SALT LAKE CITY — Ask Christin Abbott, director of children's ministries at First Presbyterian Church, about her own vacation Bible school memories and she laughs softly.
"I don’t have any specific memories from Sunday School," she said. "I know I went and I know the Bible stories, so obviously I was there. But I have my most very specific memories from vacation Bible school and missionary camp.
"To this day I still remember the songs. I still remember the hand motions. I remember what weird costume we were wearing. I have those memories still, so I think one of the values of vacation Bible school is it's so special that it brings your memory out of, 'This is what we do on Sundays,' to 'This is something really cool. Now I know the story of Jonah, or whatever.'"
"Go Go Jonah" is the theme of the church's upcoming vacation Bible school, Aug. 1-5.
Last year, about 70 children ages 4 through fifth grade took part in the program.
While some of the attendees are members of First Presbyterian, it traditionally attracts children from the neighborhood and friends of churchgoers, she said.
While the instruction program helps demystify what goes on inside the historic red sandstone church along South Temple, Abbott said vacation Bible school serves the same purpose as the church's other Christian education programs: "To teach the kids about Jesus, that Jesus loves them, the church is a place they are loved and church is really a happy place."
The experience is offered free of charge as a gift to the community, but online registration is encouraged. It is run by volunteers, and most of the supplies are donated by members of First Presbyterian's congregation.
Some members take time off work to volunteer to teach classes or to decorate the church and classrooms in advance of the week's activities. Others donate items for classes such as snacks or craft supplies.
"It’s something that the whole church has ownership of. If they're not directly involved, they have contributed to it in some way," Abbott said.
The tradition of vacation Bible school traces back to 1894, when a school teacher in Hopeville, Illinois, who was also a Sunday School teacher, started a summer Bible school "sort of like Sunday School but it was every day in the summer," said the Rev. Anthony Masinelli, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Sandy.
Classes were held at the public school, and an adjoining park was used for outdoor play.
While vacation Bible school at Grace Lutheran Church doesn't date back a century, it has been part of the church's ministry since 1982, the Rev. Masinelli said. Last year, about 150 children took part, some of them part of the congregation but others from the larger community.
"I have people who are not part of the congregation drop by my office saying, 'Hey, when's VBS?' They expect it now," he said.
This year's school, to be held June 20-24, will explore the theme "Joy in Christ Alone," based on the teachings of Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice."
Instruction and activities are available for children from preschool age through sixth grade, who are grouped according to age.
Preschoolers and kindergartners are offered a half-day program for $20 each.
Activities, instruction and Bible studies for grades 1-6 will be offered from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and a half day on Friday. The fee is $35, or $25 for each additional child in the family.
"We do have some scholarships available because it is a service to the community, so we will help," the Rev. Masinelli said.
The vacation Bible school is staffed by trained college-age young adults from Camp Perkins in Hailey, Idaho, which is owned and operated by 38 Lutheran congregations in southern Idaho, Utah and Oregon, and has year-round programming.
The Rev. Masinelli said experiences like vacation Bible school are increasingly important because "people in the information age are becoming increasingly disconnected from their humanity. I think they're searching and they're searching for community and that's something Grace provides. So it's important to us."
Grace Lutheran Church is part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a traditional, confessional Lutheran denomination.
One of the highlights of Grace Lutheran's vacation Bible school is the inflatable waterslides the church provides each year.
"The waterslide is a big, big hit," the Rev. Masinelli said. "That's kind of a legacy thing that we do. Every year we make sure we have the waterslide here that's a big deal. It's pretty cool."
While the camp also makes use of its adjacent school facilities and sports fields, study of the Bible and worship experiences are at the heart of the week's activities.
"We make no bones about it. Vacation Bible school is about Jesus, and we teach straight from the Bible," the Rev. Masinelli said.
"We know our Bible, and we can go right to it and say, 'This is where these teachings come from, whether it's about values, family values, or it's about Christ. The whole thing is oriented toward proclaiming Jesus for forgiveness and salvation of all who believe."