The donkey appearance didn't pan out, but that was okay. Once Jesus and Mary waltzed into the sanctuary and joined the congregation in a lively rendition of "Father Abraham," that more than made up for the burro's absence.

As dozens of members of the Worship Center in Waldorf adjusted their Biblical costumes this week, clasped their craft projects and praised the Lord, it was clear that this was not your mother's vacation Bible school. In fact, it probably wasn't anything like most older generations' Bible school experiences.

For starters, it was only three days long, classes were in the evenings, adults could attend and the entire program was a visual, interactive celebration. The entire church--a converted warehouse--was decorated to look like ancient Jerusalem, although a live donkey would have made an appearance if organizer Angela Pugh had had her wish.

This was Bible school for the new millennium, if you will, and churchgoers in Southern Maryland and nationwide say adaptation is necessary for this summer church staple to survive.

As divorce has become more common and children are sent to spend summers away with their other parents, vacation Bible school participation has decreased, Pugh said. And many families don't attend church regularly or are on vacation when the Bible school is offered, she said.

So church coordinators have developed innovative ways to make Christ a viable competitor against Nintendo games or overtime at the office.

"We used to have it in the mornings, when all the homemakers were home with the children," Pugh said. "Now everyone works and we're so insanely busy. We have to make it special because this may be the only salvation a lot of [these kids] receive, the only time they hear about Jesus."

Under traditional vacation Bible school, parents would drop off the kids at church each weekday morning and then pick them up after lunch. Many local residents recall vacation Bible school as a summer ritual, like treats from the ice cream man or dips in the public pool.

Not anymore.

Christy Weir, vacation Bible school managing editor for Gospel Light Publications, has followed the evolution of vacation Bible schools into a high-tech, high-impact industry.

Gospel Light, based in California, provides CD-Roms, videos and cassettes to churches around the globe for their Bible school programs. Weir receives a dozen e-mails a week during the summer from people who visit the Gospel Light Web site.

"The big thing 25 years ago was that you had some dry Bible story, some punch, you did a craft with popsicle sticks and that was it," Weir said. "Now we aim to involve the whole child. They're so used to watching--watching TV, watching the computer. [This is] a whole experience of immersion into being creative."

Weir said today's vacation Bible schools often have themes, such as the "Friends are Forever" curriculum at the New Life Seventh Day Adventist Church in Waldorf.

About 25 children squirmed in the church's slender pews one evening recently, singing, "I have the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!" at the church's first vacation Bible school in several years.

They each wore shiny "I Love VBS" badges and played with colorful balloons emblazoned with famous Bible stories condensed into single paragraphs. Included in the program materials was a picture of a politically correct, ambiguously tan Christ surrounded by laughing, multiracial children.

These are all strategies to make the Bible inclusive and accessible in a changing United States, said organizer Traci Sawyer. Religion has a place even among incessantly ringing cell phones and child custody battles, she said.

"People work all day," Sawyer said. "I hope that they'll come away learning to know Jesus as a friend and understanding grace and God's unconditional love."

CAPTION: Linda Davis, right, and Joe Cave teach teenagers about the Bible's origins at the Worship Center in Waldorf.