PHOENIX (BP)–Joy in the Desert Baptist Church was a relatively new church meeting in a local school with about 80 people earlier this summer. But like 92 other churches in the Valley of the Sun this year, they were part of a cooperative Vacation Bible School effort that has become one of the most significant components of the Strategic Focus Cities evangelism and church planting initiative in Phoenix.
Joy in the Desert enrolled 174 people in two separate Vacation Bible Schools. Eighty-eight of them made professions of faith in Jesus Christ, and — primarily as a result of the VBS project — average attendance is now up to about 140.
Area-wide, VBS attendance for the participating churches in three associations who had reported by late August was up 73 percent this year to 11,779 and professions of faith were up 142 percent to 795.
“The Vacation Bible School effort really was a major emphasis for our strategy in Phoenix,” said Ritche Carney, a Strategic Focus Cities strategy coordinator for NAMB who works with the Phoenix effort. “What better way to reach the children of our community than a program that has already shown itself to be viable in the local church?”
The Vacation Bible School effort was actually a cooperative venture between the North American Mission Board, LifeWay Christian Services, the three local associations, the Arizona Baptist State Convention, and the local churches involved.
Under the plan, special promotional cards were mailed to families with children within a two-mile radius of each participating church. A central number was provided where they could call to receive a packet of information about churches in their area along with the dates and times of the Vacation Bible Schools.
Each church also received funds to use toward promotional efforts — including flyers, block parties and other special events.
And in a critical partnership effort, LifeWay Christian Services donated most of the literature for the participating churches.
Carney said it is one of the strongest examples of what can be accomplished when different convention agencies cooperate. “When we work together on major issues, we see spectacular results,” he said.
“We at LifeWay are pleased to have had a part in the VBS project in Phoenix,” added John Gardner, coordinator of LifeWay Strategic Focus Cities Projects. “… The work done through the local congregations has resulted in growth among churches of all sizes.”
The VBS at Joy in the Desert also illustrated further benefits of the Strategic Focus Cities effort, which also had placed a World Changers project in the same area the week before rehabilitating substandard housing. When the students found out a VBS would be held at the school where they were staying the following week, they conducted prayer walks around the school each evening interceding for the community and the children who would attend.
The church helped promote the VBS by giving away more than 1,500 snow cones the weekend before.
The VBS at the school was conducted by church members and volunteers from Oklahoma, which has partnered with Phoenix this year to provide the bulk of out-of-state volunteers participating in Strategic Focus Cities events. Leftover materials allowed the church to conduct another school at a nearby apartment complex.
“The pastor and I just put our arms around each other, with the tears flowing down our face, and just said that God did it,” said Vi Braafhart, director of the Joy in the Desert VBS and a veteran children’s Bible teacher. “No one else could have done it but the Lord.”
God was also at work elsewhere, in many churches that saw dramatic increases in both attendance and professions of faith. A church that had always tended to focus its VBS on its own members found itself able to minister to the larger community, noted Lorie Honeycut, the overall Strategic Focus Cities VBS coordinator in Phoenix. “It was an awakening for them of the need to reach outside their community and church walls,” she said.
At Westcroft Baptist Church in Phoenix, a woman who lives in an apartment building next door to the church brought her four grandchildren to an evening VBS – which included a service where adults were welcome. By the end of the week, she had recommitted her life to Christ and two of the children had accepted Christ, according to VBS director Joy Dolfo. The mother of the children accepted Christ while in jail, and plans are for all four to be baptized together.
A puppet ministry operated by a volunteer team from Oklahoma – which has provided the bulk of volunteers for the Phoenix Strategic Focus Cities efforts through a partnership – was largely responsible for touching the hearts of the children and grandmother, Dolfo said.
A young man in the church was used as an interpreter in the predominantly Hispanic area as one of the Oklahoma volunteers led a child to the Lord. “He was so excited his face just glowed,” she said. “You could just see Jesus right through him.”
Now, he has been motivated to become more active in sharing his faith and leading in the youth group.
Honeycut, the VBS coordinator for Phoenix, noted that the response rate to the promotional mailing and the increases in attendance far exceeded the original goals for the VBS initiative — making it a successful model for future efforts.
“This is one thing that worked well, and we want to do it again,” said Honeycut. “And we’re hoping that it will have a ripple effect for the rest of our state. … And we will have a real celebration in 2003 when the Southern Baptist Convention comes to Phoenix.”
Overall, churches participating in Strategic Focus Cities efforts in Phoenix have reported a 152 percent increase in baptisms over the same period of January-July last year, according to Strategic Focus Cities leaders. Worship attendance for participating churches is up 21.5 percent.
“In an era when most churches have plateaued or are declining, it’s remarkable to see a 21.5 percent increase in worship attendance,” Carney said. “This makes the point that further joint projects are certainly worth our best efforts.”
Evangelistic efforts coordinated through Strategic Focus Cities will continue throughout the fall, including a rodeo event sponsored by the area’s churches planned for Nov. 10-12, participation in the Arizona State Fair, and tailgate parties for youth associated with high school football games.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo titles: FUN AT VBS and MINISTERING AS A FAMILY.