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Why My Kids Weren’t At Kids Church

ballet-71002_1280When 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 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.

This morning, 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.

As adults, we recognize that there is more to the church service than just the sermon. 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.

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About the author

Family(40)Christina Embree is wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and family minister at Nicholasville UMC. She is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. Currently studying Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family,  Seedbed, and


  • Jamie Carter
    Posted February 1, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Some of the worst services I’ve been to were family-integrated ones where the Sanctuary doubled as the Nursery. Little children would be banging toys around on their chairs, crashing them on the floor, crying when their siblings took the toy they wanted, crying when their noisy toy was taken away, crushing cellophane wrappers over and over again – but some of the better ones had activity bags where children could color during the service. It took awhile for us to find a balance where the children weren’t a major distraction to everyone else, and yet were sufficiently distracted from being a distraction themselves.

    • Post Author
      Christina Embree
      Posted February 1, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Jamie, I would have to say that some of the best services I’ve been at are family-integrated ones where the church is aware that it is reaching the entire faith community. There still may be “kids being kids” but it doesn’t have to be a distraction if the culture of the church is one that recognizes that it is just part of growing up. I am a huge fan of age-appropriate ministry as long as it doesn’t exclude the opportunity for kids and adults to connect meaningfully at other times. I feel like the church service is one of those places where everyone regardless of age (or anything else) should be welcomed and engaged. As you said, some churches did it better by providing ways to welcome children just like they do to welcome adults (for some more ideas, check out this article There is definitely a need for balance, but I’m not sure it needs to be to keep kids from being a distraction, but to ensure that we are aware that our faith community reaches more ages than just 20-60 year olds and we are creative in finding ways to include, engage, and welcome everyone. The goal shouldn’t be to “sufficiently distract” the kids but rather to engage them in worship and give them a place to participate in community. Children LOVE to be included in the worship. They love helping with handing out bulletins and taking up the offering. And giving them that place to belong makes a huge difference for them as they grow and search for a community to be a part of. I’m well aware of the challenges of making space for children in our corporate worship, but I really do believe the benefits outweigh the costs when we take a Big Picture view. It’s worth a little distraction for us mature adults if they are able to engage and be discipled in their faith. Again, I am not opposed to times of age-appropriate ministry, but feel it should be done in the context of a welcoming church community where times of intergenerational connections and meaningful corporate worship are also encouraged.

      • Jamie Carter
        Posted February 1, 2016 at 4:42 pm

        I’m not so sure – it’s all too easy to try to get kids into too much participation. One Sunday, an elderly woman was quite moved by listening to the children singing in the pews that she made them get to the front of the church and sing in front of everyone. That was the last Sunday most of them ever showed up to that church ever again. The ones that didn’t have a choice – the pastor’s children, were the last hold-outs of the school-aged children and they were relieved when the pastor said he was quitting that church. Without them, there was no more youth group. At another church, I could hear one of the youth make an exasperated sigh about being called up to do something for the umpteenth time. I remember watching an Easter Special where there was a supremely bored Jesus who looked like he would rather be anywhere than in church. I felt sorry for the kids because I had been put through much the same thing when I was their age and it’s never any fun.

        • Post Author
          Christina Embree
          Posted February 1, 2016 at 4:46 pm

          Oh I definitely agree with that. Involving and engaging children shouldn’t be putting them on for a show or forcing them to perform. We would never do that to someone else and it is exactly the wrong message to send to children. Church isn’t performance. It’s a time for the body of Christ to come together, worship and serve each other, and glorify God. I think there are fabulous ways to allow kids to be part of that work without making it all about them or it being cutesy or a performance. It’s really more about a culture that says, “All are welcome. We recognize that we are all at different places in our lives and we will all act, react, and grow differently. But we also realize we are all members of Christ’s body, called together, and united in Him who is the Head. Therefore, we don’t say “No” to anyone in word, action or tradition. Rather we seek to find ways for all to be welcomed and engaged in worshiping and growing together as the Church.”

