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Why Do People Leave Church? Maybe the ‘Box’ We’ve Created Is Way Too Small

There are times that my mind is stirred by a memory; this weekend was one of those time. My oldest daughter went to prom and there she was, all decked out in her beautiful dress, twirling like a princess, her face beaming with happiness. And it brought this experience from her childhood to mind and with that, this blog post, which I’ve shared before but it absolutely bears sharing again.

When our oldest daughter was preschool age, she was obsessed with The Nutcracker Suite. Well, let’s be honest, it was the Barbie version, but she loved it. She would dress up like a princess and dance around the house pretending that she was the star of the show. When the Nutcracker came to town for holidays, my husband asked her to go with him. They dressed in their finest; she even got put her hair in an up-do, and off they went.

It was a long show. There were many in attendance, almost all older than her. While she loved being with her dad and seeing the show, she was also a preschooler so she wiggled and squirmed and squealed and giggled. She had to go to the bathroom. She got hungry and wanted snacks.

But when she got home, she beamed.

I asked her to tell me about it and all she could remember was the scene with The Rat King (“Oooo…Scary!”).

I asked Luke to tell me about it and much of what he could remember was her wiggliness. But then I asked if people seemed bothered by her and he said, “No. Actually I had a few people compliment me on bringing her to the ballet.”

I posted an adorable picture of their date on Facebook and many similar comments were posted, things like, “So good that you are giving her this experience at such a young age” and “This is exactly what kids should be experiencing.”

Surprisingly, not one person commented, “Hmm, seems like a waste of money to me. I mean, did she even understand anything?” Nobody criticized us for forcing her to sit through a long performance filled with imagery and dialogue she couldn’t follow. No one complained about her fidgeting or her outbursts. And nobody questioned whether this was beneficial for her.

Because as everyone recognized, it wasn’t about her understanding the “story” of The Nutcracker Suite or her watching the ballet with a critical eye or even her sitting still through the performance.

It was about giving her an experience, a total package, filled with sights and sounds and smells and stories that could be felt and experienced even if they couldn’t be understood or comprehended.

A few years ago, a mom shared with me that the reason her kids didn’t join us in Kids Church is because every now and then she wants to them to get to experience the traditional service at church, to hear the liturgy, to listen to the hymns, to be a part of a service that replicates the services that she grew up in and that have been part of their family’s tradition.

You see, for this mom, it’s not about her children understanding each word of the sermon or comprehending the history of the liturgy or the meaning of the hymns. It about the total package; the experience of being in church, surrounded by the things that have been formational for generations and by the people who make up the body of Christ.  These children get to be seen, they get to see, and they get to experience church. 

The church experience is much bigger than a sermon.

Big or little, child or adult, the sermon is only part of the whole experience. Not understanding the sermon in no way negates the rest of the experience. Seeing the people. Singing the songs. Giving our tithes and God’s offerings. Praying, at your seat or at the altar or in small groups or corporately as a whole church. Reading Scripture. Reciting psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Smelling the incense. Tasting the communion elements. Serving. Celebrating. Fellowshipping. Communing with God and with each other.

It’s a total package.

And much of what is included in that package is not comprehended through the mind, but through the heart. It’s not things that require a certain level of development but things that are experienced through the senses and understood through emotions. A sense of belonging, a place in community, an important part of a body. All of that can be experienced, regardless of age. When we squish church into a box that can be experienced only by adults in less than an hour…we miss the point. We miss the whole idea of church. And that is why it is so easy for people to leave the church, because what they are leaving isn’t really the church, it’s the box we’ve created for church to fit into.

Yesterday, in our small church, a teenager led worship, a 3rd grader read the Psalm, a 4th grader helped lead communion, and the adults shared prayers and praises from one generation to another. It was so much more than just any one of these things alone. As adults, we can recognize that there is more to the church service than just the sermon or the worship or the program of events. The same holds true for children too. Giving them the opportunity to experience the total package is a gift; whether they understand parts of it or not.

This article originally appeared here.

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Christina is wife of Pastor Luke and mom to Hannah, Naomi, and Caleb. She has been serving in ministry since 2010, first as a director of children's ministry and now as a family minister near Lexington, KY.