Call it vacation Bible school on steroids.
At The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, more than 6,300 people attended last week's "Summer Spectacular" event designed to bring the story of Noah's ark to life, complete with a petting zoo and a Broadway-style musical that recounted the tale over three nights.
It's a stark contrast to the VBS days of the past, when kids made praying hands out of plaster and listened to Bible stories before nap time.
Today's summer-based schools are more akin to day camp than Sunday school, with churches using elaborate props, electronics and themed curricula that can be bought from church denominations or publishers.
The materials make it easier for church officials to plan the events and provide lessons that connect to the religious concepts they want to emphasize, church youth directors say.
"I like to say it's not your mom and dad's VBS," said Patty Weaver, children's minister at The Hills. "We believe that God's word is so powerful that if we make it culturally relevant then it will really penetrate the heart of the child. It just needs to speak to their world today. We need to make sure we're telling it in a way that connects with children."
Today, Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth launches its VBS program, which is advertised on a billboard on Interstate 35W.
Children in kindergarten through sixth grade will participate in the "Big Apple Adventure." They'll do games and activities to help them learn a concept each day, all based on landmarks they would see on a New York City trip.
The church sanctuary is being decorated in a 15-foot backdrop of Times Square. Officials rented a Statue of Liberty prop from the Tarrant Baptist Association that it made for a training session, said Scott Eudaley, children's minister.
Travis Avenue Baptist started using themes in the late 1990s to help make the program more engaging to today's youth, Eudaley said.
First United Methodist Church of Mansfield is also using the "Big Apple" theme at its vacation Bible school this week.
"Boys and girls nowadays are either involved in electronics or athletics, and so boys and girls don't want to come to church and just sit down and have a Bible story told to them," Eudaley said. "They want to really be a part of what they're learning."
The "Big Apple" program is produced by Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources. A basic sampler kit costs $69.99 and includes clip-art decorations, Bible study cards, leader guides and a music CD, according to LifeWay's website.
The Hills created its own curriculum for the Summer Spectacular, enlisting an army of volunteers to decorate the church with huge rainbows, life-size stuffed animals and a paper cutout of an ark in each classroom.
The lesson for junior high students included a PowerPoint presentation.
At the end of each night, families crowded pews in the auditorium to watch a 42-member cast in Noah: God Keeps His Promises, a musical written by a church member with lyrics set to songs by contemporary artists such as Lady Gaga.
"I remember when I was a kid, and we did our little crafts, and we learned our Bible stories. For this, the kids can't wait to learn it and to see it live," said Tara Maples, who attended The Hills' event with her two daughters. "It really sticks. They really get the message."
Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326