When Elizabeth Esther looked into Vacation Bible School at the church closest to her home in Orange County, California, she was disappointed to discover it cost $40 per kid—too much for her big family.

The Catholic mom and blogger instead found a free program and then tweeted her gratitude: “A BIG THANK YOU to all the churches out there offering free VBS for kids this summer! As a mom of five, it makes ALL the difference!”

While most congregations offer VBS at no cost, organizers can easily become overwhelmed by demand. Not only are fewer programs available for a growing number of unchurched families—about 1 in 6 churches offering VBS in the '90s dropped it by 2012, according to Barna Research—parents now regularly enroll kids in multiple Vacation Bible Schools each summer. That puts more pressure on churches to do something unique from the congregration up the street.

Especially in cities with a booming VBS circuit, a nominal fee ($5–$25) can discourage no-shows, and a bit more ($30–$75) can offset the price of food and new materials. Churches that charge typically offer scholarship options and discounts for families enrolling multiple kids.

“That’s not real new,” said Dorothy Linthicum at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary. “Parents sign up for lots of stuff, and when you have to pay $20, you show up," she said. "But it doesn’t begin to pay for what it actually costs.”

The bill for a VBS program varies depending on attendance, existing church resources, and how elaborate the activities are. While larger churches can easily spend $10,000-plus, some rely on donations, volunteers, and ...

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