Last time, we began our summary and review of Ivy Beckwith’s newest book called “Formational Children’s Ministry.” You can find previous installments in this review here:
Today we will move into several chapters of the book in which Ms. Beckwith dives into transforming children through the use of story beginning with God’s story and moving on to other stories which are also important in the spiritual transformation of children.
Chapter 2 – The Child and God’s Story
Beginning with this chapter, Ms. Beckwith unpacks what it looks like to shape children using story, ritual and relationship. Chapters 3 through 5 deal with story. Chapter 6 through 8 deal with ritual, and chapters 9 through 11 examine transformation through relationships.
Ms. Beckwith notes that approximately 80% of the Bible is comprised of stories and that story is critical element in teaching kids about God. Ms. Beckwith argues that, rather than allowing the stories to speak for themselves, we in children’s ministry have taken the stories of the Bible and infused them with our own interpretations. By doing this, she argues, we have robbed the stories of their power to shape individuals in an inherently personal way. She berates Children’s Ministry in particular for what she calls the “Aesop-fableization” of the scriptures by whereby “life applications” and “points” are included in the curriculum along with each Bible story.
Ms. Beckwith writes off as ineffective one of the traditional methods of presenting Bible lessons which is known as “hook, book, look, took.” In this method, each lesson starts with an attention getting hook, then goes to the book for the Biblical story, followed by the look which involves the exposition and explanation of the story and ending with the took representing the take away or life application for the lesson. She points to several negative characteristics of these types of lessons including:
- The fact that they are linear. Ms. Beckwith argues that kids today are not primarily linear thinkers and instead advocates “lessons that include kinesthetic, intuitive, affective and ‘loopy’ ways of processing information.”
- She argues that this method of teaching, “take[s] little interest in the various contexts into which the Bible story is dropped.”
- Finally, she contends that these types of lesson don’t allow the story to speak into the individual lives of those kids being taught.
She concludes that this linear method of teaching doesn’t “allow the kids to enter into and engage with the story in a way that lets God Spirit permeate their hearts and minds with what God wants them to know about God from that story on that particular day.”
Ms. Beckwith argues that the reason for this linear method of teaching is essentially because it is “easy.” It requires less creativity on the part of churches, and she contends that churches stick with this method because it is easier for “untrained volunteers” to teach these types of lessons and easier for curriculum publishers to write them.
In summary, Ms. Beckwith notes that “Bible stories are not vehicles for getting us to propositional truth about God. Bible stories are already truth about God.” She advocates a method which she calls “Prepare, Engage, Reflect.” The preparation involves the telling of the Biblical story followed by an invitation for kids to enter into a “safe environment” for engagement. Engagement involves various activities which allow the child to retell and interact with the story. Reflect is a time for questions and conversations about the story.
Ms. Beckwith argues that we must allow the Biblical story to stand for itself and trust that the kids we lead will enter into the story and thereby interact with God. By drawing specific applications out of the stories, Ms. Beckwith concludes that we do not allow kids to “explore the story in ways that are meaningful to them.” She cautions against leading kids to an individual application. She concludes by noting:
To treat it [the Bible] as just another how-to book about moral living is to deny it its supernatural power and deny our children the opportunity to enter into the richness and beauty of the ancient text.
I found myself a little bit torn as I read this chapter. While I agree wholeheartedly with some of the theoretical points made by Ms. Beckwith, I felt that her painting of an analytical model of teaching with broad negative strokes may have been a bit overstated. As with many things when it comes to reaching kids, I believe we can accomplish a lot more by adopting a “Both/And” philosophy rather than an “Either/Or.” In other words, we need totally strike analytical teaching from a repertoire in order to adopt of storying type of approach. Instead we can draw elements from both to present the most effective spiritual guidance to the kids we minister to. I applaud Ms. Beckwith’s efforts and longing to find the best way to teach God’s children and share that with other’s with a similar passion for kids. That said, she seems to take very much of a “it’s this way or no way” mentality, and I find that I fall more into the “the truth is somewhere in the middle” camp.
The Bible is indeed replete with stories, and being an effective storyteller is critical to teaching God’s children. I am also passionate about finding new, creative and fun ways to teach those stories to children. That is one of the reasons for my series called Tips for Teaching a Large Group of Children. If the formal education model involves merely standing in front of kids lecturing, I agree that it will be ineffective. I also agree that moralizing the stories of the Bible and turning them into something meant only to teach a moral lesson is dangerous. The Bible is God’s revelation to us about himself and his relationship with us. It is God’s story, and we should never present it as anything less than that. The Bible is exciting and alive, and part of our role in children’s ministry is to find way to convey that sense of excitement to the kids we teach.
