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Rural church sees ‘tip of the iceberg’ in energetic Vacation Bi

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (BP)–An energetic buzz fills the air, rising and falling with every giggle, as nearly 50 10-year-olds sit cross-legged on sleeping bags around a tent as leaves ruffle in the air above their heads.
Their faces shine with expectation as they wiggle and squirm in their places, almost unable to contain themselves. At last, a lulled hush overcomes the campers as each face turns toward the campsite leader with ears and hearts open to hear a special story.
No one notices a clock hanging conspicuously on a wall, or a door covered by a camouflage canopy. This is not your typical campsite. It’s actually a classroom. As for the campers, many of them have to board one of eight vans at 9 p.m. for a ride home.
Such was the scene each night at rural Cedar Creek Baptist Church’s Vacation Bible School July 25-30 outside Fayetteville, N.C.
Founded in 1884 in the Sandhills region of the state, the red-bricked church with weathered white columns, a sandy parking lot and towering pine trees averages about 170 people in Sunday school each week and currently is without a full-time pastor.
. During one of the hottest weeks on record, more than 70 volunteers joined forces at the end of long work days to lead a VBS nearly twice the size of Cedar Creek Baptist’s average weekly attendance.
By week’s end, 13 youth and children had committed to publicly profess their faith through believer’s baptism and 27 others had prayed to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior. The church enrolled 329 in VBS, including 30 adults, and a VBS high attendance of 292 eclipsed the Sunday school mark of 226. A fledgling ministry started a month earlier for children with special needs blossomed into a church-wide passion, and $2,000 to combat world hunger was collected.
As classrooms throughout the church teemed with enthusiastic students, a new class took root focusing on children with special needs. Cedar Creek member Nancy Szymkowiak created the class in June for her daughter, Lacey. After a sluggish start, she was reluctant to teach the class during VBS, but a persistent burden kept her going. Expecting only three children including her daughter, Szymkowiak had six handicapped children ranging from high-functioning mildly mentally handicapped to severe and profoundly handicapped. What began in a makeshift classroom has now become a permanent part of the church.
“For the first time Cedar Creek Baptist is realizing they need to accommodate these kids,” Szymkowiak said. “Everyone saw that these kids have success even though the end goal is not the same for them … [and] from that has come an outpouring of support and commitment.”
With four students regularly attending the “Special Needs” Sunday school class, Cedar Creek Baptist is wholeheartedly embracing the enormous task of developing this ministry for teens as well as adults. The church voted recently to remodel parts of the church to make it more accessible to the physically and mentally handicapped.
Church members are quick to give an answer for their successful VBS.
“Many of us had been in dedicated prayer that the Lord would allow the children to be receptive to the message that we were trying to teach them,” said Marsha Johnson, one of the teachers of the 10-year-olds.
Brett Rachel, minister of youth and Christian education at Cedar Creek Baptist, related one salvation experience of a teenage girl who had professed allegiance to Satan. “I felt like something inside me was dead,” the girl told Rachel. The second night of VBS Rachel taught the ABC’s of the gospel (Admit, Believe, Commit) as outlined by the curriculum produced by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Two nights later, the girl asked Rachel questions about baptism.
“I didn’t even know she was a Christian,” he said. The girl told Rachel she had committed her life to Christ at home after learning the ABC’s of the gospel. She has since followed in believers’ baptism, despite opposition from her parents.
“I felt like something inside me came alive when I started to believe [in Christ],”the girl told Rachel. “I felt this new hope was welling up inside me like my life finally had purpose again. I found a new hope for the future,” Rachel recounted the girl saying. He said the teenager is now being discipled weekly at the church.
As important as prayer was, Lauri Ake, who served as co-VBS director with her husband, Tim, said it was the feet put to the prayers that made this VBS different from years past.
“I really believe that the van ministry is the one reason why this VBS was so much more successful,” she said. “Unlike previous years, we made a concerted effort to minister to the physical needs of the children as well as the spiritual needs. I see us doing things like Jesus did. He went to where the people were and met their needs. When you do that, they are going to open up to you and let you tell them about Jesus.”
For Cedar Creek, that meant first making sure the children got to the church. To that end, the church borrowed vans from four neighboring Southern Baptist churches and three from a community auto salesman and sent them out each evening along with their own church van to pick up children. The extra effort accounted for an increased attendance of nearly 100 over last year.
“Our church doesn’t have your traditional Kool-Aid and cookie Bible school, … we really go after it,” said Tommy Kinlaw, Cedar Creek’s Sunday school director and transportation coordinator for VBS. Members of the church’s Baptist Men’s organization helped Kinlaw canvass a five-mile radius of the church and mapped out several routes for pick-ups.
Ake also attributed the VBS’ popularity to providing full-course meals for the children during snack time. With a number of children boarding vans nearly an hour before VBS began at 6:30 p.m., many of the children came hungry. But that distraction was quickly eliminated. Children feasted on corn dogs, hot dogs, ham-and-cheese sandwiches as well as cookies and ice cream.
Teachers said the theme for LifeWay’s VBS curriculum this year called “Mt. Extreme” proved very effective in arresting students’ attention. Classrooms were converted into campsites as teachers replaced tables and chairs with tents, lanterns, grills, sleeping bags, artificial campfires and small trees.
As part of a cooperative effort, another local Southern Baptist church donated the props from their VBS in June to decorate Cedar Creek’s sanctuary where everyone met for opening assembly each night. Before the summer is over, the props will make their rounds to two other churches in the area. “It’s simply good stewardship to share,” said Ake.
Johnson, who has worked in VBS the past 20 years, credited this year’s curriculum with its versatile theme as a key component to the ministry’s success. “We just felt like God was going to do a great work and he did,” she said.
Rachel said God used VBS to wake up the church. “I truly believe this church is on the verge of a revival and spiritual awakening,” he said.
Rachel said one woman in the church who prayed to receive Christ as her Savior in the spring at her young son’s funeral had the privilege of praying with her oldest son when he accepted Christ during VBS. “There have been tremendous prayers for salvation that have been answered,” he said.
Tim Ake, co-VBS director, said he believes God blessed Cedar Creek’s efforts because church members were unified in spirit working toward a common goal like no other time he can remember. For example, he said, nursery workers volunteered to bathe infants so parents who worked in VBS could pick up their children ready for bed. “It’s the first time our church has ministered in our community on such a large scale,” he said.
Kinlaw said Cedar Creek is at a turning point, believing they have only seen the tip of the iceberg. “After being involved in one ministry or another for most of my [53 years], all of a sudden I’m on a ‘dream team,’” he said. “To be a part of something like this and to see what’s happened in it, it’s just been one of the highlights of my life.”

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  • Christin Lockhart