During the 2022 Christmas season, United Wesleyan Church in Easley, South Carolina, hosted a Vacation Bible School (VBS) which resulted in 16 first time children salvations, but the story of United Wesleyan’s Christmas VBS began over a decade earlier.
In 2009, Rev. Michelle Bryant approached Rev. Tim Jones, senior pastor of United Wesleyan, to see how she could use her gifts and talents to help the church. The church was focusing on youth ministry, missions and worship. With Rev. Bryant’s background, she appeared to be the perfect fit. Rev. Bryant only had one condition in joining the team: she would do anything to help the church except children’s ministry.
However, within two years, United Wesleyan Church’s need in children’s ministry rose to the surface. Rev. Bryant acknowledged, “I did not know much about children’s ministry at the time,” but she stepped into the role, nonetheless. Since then, children’s ministry has outgrown its designated facility space three times.
Like many children’s ministries, Rev. Bryant was planning on doing another VBS in June of 2017, but this would be unlike any previous summer. Just days before VBS was set to start, Rev. Bryant was diagnosed with congestive heart failure which necessitated she abruptly call off the event. Piercing through the demoralizing haze of having to cancel a premier children’s ministry event, one of Rev. Bryant’s volunteers suggested they postpone VBS to Christmas. Rev. Bryant had not heard of this concept before but was willing to explore it.
Immediately they were aware of some advantages in shifting VBS from the summer to the Christmas season. Advertised as “Let us lighten your load,” Rev. Bryant said, “we realized it would be a way that we wouldn’t need to compete with others and it is something that other churches do not have. We realized the unique opportunity we had to give parents a few evenings to get Christmas preparations accomplished.” Additionally, the church would already be decorated for Christmas, thereby making the work for a VBS more efficient! Their first year of Christmas VBS, 15 kids came but Rev. Bryant sensed there was more potential to the idea. Kingdom work is not accomplished overnight.
God honored Rev. Bryant’s persistence and creativity. This past Christmas, they had at least 50 kids in attendance with an additional 50 volunteers. Rev. Bryant and her volunteer team recorded 16 first time salvations through personal conversations. Most of those children have since taken the step of baptism, revealing the enduring impact of Christmas VBS in their little lives.
One child demonstrated an intense curiosity about Jesus. The Christmas VBS theme was “Cradle, Cross, Crown,” and Rev. Bryant had constructed a large cradle, cross and crown as visual elements. This girl, seeing the visual elements behind Rev. Bryant as she taught the lesson, began to understand that Jesus arrived in a cradle so that he could one day be on the cross for humanity. Rev. Bryant described her as “seeking so much and wanting to know more about Jesus.” She was excited to provide the child answers to her questions.
On a different occasion, Rev. Bryant was talking with a group of children while a boy kept trying to get her attention. She asked him politely to wait, but he persisted. He told her that he “needed to give his life to Jesus right now!” This boy recognized an urgency to give his life to Jesus and could not wait a moment longer.
It is stories like these that bring United Wesleyan Church together in joining their vision of “loving God and loving others” creatively. Rev. Bryant spoke glowingly of her team of volunteers, who are critical to an effective children’s ministry. Throughout the church, the volunteer enthusiasm was contagious, and moved the mission of not only the children’s ministry forward but also the church. Rev. Bryant values everyone belonging and having a place. Any time a volunteer wants to be involved but is hesitant about their ability, Rev. Bryant tells them, “We can train you. All I ask of you is that you love Jesus, and you love kids, and we can teach you the rest.” Many of Rev. Bryant’s volunteer team left the Christmas VBS changed as well.
The churchwide involvement in children’s ministry starts with the leadership of Rev. Jones. He has supported Rev. Bryant and valued children’s ministry so much that he has willingly shift offices three times giving the kid’s department more facility space to accommodate their growth. Speaking of Rev. Bryant, Rev. Jones said, “I have high trust in her and her team and great faith in the kid’s department.”
Creatively using opportunities to expand the kingdom is not out of the normal character of the church, as United Wesleyan Church has a long history of forming creative ways to multiply. They have planted three new churches by flipping houses. Men from the church donate their experience to remodel the homes and the money from the sale of the houses goes into the church planting fund.
Whether flipping homes or launching an unconventional Christmas VBS, truly United Wesleyan Church is willing to be creative to expand the kingdom’s borders.
Jacob Gibson is the senior pastor at LifeSpring Wesleyan Church, Richmond, Indiana, and graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary, Marion, Indiana.
*Photographs by Dennis Whitten.