The past several summers have been quiet at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. This year has been different, as more than 60 kids and youth filled the brightly decorated sanctuary on a Friday morning, June 30, shouting at the top of their lungs to worship songs they learned that week in Vacation Bible School.
Frank Lewis, revitalization pastor at Tusculum Hills Baptist, decided to host VBS as part of efforts to breathe new life into the church. He knew, however, the church would have a difficult time filling all the leadership and volunteer spots, as it had been several years since they’d conducted VBS.
Lewis placed calls to friends at Lifeway Christian Resources and several local churches in Nashville who jumped at the chance to help. Volunteers from First Baptist Church Nashville and Forest Hills Baptist Church joined with around a half dozen Lifeway employees to come alongside members of Tusculum Hills Baptist to pull off this year’s “Twists & Turns” VBS theme. Local churches also donated their gently used or extra VBS curriculum and supplies to Tusculum Hills Baptist, and Lifeway supplied the giant stage decorations from VBS preview events held earlier in the year.
Sunday School and church growth
Tusculum Hills Baptist saw its peak attendance numbers in 1997, reporting around 1,300 individuals in Sunday morning Bible study and worship. The years that followed brought pastoral leadership transitions, a church split and a changing neighborhood. Today, the church is trying to break back through the 200-member barrier.
Lewis became the church’s revitalization pastor on August 1, 2022, after serving as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church Nashville for 25 years. As a parting gift, First Baptist Nashville made it possible for Lewis to go back to school. He enrolled in the post-doctoral certificate program at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and earned certificates in pastoral counseling and church revitalization.
“I felt these areas of study complimented each other as most churches needing revitalization are also experiencing some form of trauma or grief due to the variegated losses they have experienced,” said Lewis. “My heart is for church health. It doesn’t matter if it’s a church plant, a legacy church or a church in need of revitalization; when you start leading the church toward healthy practices, the church will thrive.”
Lewis said the desire to relaunch VBS at Tusculum Hills Baptist grew from an orientation of having a strong Sunday School ministry within the church, a lesson he learned early in vocational ministry as a North American Mission Board church planter in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I learned that nothing beats Sunday School for outreach, assimilation, ministry to individuals and developing a leadership pipeline,” said Lewis. “When you pay attention to and do the hard work associated with the basics of Sunday School, your church will grow. When you’re distracted by other pursuits, or experience missional or theological drift, the church and community both suffer.”
Lewis sees VBS as an extension of Sunday School ministry.
“There’s no better tool to reach families with children than Vacation Bible School,” he said. “This year’s VBS theme was just right as we looked at the ‘twists and turns’ in life when one follows Jesus. With a variety of ethnicities represented in our VBS, all the children embraced the messages in the daily Bible studies.”
Allie Quattlebaum, VBS graphic designer, was one of several Lifeway employees who dedicated her week to volunteering at Tusculum Hills Baptist’s VBS. She led crafts for the preteens and describes the experience as coming full circle.
“This is my third full VBS from conception to iteration,” said Quattlebaum. “My favorite thing as a designer is to see a project all the way through from the planning stages to its implementation at churches. Seeing kids do the crafts, play the games and learn the lessons we put together is so much fun and reveals why we do what we do at Lifeway.
“Our team at Lifeway doesn’t just make curriculum to make a profit,” she said. “We make curriculum so people will see how God has moved in history and is still moving today by calling people into His Kingdom. Kids are the next generation. Being here this week and serving kids and youth in our community reminds me of the eternal impact of my daily work in designing curriculum.”
Also serving with youth was Micah Stephens, a student at Southeastern Theological Seminary who is in a residency program at Forest Hills Baptist Church. Stephens volunteered to help at Tusculum Hills Baptist’s VBS the week after Forest Hills Baptist completed their VBS.
“My biggest takeaway doing VBS back-to-back at two churches is that we need to be flexible ministers, because you can’t do ministry at every church the same way you do at your own church,” he said. “Every church has a completely different culture. The people in it are different, and their life stages and the places they’re at spiritually vary. One thing I love on Lifeway’s part is the broad accessibility of the content for different church cultures.”
Stephens pointed to Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to invest in others (2 Timothy 2:1–7) to inspire Christians to step up to the plate in serving in kids and youth ministry. He said VBS provides an easy onramp for this kind of service and encouraged more men to step into kids and youth volunteer roles as many churches face a shortage of male leadership in these areas.
“Men can often neglect their role of investing in others: teaching, loving, encouraging and mentoring,” said Stephens. “VBS is an easy opportunity to do this because you have the same people for five straight days and multiple hours a day. There’s a lot you can do with that time.
“I’d encourage any guy — especially young men who have more time and don’t have families yet — to pour into the people around them through opportunities like VBS and do it without a grudge because it’s an opportunity you may not have forever.”
Following Christ, serving others
Tusculum Hills Baptist Church’s VBS had many of the familiar elements of a traditional VBS, including worship, Bible lessons, games and crafts. However, Pastor Lewis wanted to get involved by adding his own flare to the mix: martial arts and wooden sword play.
“I decided to lead the recreation rotation so I could have a chance to interact with every one of our children enrolled. Finding recreation activities that emphasized following the leader was important as a way of reinforcing the Bible stories about following Jesus,” Lewis said. “I have black belts in two martial arts and have taught exercise and self-defense classes, so I thought this might be a fun way to help our children apply the meaning of following your instructor.”
While Tusculum Hills Baptist’s VBS theme focused on following Christ as leader, the spirit of cooperation that was present throughout the week also emphasized teamwork within the body of Christ.
“We could not have had a successful VBS this year without our friends from Lifeway and local churches who gave their time to minister with us,” Lewis said. “Because our church is located within a refugee resettlement community, these volunteers had a similar experience as serving on an international mission trip, but they were able to sleep in their own beds at night. We hope to do this again next year as we continue our revitalization efforts.”