Book Review: 'Holy Work with Children: Making Meaning Together'
By Kevin Johnson
Holy Work with Children: Making Meaning Together
By Dr. Tanya Marie Eustace Campen
Pickwick Publishing, 2021
Holy Work with Children offers theological models of approach that allow children the opportunity to grow in their theological understanding and experiences to discover the ever-present holy in their young lives. Author Dr. Tanya Marie Eustace Campen weaves stories of impact with quotes regarding faith formation that linger in the readers’ minds. The readers find themselves immersed in the content with inspirational moments on each page.
Campen spent nine months in two church contexts in Chicago interviewing, interacting, and researching children. As the children “helped her with her homework,” she discovered that as she listened and valued the voices of children, she learned so much from them in those holy moments. Using Jerome Berryman and his Godly Play curriculum, Campen established relationships with children; moments of connection between scripture and real-life events became foundational in their work together.
One of the foundational blocks of her research was the use of “I wonder” questions.
“When we wonder together, children and I discover more about God and more about our relationship with God and others” (p.7).
This discovery process needs time, and caregivers need to allow time and space to do this holy work.
Key questions that Campen wondered about and posed to the twenty-eight children during those months included:
- “What can children teach faith leaders and communities about God and how we connect to the Divine?
- How does listening to children teach us about God and faith formation?
- How might children’s stories about God shape our churches’ religious education?
- How might children’s insights transform the world?”
Through this safe space that was created, Campen discovered listening first, and not dispelling truths, but rather allowing adults and children to experience God together, challenging the traditional way we reflect on Christian education with children. Each chapter of the book walks the reader through a paradigm shift to learn how children grow in their faith and how they claim and respond to God’s constant love and presence.
This practical theological approach allows readers to contemplate how they listen to and wonder with children in their own context. As they journey through the book, readers will learn that faith formation is about an ongoing meaning-making process that is discovered as children and adults engage, recognize, claim, and respond to God.
This holy work transforms individuals and congregations. It begins with deep respect for children and a desire to create a space where children are considered full members in the faith community. This claim is not only Campen’s throughout this book, but it is also the mission of The United Methodist Church. This practical approach affirms and guides the children as they grow and live as Christ followers who will transform the world.
Campen describes the calling of those who work with children:
“to be present, to listen, and to build trust as we guide and lead the children with whom we are in ministry as they seek to make meaning and find their place in the divine dance” (p. 25).
Campen reminds readers that, through this new model, learning occurs for both adults and children together. There should be a shift from a “teacher providing the answers” to affirmation of questions and encouraging exploration in the meaning-making process – together! This journey together involves truly listening and having deep respect for one another. True listening, according to children, is when they get to share their stories and get to know one another better (p. 48). There is so much power in story and in sharing stories with others.
Our job as adults is to journey alongside, wonder with children, and encourage the process of action-reflection to create a space for encountering God.
Upon reading this book, I wonder, along with the author, how we—as champions for children’s ministry—are doing with the process of making meaning in our contexts. I wonder how we are helping children to engage, recognize, claim, and respond to the presence of God in their lives. I wonder how we are helping children develop the faith formation tools needed to guide them in this process. This book will have you wondering alongside Dr. Campen about the same things as you implement a shift toward creating space to experience God together. When we implement this shift, our holy work becomes more about heart than head as we partner and journey alongside the children. Somewhere I am sure that John Wesley is nodding in agreement.
Dr. Tanya Marie Eustace Campen, an ordained deacon and director of Intergenerational Discipleship of the Rio Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, uses her extensive ministry experiences along with months of qualitative research with children and their parents to invite readers to rethink and reshape the way children connect their faith stories with their lives.
Learn more about Campen at:
Contact: Rev. Dr. Tanya Campen, [email protected]
Rev. Kevin Johnson is the Director, Children’s Ministries for Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship at Discipleship Ministries. Kevin’s hero Fred Rogers suggests that we, “listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.” This quote defines Rev. Kev’s approach to ministry. Kevin, an ordained elder of the Kentucky Annual Conference, has over fifteen years of ministry experience in which he has thought of the children first. Prior to ministry, Kevin worked with children in the hospital setting and in group homes for emotionally and physically abused children.