What Happens when you Nail a Panda to a Cross? by Pr. Rossow

What happens when you nail a panda to a cross? Does it squeal? Does it bleed? Certainly not – those cute little lovable bears should never be put on a cross and certainly not made to suffer. As I was driving around the other day I noticed a church with a “Pandamonia” banner on the front lawn. Pandamonia is the latest greatest entry into the VBS publishing sweepstakes.

The reason I bring this up is that Pandamania is another example of the church trivializing the faith and trying to make the faith fun and exciting. There isn’t much fun or excitement in receiving the forgiveness of sins. It is no fun confessing that I am a poor miserable sinner and there was no fun for Jesus in being nailed to the cross.

There is certainly joy and relief in Holy Absolution and there is much rejoicing to be had in Jesus gift to us of his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins but VBS programs with titles and subtitles like the following run the risk making kids think that religion has to be fun and exciting:

  • Pandamania – Where God is wild about you. A wild celebration of God’s unconditional love for you.
  • Island Odyssey – linking Biblical island stories with popular vacation spots.
  • Sonsurf – Sonsurf beach bash.
  • Shake it Up Cafe – with pots, pans, aprons and the like kids will explore the Bible as a cookbook with recipes for living out God’s word.

I am not making this up. These are the actual titles and subtitles from the publishing company. (I took these from the Cokesbury site. These are only a few of the examples out there.)

The last title shows another crucial and problematic sub theme of many of these programs. They often see the Bible as a recipe book for leading a moral life rather than the proclamation of Christ’s life and death for the forgiveness of sins (see John 5:39).

In Pandamania’s defense, (I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase – how surreal) it is published by Group magazine which even though they have fallen for the “Jesus is fun and exciting” erroneous motif, they do focus things on the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins. Also, all of these programs have daily Bible story instruction included. This is good but this is not my concern. My concern is that Jesus is a bit trivialized by surf, vacation island and panda motifs. What happens when you nail a panda to the cross?  These programs let the “Vacation” in “Vacation Bible School” overshadow the “Bible” and the “School” elements. “Vacation” is a designation for when these programs take place and not a designation for the style and substance of such.

Gospel freedom certainly makes room for Pandamania and the like but we must also remember that this freedom can be abused. We have used programs like these in the past in our parish but are trying to steer away from them now. There are better alternatives. Last year and this year our day school teachers wrote the VBS curricula for us. Last year we did a week on the doctrine of creation.

This year we are using a Lutheran fantasy novel written by LCMS pastor Thomas Sabel. It is all about a young prince who is sent on a quest to save his father the king and along the way is taught Luther’s Small catechism and learns how the faith is real and provides strength and courage to meet life’s challenges. There are sand ships, and dragons and sword fights and castles and the like but no pandas. Instead of taking a popular theme and building VBS around it, like pandas or other jungle animals, this book has given us the chance to chronicle a boys struggles and how the catechism doctrine helps him understand how law and gospel is to be applied to the odyssey known as life this side of heaven. (For more on Sabel’s book click here.) For another good and Biblical alternative for VBS see our past article on Pax Domini Press.

To further promote the “Bible” and “School” aspects of VBS we are continuing our Creation Camp for junior high and high school students that we started last year. Creation Camp teaches basic creation science in support of the Biblical record. This year, in conjunction with the dragons that are showing up in our VBS program, the creation camp is focussing on the dinosaur issue.

Please understand my point. I am not saying that there is nothing good in Pandamania and the other kitschy VBS programs. There is certainly much good that is coming out of these programs. What I am saying is that these programs have the harmful effect of adding to the notion that the faith must be fun and exciting. Joy yes, but hanging ten with Jesus on the Sonsurf beach – maybe not.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


What Happens when you Nail a Panda to a Cross? by Pr. Rossow — 69 Comments

  1. I doubt MS is still on the thread, but for the information of everyone else…
    The seafaring pirate motif of the radio station is a play on the idiomatic expression “pirate radio station,” a typically low-power station that operates providing programming established stations refuse to run. The moniker “Pirate Christian Radio” has nothing to do with criminals on the high seas. They developed the nautical motif as a pun, not with any other “simul justus et peccator” rationale in mind. (At least as far as I had been told when they first formed.)

    (((moderator: more info can be found here)))

  2. @Cheryl #30
    I think the people behind them think that kids today are so sophisticated, so bombarded with media, that somehow VBS has to be even bigger and flashier and louder to stand a chance at gaining their attention.