Furthermore, the Bible is far more than a set of moral codes and laws, and we should not limit our teaching of the Bible to moral platitudes. God help us if we ever use His Word and our position merely to get kids to behave the way we want them to! That said, one of God’s intended roles for his Bible was to serve as a guidebook for our lives. We need only read the introduction to Proverbs to realize that, and to avoid any sort of application when we tell kids stories from the Bible ignores one of the reasons God gave us the Bible in the first place.
That is not to say that we must reduce everything we teach to a single pre-selected application. Rather, as teachers and shepherds of God’s Word to these kids, we must teach them how to apply the principals of the Bible to their own lives. It is true that not every application will be specific to every kid in the classroom, but God speaks to us through His word, and part of our job is to help these kids learn how to hear what God is saying. Now, don’t mishear me, I think Jesus must be at the center of all that we teach, but to exclude any practical application just because that might amount to teaching morality seems to be a stretch.
Finally, I know a lot of dedicated, and hard working, children’s ministry professional and volunteers who would take umbrage at the idea that the only reason they teach a certain way is because it is easy and doesn’t require much thought.
Chapter 3 – The Child and the Story of God’s Church
In this chapter, Ms. Beckwith postulates that helping children to know where they fit in the unfolding of larger church history is fundamental to their spiritual formation. She argues that many churches, and most Children’s Ministries, ignore this vital part of God’s story. Children need to be taught their place in the larger history of Christianity to help them feel as if they are not alone in this journey.
I couldn’t agree with Ms. Beckwith more on this point. I think church history is sorely neglected in churches across this country and particularly in Children’s Ministry. There is a temptation as a Christian to feel like you are the first one going through this. By helping kids to understand that they are part of a much bigger history filled with Christ followers, we help to provide them with a context within which their own faith has developed. Out time with the children we minister to each week is limited, and think we are often tempted to cut out anything about church history because:
- It’s hard to make it fun; and
- Many of us are not as well versed in it as we should be.
Chapter 4 – The Child and the Story of the Faith Community
Another part of the “story” which Ms. Beckwith argues is essential to imparting God’s story to kids is the story of their local church. Ms Beckwith offers a variety of practical ideas for imparting the story of your local church in kids’ lives.
In addition to the story of God in general, and the church in particular, Ms. Beckwith argues that children must be told the story of their particular faith community (i.e., the local church). While I can see where this would help to “ground” the kids and give them some sense of the specific family to which they belong as children of God, I hesitate to view this particular part of the story as nearly important as the story of God or even the story of the history of the wider church. That said, to the extent that the history of their local church helps children to understand that they are part of a local church family, that is definitely an important part of their spiritual maturity.
Chapter 5 – The Child and the Story of Faith
The next portion of the overall “story” which Ms. Beckwith argues is critical to a child’s relationship with God is the story of their faith. This story includes their testimony and how God is continuing to work in their lives. She defines it as:
…the ability to identify where the Spirit of God breaks into one’s life on a daily basis; being able to speak to a foundational belief or understanding about how God works in the world and, more specifically, in one’s own life; and being able to frame explanations of why one lives the way one does because of one’s encounters with God and God’s story.
Ms. Beckwith argues being able to articulate our own faith story helps us to see where we fit into the story of God, and that in order to understand, and be able to articulate, their own story, children must see the adults in their lives model the sharing of their own faith story. This is where she sees a breakdown because, as she points out, many adults are not able to share their own faith story. In order for kids to feel comfortable with speaking about their own faith story and empowered to share it with others, they need to be around parents and other adults who are comfortable talking to them about matters of faith. In order to accomplish this, Ms. Beckwith says that those of us in Children’s Ministry must be intentional about getting parents together with their kids to talk about matters of faith from a very early age.
There is an awful lot of truth in what Ms. Beckwith has to say in this particular chapter. Many Christian have trouble telling their own faith story, and even those who do generally can offer only a “testimony” of how they “came to Christ” and struggle to tell the story of how God has continued to work in their lives since that time.
This inability to convey a faith story is then passed to children who also then lack the vocabulary and training to talk about their own faith story. As those in children’s ministry, we must consistently model the telling of individual faith stories by sharing our own story with the kids we lead and helping them to formulate their own stories. Furthermore, we must encourage parents to talk to their kids about their own faith stories. As with anything else, it will be much easier for kids to learn this skill when it is consistently modeled for them both at church and at home.
This ends Ms. Beckwith’s (and my) discussion of the transformational power of story. Story is an important element in teaching and discipling kids, and it is one that cannot be ignored. This book does a great job of laying out the different elements of story that should be addressed in teaching kids about God. If nothing else, I hope that this book will help to further the discussion of utilizing story as a means of reaching and discipling kids. Tomorrow, we will begin our review of the chapters from Ms. Beckwith’s book dealing with the transformational power of ritual.