a LifeSpring volunteer for each major activity site or task. We had people taking notes, and we met each day for lunch to debrief. Everyone had an opportunity to report what worked well, what needed to be tweaked, and what needed to be reworked. Crew leaders also received a questionnaire to fill out after VBS.”
“The collaborative spirit was very present,” Roberts reports. “There was a real spirit of everyone learning together. Everyone was willing to flex and deliver what was needed. Our volunteers were excited to get to collaborate with Standard.”
The field test included about 50 LifeSpring volunteers, says Chris Smyth, children’s minister for LifeSpring’s Clovernook location, which hosted the VBS.
The test included evaluations of each day’s opening and closing activities, games, and skits; activities at the Bible-story site; the student magazines; the music, crafts, service projects, and video; and recreation, snacks, and decorations. Testing included all ages, preschoolers through preteens.
In addition to helping the Standard staff evaluate the “Studio GO!” materials, the LifeSpring team gained helpful new insights for their own ministry, Roberts says.
“Standard required a limit on the number of students at the field test,” she explains, “and that meant preregistration was a must. We struggled with this at first because we’ve never turned away anyone who showed up anytime. But we decided that these days parents preregister their kids for just about everything, so we were willing to try it. A positive result was that nearly all of those preregistered students came every day, and that really added consistency for both teachers and children. And it was still possible for children to invite friends. It just meant that families who wanted to bring others to VBS had to invite them earlier.”
LifeSpring now plans to preregister chil-dren for VBS in the future, Roberts says. “It meant a better experience for everyone.”
Another new experience for the LifeSpring team was using the VBS theme characters. “Daniel Read as Wade Winalot added energy and a focal point to our opening and closing sessions,” Roberts says. “Our closing sessions really made our VBS this year.”
The field test provided an excellent VBS experience for the children who attended. “They had a blast and at the same time helped us make VBS even better for a lot of other kids,” Frederick says. “We changed some activities, added in tips and more options, revised the design of some items, rethought some product formats, rewrote some scripts, and more.”
Standard plans to field-test future VBS courses, Frederick says. “It was a lot of work, but it’s great to be able to say to customers, ‘We tested that and here’s what we found out’ or ‘Go ahead and try this—we know it works!’”
Diane Stortz is a freelance editor and writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is coauthor of Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected When Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, available from Amazon.com.