    They really aren’t selling it to the kids; they are selling it to the DCE, or whomever makes the decision to purchase VBS material. And, IMO. all the “flash” is there to justify the price.
    You might do better for the kids by giving them each a Small Catechism or a book of Bible stories and using them for text and discussion.
    [Of course, I have the same antiquated notion about Sunday morning Bible classes!]

    Thanks for your post, Cheryl. Amen to your ideas about music, too!

  3. @mames #34
    The issues we have today are wider and deeper than in the 70s when God did us a favor and the Seminex group walked out en mass.

    Same issues, actually, because a lot of them walked out the front door and were let in at the back, quietly, by their relatives (graduates of the 50’s and 60’s) who never left. They said they’d take over and by working themselves into district and other bureaucratic positions, they have pretty well done so.

    The question is how far they can go before the laity again say, “Enough”! The laity is 40 years less educated than they were last time…. The confessionals are divided by even more intra-confessional differences.
    [Liberals have no such problems; they have been believing in very little while claiming to be orthodox for 50 years already.]

  4. @Cheryl #40
    Clearly, MS’s comments here have more to do with personal animosity for Pastor Rossow than they have to do with the question at hand.

    Unless you have off-list reasons for making that judgment, Cheryl, I think it is extrapolating too much from this argument. MS doesn’t want to understand that the meaning of “pirate Christian radio” is not derived from Robert Louis Stevenson (and is not a VBS theme). Tim Rossow is in one of his “I have to be right.” moods, not his most attractive pose, even with cat….
    That’s all I see here.

  5. @helen #54

    Helen, I have nothing to base that on but what is here in the thread. But I think calling Pastor Rossow a heretic, degenerate and pseudo-Christian and suggesting that the majority of his congregation can’t stand to be around him (a ridiculous claim) is beyond the pale and suggests that there is more going on here than meets the eye. It is not reasonable for someone to spew forth that sort of venom simply because he is disagreeing on something like what is an appropriate theme for VBS. I stand by my words.

    P.S. Thank you for your response to my other post. 🙂

  6. @Cheryl #55
    But I think calling Pastor Rossow a heretic, degenerate and pseudo-Christian and suggesting that the majority of his congregation can’t stand to be around him (a ridiculous claim) is beyond the pale…

    YIKES! IF all that was said, too, I missed it. Agree with you on that!

  7. @Cheryl #40
    I understand the reaction against MS’s harsh, ill-advised words, but one must in caution admit that comparing the Gospel to piracy is not a little problemmatic, such that trying to deal with the intricate issue in a Biblically faithful manner is far too complex and involved a matter (with the extensive exegesis that would be required adequately to consider things (hardly likely in today’s emphasis on touchy-feely shallowness, and that not just Biblically but emotionally!)) for a blog, rather calling for Biblically required/demanded Matthew 18 DEVOTED PERSONAL ineraction today’s slothful narcissism is usually unwilling to employ; we’ll see if these two are up to it, something I sadly don’t expect from most of today’s generally shallow blogosphere. God save us all. Soli Deo Gloria!

  8. Something I have never understood…

    The purpose of VBS and Sunday School (I hope) is to teach about God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit. None of those are tangible to us to day… i.e., you can’t reach out and touch them, you can’t see them. But we want little children, no less than others, to believe in them.

    How do you do that by teaching them about some other imaginary thing whether it’s a panda, a pony or a boy on an adventure, which you do not expect them to believe in, but you spend a week talking about them!

    It’s like talking non stop from Thanksgiving [Labor Day?] onward about Santa Claus and then expecting kids to understand on Christmas that baby Jesus was real! Are they worried about baby Jesus? Heavens no! it’s “What did you get for Christmas? Was it more/less than I got?” (and some of them never get over that!)

    Pastors, you only have 10-20 minutes on Sunday morning to tell us about Jesus Christ.
    If you tell me [an untruth] about something I know, why should I believe you about Christ, if I do not know about Him?
    Teachers, you only have an hour a week to talk about Him. Don’t waste it on fantasy! How do you expect pre schoolers to sort out fact and fiction? The real stories in the Bible are more fantastic than anyone can write, anyway.

  9. 1) @Andrew #22 — Thank you for that survey of VBS programs. Very interesting to see them side-by-side. They left out two:

    The Northwestern Publishing House (WELS) “Space Station Salvation,”

    and a VBS produced by an individual in the ELS, “The Armor of God” (http://www.leahmatzkedesign.com/lmvbshomepage/)

    The ELS one, at first glance, seems to beat all the others hands down.

