Photo Credit: ROCKHARBOR Church
Today, I am very excited to share an email interview that I had several weeks ago with Tommy Larson, the head of family ministries at ROCKHARBOR Church in Costa Mesa, CA. In this interview, Tommy is kind enough to share with us why his church decided to move their annual VBS from a centralized location at their church building to multiple locations out in their community. After hearing from him, I believe that remodeling and repurposing VBS ROCKHARBOR did is something that every church should very prayerfully consider.
Andrew: Hi Tommy! Thanks for taking the time to share with us at the Externally Focused Network today. We’re very glad to have you here. Before we get started, why don’t you share with us who you are, where you work, and what you do on a daily basis.
Tommy: I live in Orange County, CA with my wife Keri and one year old son James. I am the Families Pastor for ROCKHARBOR Church Central Campus in Costa Mesa, CA and have been on staff here for almost 8 years. I oversee our children’s and youth pastors and cast vision for our overall ministry to Families.
Andrew: Great! It’s definitely an honor to have you with us today. As you know, our focus this week at the Externally Focused Network is how to be the best neighbor for your community. One of my friends recently pointed me to the work that you and your church are doing in local neighborhoods through your children’s VBS. Could you tell us a little more about that, particularly how it found it’s way to your neighborhoods and why you decided to make that shift?
Tommy: For years, our church had been putting on these original, elaborate VBS weeks where the entire building was transformed into pretty amazing themes. I can remember transforming the building into an army barracks, a western town, a 50′s diner, and so much more and the kids absolutely loved it. The week was fruitful in many ways and lives were certainly transformed. However, we realized that the 600 kids attending were mostly our own kids that we would see every weekend – with the addition of some other kids from other churches who bounce around from church to church during VBS season. Three years ago, we sensed that God was calling us to something more than what we were already doing in order to reach other kids who otherwise would never hear what we call “The Big God Story” and the role God has for each of us in it. So, we abandoned a centralized VBS and instead decided to have a multi site VBS in our surrounding communities.
Andrew: So now that ROCKHARBOR’s VBS takes place in your neighborhoods, have their been any noticeable changes compared to it’s previous impact when it was located at the church?
Tommy: The biggest change has been in the number of kids we are reaching. As I said previously, with a centralized VBS we were reaching around 600 kids. The first year we went into communities, we reached 900 kids. The second year, 1200 kids. This last year, we had roughly 1400. Considering that our weekend numbers are in the 600 range, we can see that there is a huge percentage of kids that are not regular attenders. We recognize that we have been given an opportunity not only to continue The Big God story for those who have heard it and continue to hear it but we are also able to introduce Jesus to so many kids that otherwise may not have heard about him – and believe it or not, in this day and age we still have kids asking “Who is Jesus?”
Andrew: Wow! That’s incredible! And what a blessing it is that you and your team are there to share who Jesus is and His plan to those who have not heard. Yet as amazing as your impact and growth has been over the past three years, anyone who’s worked in ministry knows that change like this usually doesn’t come easily. Could you share with us some of the major obstacles that you had to overcome in moving your church’s VBS out into your neighborhoods?
Tommy: The biggest obstacle was getting our church to understand why we were abandoning a model that they had grown accustomed to. People can become very much attached to traditions so letting go of them can be extremely difficult. So, we had to have buy in from our families. Our first step in overcoming this frustration was to hit it head on and acknowledge the hurt that goes along with getting rid of something that is so loved. We gathered together the mom’s of our church and laid out our plan and fielded questions long before anything was actually put in place. Out of that meeting, families saw the value of going outside of the church and they began to get excited about what a VBS could look like in their own home, community center, or park.
Andrew: What a great approach! I love it how you gathered those who would be most affected by the change (moms) to cast vision and answer questions. It sounds like that approach was incredibly effective in getting them to buy-in to this new model. There’s no doubt there’s a lot of wisdom in how you did this. Now before I let you go I just have one last question that I’m sure many people would like to hear your response to: If someone out there wanted to do something like what you are doing at ROCKHARBOR Church, what would your advice to them be?
Tommy: The first thing I would say is that before any steps are taken, you should sit down with your leaders and ask them what is working and what isn’t working in your current model and let your leaders/parents speak into the vision casting of what might be next for your church. You’ll need a built in team going into a new model and an initial vision casting meeting with your leaders and parents will give you this instantly. People want to be empowered to bring about change with you. I would also say that you should be prepared to encounter resistance and some road blocks but there is so much reward for so many (leaders, families, new believers) by staying the course.
Andrew: Well, Tommy, thank you for taking the time to share your stories and wisdom with us here at the Externally Focused Network. I’m sure that hearing of the things you are doing at ROCKHARBOR will be a blessing to many people around the world. Blessings, bro!
To see a video of ROCKHARBORS 2011 VBS, click here.