Legal Disclosure: Baker Publishing provided me with a free copy of Formational Children’s Ministry: Shaping Children Using Story, Ritual, and Relationship.

Weeks ago while scouring Amazon I came across Formational Children’s Ministry and was excited to read it.  Several years ago I had the privilege of being in a Bethel Seminary class where Ivy Beckwith guest lectured.  Dr. Beckwith walked through the primary themes in her book Postmodern Children’s Ministry and her words and work shaped my early understandings of children’s ministry.  I looked forward to hearing Ivy’s thoughts on children’s ministry.  With the help of some Diet Coke and the natural ambiance of Chipotle, I uncovered several themes in Formational Children’s Ministry:

Clearly the philosophy held about children and the way they are ministered to in the church context is vital.  Beckwith challenges the plug and play mentality held by many churches and perpetuated by major curriculum publishers in addition to challenging the concept of the Bible as a book of propositional truths (a concept that seems heavily influenced by N.T. Wright).  Dr. Beckwith presents an alternative organic view of exploring and experiencing the Bible.

How the ministry philosophy is put into play in the local church was another major theme of the book.  Ivy challenges the formal educational model used in most churches and the competitive nature of such programming.  In return the author presents ritual options and introduces the regular practice of spiritual disciplines into the programming discussion.

Characteristics of Learners
Dr. Beckwith is concerned with the way children learn and the generational characteristics they bring to the table that in contrast with the generations represented by those who teach the children. She challenges linear teaching (the classic Hook, Book, Look, Took) and presents a non-linear alternative (Prepare, Engage, Reflect).

Worship is a central theme to all of Ivy’s work.  She challenges the practice of kids worshipping apart from adults and presents new concepts of age-appropriate worship in balance with children participating in adult worship environments.

Dr. Beckwith challenges the consumerist, competitive, busy a-typical American lifestyle and the age-specific ministries that cater to and even nurture such lifestyles.  In contrast the author presents a intergenerational community of faith where families are nurtured and revitalized.

This book evoked some strong personal reactions.  Dr. Beckwith presents a solid understanding of today’s non-linear learner.  This is a missing piece in children’s ministry and a flaw in our programming and I am a passionate evangelist for digital learning.  Children’s ministry leaders need more of this kind of teaching!

As Ivy discusses kids telling their own story, I was reminded of how our team is facing this issue as it relates to baptism.  When a child in our ministry desires to be baptized, they attend a baptism class.  One of the questions we ask in that class is: If a kid at your school came up to you today and asked you, “Hey I want to know how to become a Christian.” What would you tell them?  Most of our kids who affirm their readiness for baptism cannot answer this question OR the question of how they came to know Christ.  They are unable to tell the story!  Ouch.

As I read the presentation on incorporating ritual into the seasonal life of a children’s ministry, I was reminded of how formational the seasons of Lent and Advent have been for my own family.  My wife and I do not come from a mainline denominational background, but we saw how these two rituals impacted families in the first church we served as children’s pastors.  We became so passionate about Advent that we designed an Advent devotional for families that was incorporated into the life of our church and in the first year almost 200 families used this resource.  It was incredible.  If you want more ideas on ritual, check out Robert Webber’s book Ancient Future Time.

Now, the book also evoked some negative reactions.  I felt like the tone of book was overly negative and bullying.  It reminded me of the fictitious book, You Can’t Read (from the movie Smart People).  I almost felt like Ivy’s book could be subtitled, “You Can’t Teach.”  As I read about how children’s ministry is broken, volunteers are untrained and unprepared, and there is a general lack of respect for and care in handling God’s Word, I wanted to say, “Speak for yourself.”  In my ministry context we present God’s Word as faithfully as we can and stand back to see God work.  In fact, while I was reading and taking notes on the book I was stopped by a dad that I had never met.  Rich wanted to tell me that his four year-old son has been deeply impacted by our children’s ministry in the how he prays and worships God, his desire to pray for others, and what he has learned about the Bible.

Ivy makes several major assumptions of the church as well.  The biggest being that the church is responsible and is the cause for the lack of faith in kids and teens.  That assumption is as ridiculous as it is uniformed.  I posit that at best the relationship between children’s ministry and faith in teen years is correlational, not causational.  In my ministry context, we do not teach lessons.  We preach and participate in the prolegomena, the proclamation of the truth of who God is and what God has done.  We pastor and shepherd, which requires us to be directional in our leadership.  In other words, we must give direction on where to move.  This is how application to Biblical content is framed in our context.  Application points are not an inherently bad thing (as Beckwith suggests).  For children, they provide common language to understand God’s Word.  Coming to a single conclusion from reading a Bible story is not an inherently bad thing either.  I am perfectly fine with coming to a single conclusion after reading a Bible story, as long as that conclusion is a truth about God.

I came up with two questions for Ivy:

First, how does a children’s ministry leader arbitrate between rituals that work in one context but not in another?

Second, should every church aspire to write their own curriculum?  How do you respond to curricula such as Group’s Buzz that emphasizes ease of use and little preparation time as features?

Books are intended to make you think.  In fact, my senior pastor often tells our staff that if we read a book and do not learn anything or have any hard conversations then it was a waste of our time and resources.  Formational Children’s Ministry made me think through some important issues, shout “Amen,” and pace the room like a crazy person.  It is a book worth wrestling.