    2) One of the things that boggles my mind is that childhood studies from Piaget onward clearly demonstrate time and again that young children are not capable of comprehending metaphors. They just can’t do it. And yet, that’s what we see most frequently in “children’s sermons” and VBS programs. Mawkish analogies cannot bear the weight of Law and Gospel. For children, the Law does not need to be “analogized” even though it can be described and applied in a way with which they can connect. So, too, with the Gospel.

    3) Interestingly, one of the LSB Gospels for this coming Sunday, our Lord’s explanation for His use of parables is left out of the reading. It comes in the midst of His telling the parable of the sower. In it, He clearly states that His use of parables, metaphors if you will, are by no means meant to help people understand God’s work through analogy. Still, many people think that parables were told as illustrations to help people gain deeper insights . . .

    4) Once upon a time, long ago in another life, I was a doctrinal reviewer for the LCMS. For several years, the VBS curriculum was assigned to me for review.

    I always dreaded it.

    Finally (if my memory serves me correctly), when Crackers the Parrot was inserted into the Last Supper/Lord’s Supper, I had enough. I refused to approve the VBS curriculum that year and sent a letter telling them so.

    I think it caused a bit of a stir at first since the production wheels had already been turning at CPH. No matter. A certain person made sure that my decision was over-ridden. My tenure as doctrinal reviewer did not last long after that.

    5) On a related subject, are there any pastors/congregations which advise/warn their parishioners not to send their children to the VBS programs of other neighborhood churches? I’d like to see how such teaching is worded.

  10. @Rev. Joel A. Brondos #63
    2) One of the things that boggles my mind is that childhood studies from Piaget onward clearly demonstrate time and again that young children are not capable of comprehending metaphors. They just can’t do it. And yet, that’s what we see most frequently in “children’s sermons” and VBS programs.

    Thanks for giving an “expert” source for what I learned so long ago I’ve forgotten names!

  11. @Rev. Joel A. Brondos #63
    @helen #64

    Isn’t that the joke about children’s sermons? They mean more to the parents than the kids? An dmaybe since a lot of these volunteer parents are trying to run VBS (and Sunday school) programs, dorky themes and content are provided. I do not wish to dengrate willing parents, but I think we might be better off, if available, in our congregations to find educator and teacher types to lead and run our programs. Same could be said about CPH, although I think they have been getting better recently. But there was a time when their stuff was shlock, and it’s no wonder why many were buying VBS elsewhere: they created slicker shlock. 😉

  12. Helen, I was raised in an unchurched family, but I still remember the VBS’s I went to. Methodist, Christian, Lutheran. I learned the 10 commandments and how to treat black people which was truly an act of bravery in the Deep South back in the 1960’s. Adn this was at a southern Baptist church. Also i still remember all the songs. Of course every thing was low tech back then but everything was colorfull and developed for children.

    Getting the word of Word to kids and showing Christian love to them will never be a waste in my opinion. Non churched children today know absolutely nothing abut God and his word.

    If done properly VBS can be a wonderful outreach.

  13. @Ready to Lose it #66

    You are so correct.  Even if it’s not done very properly, it’s an amazing experience for a kid.   Like you,  I went to similar  VBS programs as a child.  We owe so much to VBS directors and volunteers.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!  

  14. @Ready to Lose it #66
    Getting the word of Word to kids and showing Christian love to them will never be a waste in my opinion. Non churched children today know absolutely nothing abut God and his word.

    If done properly VBS can be a wonderful outreach.

    Very true!
    But notice you are not talking about pandas, dinosaurs, or imaginary boys.
    What you remember is the Word, perhaps demonstrated in colorful pictures of the Bible stories but not much more.

    I wonder what the kids in these elaborate ‘sound and light’ depictions of fantasy worlds come away with?

  15. When we lived in Kuwait we had to put up with bits and pieces of movies being cut out at the theaters. The scene where Indiana Jones kisses his bride…gone. Anyone kissing anyone? Gone. Passion of the Christ? Not playing in any theaters there. In the case of some movies, maybe not such a bad idea, but if you wanted to see the whole movie (or even the movie at all) you had to buy pirated DVDs. Now many people bought them to save the money. The price for original DVDs is very high. However, even if you went to the theater to see it, you usually ended up looking for the pirated copy to see what had been chopped out…usually very badly.

    So, in a way, PCR is similar to a pirated movie…if you want the whole truth, with nothing edited out to make it more palatable to the powers that be, you go with the pirated copy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.