Hundreds of local children and youths are flocking to what some might consider an unlikely destination this summer: church.
Sure there's the beach, the mountains, state and national parks, fairs and festivals — but vacation Bible school also is in full flight this time of year.
"We usually have about 300 kids," noted Lanette James, the children's minister at Gresham's Pathway Church. "It's an amazing way to introduce kids to God … it's a lot of fun."
Grace Community Church expects to host more than 500 youngsters, while Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church provides a more modest program with about 20 children.
"We want them (the kids) to have a good time, to make friends," James said. "It is a way to open our doors to the community."
The Rev. Brad Busiek said "personally, I think it is a lot of fun. But it's a great way to build relationships with the community. It brings an energy and excitement to the church and community and is a way to deliver a simple message to the kids that God loves them."
Vacation Bible school is usually a week of morning activities and most often is free of charge. Grace asks families to pay $10 per child, if they can, to cover some costs.
"We never turn anyone away" because of an inability to pay, Patrick said.
Vacation Bible schools offer a variety of entertaining activities with a dollop of bible and religious study. There are the traditional stories, crafts and music. But Pathway sometimes has a bounce house and a visit from a snow cone truck is a popular event. Children might make slime or go on a scavenger hunt.
Smith Memorial is using a "maker" theme this year, piggybacking on the popularity of the maker movement and as a way to discuss how "God made us." Busiek said the kids will make a dirty sock launcher and drums among other activities.
Grace starts the Bible school morning with an assembly with all the youths and volunteers, featuring music, skits and other activities.
"It's a time to get everyone excited for the day," she said, noting the rest of the day is divided into 20 minute segments. "It's very fast paced."
Grace hosts a family fun night, attended by more than 1,000 people. "Parents and siblings can come." It features bounce houses, games, snow cones, face painting and more.
Some churches offer a curriculum and activities schedule prepared by the central denomination office or sold by an outside vendor. Some area churches also offer other summer camps or art camps.
Lots of churches in East Multnomah County are still hosting robust vacation Bible schools, but many have given up on the summer tradition. Covenant Presbyterian Church and Saint Luke the Physician Episcopal Church, both in Gresham, are two that aren't offering vacation Bible school this summer.
This reflects a national trend.
Vacation Bible school is on the wane across the U.S., especially among old-line, Protestant churches. Statistics compiled by Barna Group, a religious consulting company, show only half of churches in the western U.S. offered vacation Bible school in 2012. In the entire country, about 68 percent of churches offered vacation Bible school in 2012, the most recent statistics available, down from 81 percent in 1997.
The Barna study, which surveyed 602 pastors, found that congregations most likely to offer the summer program are larger and more muscular financially. Churches that don't offer VBS say they don't have enough volunteers to run a program or children in the congregation.
School takes a lot of volunteers. Grace uses the talents of about 200 of them to make the week happen, while Pathway has 60 or 70 volunteers. Smith Memorial has 15 volunteers.
"Vacation Bible school at Grace is our biggest outreach effort of the year," Patrick said. "It is a way for us to share the Gospel with hundreds of kids and their families."
If you go …
Although some churches have already had their vacation Bible schools this year, here are a few local churches that have VBS coming up.
• Pathway Church, 3848 N.E. Division St., Gresham, 9 a.m. to noon July 24-27
Children from kindergarten through completion of 6th grade
For more information and to register visit: pathwaychurch.net
• Open Door Baptist Church, 27710 S.E. Strebin Road, Troutdale, 9 a.m. to noon July 24-28
Children from kindergarten through sixth grade
For more information and to register visit: opendoorbaptist.org
• River of Life Lutheran Church, 2477 S.W. Cherry Park Road, 9-11:30 a.m. July 24-28
Children ages 3 (potty trained) through 12
For more information and to register visit: riveroflifelutheranchurch.com
• Smith Memorial Presbyterian, 2420 N.E. Fairview Ave., Fairview, 9 a.m. to noon July 17-21
Children from kindergarten through fifth grade
For more information and to register, visit: smithmemorialpres.org