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Book Review: Formational Children’s Ministry by Ivy Beckwith

A few years ago, I was at a national gathering of children’s ministry leaders within the denomination I was serving at the time. While I was perusing the resources table I ran across this book called Postmodern Children’s Ministry. The term “postmodern” was just starting to gain momentum in church-world, and I was very interested to see what the author had to say. I read the back of the book and was hooked! I devoured the book and found resonance in what the author said about the state of children’s ministry and some of the things that needed to be changed. Children’s ministry was stuck in an attractional-based and informational model of teaching. Upon finishing the book, I was determined to meet Ivy Beckwith and pick her brain. Five years later, I still haven’t had the privilege of meeting Beckwith, but I do get to pick over her brain by way of her new book Formational Children’s Ministry!

Beckwith asks this key question at the beginning of the book:

“So what must it take to capture our children’s imaginations, and then souls, through the hope and magnificent love of God’s kingdom?”

Lest we fall back to our current paradigm of passing on Biblical information and values in hopes that life transformation follows the absorption of knowledge, Beckwith offers an answer that outlines what she tackles in the ensuing chapters.

“It takes people–moms, dads, Sunday school teachers, pastors, children’s directors, and youth ministers who themselves have had their imaginations captured by the kingdom of God. It takes being intentional with story, ritual, and relationships at home, in the faith community, and in worship with children. And it takes understanding the power of these elements to inspire and form children in to adults who not only desire to live in the way of Jesus but who daily make choices to live that way.”

Beckwith begins with the importance of story in spiritual formation. I agree with her that, too many times, we tend to dismiss the Bible as story because we mistakenly assume that the word story implies something is not true, namely the Bible. By distilling the Bible down to a bunch of historical facts, propositional truths and moral platitudes, we strip it of it’s ability to speak on it’s own to children. We also make it harder for children and families to find themselves in the story of the Bible. In addition to viewing the Bible as story, Beckwith also points out that spiritual formation occurs as we are able to articulate our own faith stories (personal and corporate). As we find words and images to talk about our daily walk with God, those stories make our faith more personal and real. The key with story as a mode of spiritual formation is that we need to allow the Holy Spirit to speak through the story itself; we shouldn’t be too quick to interpret or moralize the stories in the Bible.

Another aspect of spiritual formation that Beckwith points out is ritual. She states:

“Ritual shapes and transforms human personality and identifies individuals with the group involved in the ritual. Ritual binds people to communities through the group experience and binds people to the values of that community… And when that action is done with others who are doing the same thing, the action finds meaning that can lead to transformation.”

Beckwith makes the case that rituals are a way of physically grounding our faith as well as drawing a family and faith community closer together. Rituals connect our faith to the concrete by connecting abstract belief to physical actions. Children and families experience transformation as these rituals create space for them to connect with God apart from the busyness of life around them.

Lastly, Beckwith emphasizes the importance of relationships in spiritual formation. She begins with the need to help families carve out time to be together. This isn’t an easy thing since culture puts pressure on parents to involve their children in multiple activities in order to be “good parents.” Beckwith also reinforces her conviction that intergenerational relationships need to be fostered, and part of that is making room for children to be involved in corporate worship with the larger church community. In no way does Beckwith pretend that involving all the generations in coroporate worship is easy or even a hard and fast rule for successful spiritual formation. What Beckwith does emphasize, though, is that for spiritual formation to take place, both adults and children need to learn from each other what it means to worship together as a faith community. The final component in relationships as part of spiritual formation that Beckwith higlights is peer-to-peer realtionships. It is important for children to form relationships with other children who share their faith in order to be encouraged and grow together.

If you haven’t already guessed by now, I highly recommend this book to anyone who plays a part in the spiritual formation of children whether directly or indirectly. Ivy Beckwith sets forth an ethos that challenges how children’s ministry is done in most of North American churches. Formational Children’s Ministry is a call to reform how we view the passing on of faith to children.

The temptation with a book like this is to either jump in with both feet and begin changing things left and right or to dismiss the book as impractical and pipe dreams. I’d like to offer a third approach. Allow the philosophy of what it means to approach children’s ministry from a formational mindset begin to change how you look at what you already do. What changes can you make to take a step or two in the direction of making formation a priority over the scope and sequence of disseminating Biblical knowledge? What are you already doing to make space for the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do–life transformation–in the lives of children and families? Just like any kind of reformation, this kind of paradigm shift from information to formation is going to take time. I look forward to seeing the ripples this book will make in the world of children’s ministry.

NOTE: This book was provided to me by the generosity of Baker Books for the express purpose of being a part of the book blog tour for Formational Children’s Ministry. This, in no way, has biased my review either positively or negatively.

9 Responses to “Book Review: Formational Children’s Ministry by Ivy Beckwith”

  1. Ivy Beckwith March 4, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

    Henry –
    I hope we do have the chance to meet soon. Thank you for your kind review.

    I really appreciated your last paragraph about how a church should approach implementation of some of the ideas in the book. I think I said some where in "Postmodern" that a church's ministry with children needs to grow out of the ethose of the community and reflect the values of a particular faith community. You are right on with your suggestions and cautions on implementation.


    • henryjz March 4, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

      I hope we get to meet soon, too. Thanks for writing the book and for being a voice to bring reform to how we approach ministry to children.

  2. mojomc March 10, 2010 at 6:29 pm #

    I agree that we need to be able to talk to the children and their parents on how the Bible can be a valuable tool in their lives. They need to know that God will always care about them, for them and be with them forever. It sounds like this book is a real valuable tool that everyone can use and learn by. I can't wait to read it and see for myself.

  3. Carla May 11, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    Thank you for this review! I am excited to get my hands on it and to continue rethinking my ministry to children

    • henryjz May 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

      Great! I think Ivy has a lot of great thoughts to challenge CM.


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