Book Review- Formational Children’s Ministry

Formational Children’s Ministry: shaping children using story, ritual, and relationship by Dr. Ivy Beckwith (Ph.D. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is an eloquent, original, and important contribution to the emergent conversation. Since most of the books in the emergent movement have had very little to say about children’s ministry, Dr. Beckwith’s book is all the more timely. She  suggests ways in which church leaders may guide their congregations and families into spiritually forming their children through story, ritual and relationship.

There is much to like about Formational Children’s Ministry, and there are some potent concerns, as well.

I should point out that while I am sympathetic to some of the concerns which emergent leaders raise about evangelicalism (indeed many are disaffected evangelicals who have swung on the theological pendulum from conservatism to liberalism, attributing their path to progressiveness and postmodernism–that is, post-anything-having-to-do-with-the-religious-right, anything having to do with capitalism, anything to do with an emphasis on propositional truth as opposed to shared narrative histories pointing to God’s story and our role in it, and so on), I also return their kind critique with some concerns of my own. That said, I am not a self-conscious postmodern or emergent, any more than I am a self-conscious modern. Yes, I do inhabit a worldview which likely blends sensibilities indicative of both, but it is not out of any compelling desire to convert to their perspectives. 

Based on her testimony in the book, Dr. Beckwith seems to have made the transition to an emergent postmodern perspective due to personal experiences, particularly following the events of 9/11. I cannot quarrel with the devastating effects that 9/11 had on the psyche of many in the USA. It affected me, too. For her it apparently led to a “crisis of faith” in which her faith was on “very shaky ground” (p. 69).

What I like

  • Dr. Beckwith is truly a good writer. For that reason alone, I hope that other authors writing in the field of children’s and family ministry pick up a copy of this book and soak in the writing of someone who has a strong grasp of readable English. Her writing excellence alone demands respect on its own account.
  • She is clear in her intentions. Her subtitle shaping children using story, ritual and relationship clearly describes what she provides in the content of her book.
  • She provides plenty of stories which model her thesis. She shows us how it is done from people who are now doing it.
  • She gives many practical ideas which are easily replicated in any church and family context.
  • She raises valid points of critique concerning evangelical churches (she was raised in an evangelical Baptist church). For example, in many evangelical churches we have a very poor understanding of church history, and of its role in world history. We also often do not even know the local history of the particular church or the spiritual tradition from which it came. This is to our detriment, as she rightly points out.

Constructive Criticisms

  • This book seems to communicate that postmodernism is a given, and modernism is irrelevant. This is unfortunate and lacking missional sensitivity. I find this characteristic in other emergent writings as well, so I think it is worth pointing out. The reality is that in the West, especially the USA, postmodern and modern worldviews co-exist along with a very small minority who have a premodern worldview. The worldviews people inhabit are not based simply on age demographics, but on backgrounds, influences, choices of affiliation, and so on.
  • The book would have benefitted from graphic representations, sidebars highlighting key points in major sections, a strong index for finding people, scriptures, and topics, and appendices reviewing her practical ideas for the home and church in the areas of story, ritual and relationship. Yes, I know this is very modern of me. But let’s face it, if I am thinking it, then maybe some of the other readers would benefit, too.
  • She makes an important point that for much of church history the Roman Catholic church WAS the church. However, she might have done well to point out that there were hundreds of years that transpired between the passing of the apostles and the beginning of the official Roman Catholic church in which the church was simply the Catholic church, referring to unity of believers, rather than centralized control in Rome. Furthermore, much of that history prior to, and during the Roman Catholic primacy was characterized by conflict, persecution, and war, even as it was with the advent of the Protestant Reformation.
  • On page 92 she argues for inconvenience as a vehicle for worship as spiritual formation. Her point is well taken and, frankly, valuable. However, she makes reference to the time of day which worshippers would gather on a Sunday, breaking up the rest of the day. While that may have some weight in today’s post-agrarian Western society, it actually is contrary to the reality of agrarian societies who originated Sunday morning worship. They postured Sunday worship at the late morning hour in order to give farmers time to do early morning chores and to feed their livestock. It was a matter of economic necessity and accomodation to the culture, rather than inconvenience. It would have been inconvenient to choose a time in which farmers needed to be working in the fields. As I said, her point is well-taken for our contemporary context.
  • She emphasizes embodying God’s story, as opposed to focusing strictly on propositional truth. While I understand why she and other emergents make this argument (indeed I agree to a point, insofar as I recognize the value of story to convey meaning), I think it ignores the fact that God himself used propositional truths. Remember the ten commandments? Remember Dueteronomy, which is the retelling of the law? She acknowledges (seemingly with discomfort) that the apostles used epistles and doctrinal treatises (think the Apostle Paul here, especially), but she contends they did so on the basis of their lived story. This is a weak argument for what should be the real point. Propositional truth is embodied in the story, specifically God’s story. Jesus showed us this in the living out of his incarnational story as he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). He also clearly explained it in the form of propositions when he said that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strenghth, and our neighbors as ourselves. Both the story and the two greatest commandments make the point of the encounter he had at the well.

More could be written about Formational Children’s Ministry, and indeed I may do so in the days to come. I recommend it highly for the serious ministry practitioner who is open to having their ideas challenged, and their passion for real world ministry energized. Children’s workers in any western context will benefit greatly from this contribution to the larger conversation.


4 thoughts on “Book Review- Formational Children’s Ministry

  1. Glen, thank you so much for this very intelligent review! I’ve learned so much just from it alone.

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