      • janeontheprairie
        Posted February 1, 2016 at 6:56 pm

        Jamie, first, putting kids on display is not the same as them having a meaningful worship experience. Parading them out because they are cute serves others, not them. Second, children are individuals and one size fits all won’t work. You can’t make every 6th grader acolyte or sing because they don’t all want to participate, in the same way not all adults want to participate. On the flip side, I have a confirmed high school child who would love to serve communion after having a very moving experience at a national youth conference serving communion to other teens but “only adults are communion assistants” back home. While there are definitely jobs that need to be done within a worship service and sometimes you pitch in because you are part of a community and it needs to be done, there is nothing biblical about 6th graders lighting candles or 4th graders singing or 21+ year olds serving communion. You have to tailor the participation to the gifts of the individual.

        I will say my kids have always been in church with us, minus a few years when they were simply too physically active for us to handle together. However, even then they left for the nursery only for the sermon and were retrieved for communion. I have one who has always participated happily in the service and one who has always grumbled about it (but who still knows the liturgy and expected behavior). They aren’t cogs made on an assembly line. My job as a parent is to model the behavior and give them enough exposure that when the time comes to participate at an adult level, they can make their own informed choices.

  • Brian
    Posted February 1, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    This is a brilliant attitude – “This morning, 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.”
    Will you now make this a regular thing for all children in your childrens ministry?

    • Post Author
      Christina Embree
      Posted February 2, 2016 at 12:50 am

      Hi Brian, I agree, this is a brilliant attitude. We do in fact have an intergenerational service at our church that this family usually attends so they can worship together. The Kids Church and small group times follow that during our later service. However, our intergenerational service is more contemporary in style and the later service is more traditional. That is why the mother clarified with me where her kids were during that hour. However, regardless which service families choose to attend, I am blessed to serve at a church the is welcoming of all ages at every service.

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  • Jesse Joyner
    Posted February 5, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    As is evident from the comments, there is a right way to do intergenerational and a wrong way to do it. I appreciate your championing of the “right” way to do it – having the children enter into the entire worship experience without propping them up in front as a show. It is wonderful when children participate in “up front” things (I put that in quotes because only God is up front), but that should be completely voluntary on the child’s part.

    The problem with most church services these days is that they are targeted towards adults only. When people want children to be a part of these “adult services,” the leaders somehow think that it means that the service will be a children’s show and that adults would not like it. I disagree. I believe there is a way to have both – an intergenerational worship experience. It takes work, it takes creativity. It takes thinking outside the box of both the typical adult service as well as the typical children’s church service.

    The Nutcracker is a great example. There are plenty of other all-ages experiences in our world – sports events, art galleries, festivals, parties – even weddings and funerals. So why do we separate out the children when it comes to regular weekly worship of God?

    Thank you for this blog and thank you for getting this conversation going so we can all work together to come up with creative ideas to have more intergenerational worship experiences.

    • Post Author
      Christina Embree
      Posted February 5, 2016 at 10:11 pm

      Jesse, thank you! I truly hope this does indeed spark conversation and maybe give churches a chance to consider how they approach not only the church service but ministry to families and children as members of the corporate body.

  • Michael Erwin
    Posted February 5, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    Speaking as a parent and a pastor (and my kids are in high school and college now, so thankfully I’ve made it through!) – it takes a lot of confidence and devil-may-care-ness to sit with your own kids through the quiet parts of worship. I don’t know a whole lot of parents who can do that without feeling some sense of “are people looking at me?” That’s hard to overcome. So, I applaud and appreciate parents who can do it, but I offer children’s church anyway, just in case.

    • Post Author
      Christina Embree
      Posted February 5, 2016 at 10:09 pm

      Hi! I really appreciate your thoughts. I hear what you are saying and can understand where you are coming from. Personally, I’ve interacted with parents who faced that discomfort but found that the welcoming culture of the church and the awareness that no one expected their kids to act like anything other than kids really helped alleviate that concern. When a church culture says, “You are welcome here” and consistently acts and reacts in ways that substantiate that claim, parents can feel more at ease in worshiping with their whole family. Some ideas would be to recognize and welcome the children to the service at the beginning so parents can be relieved to know that its okay for their kids to be there. Pew cards are often used by churches that explain and welcome families, addressing both the parents and the other church members (I have a copy of one from a church I’d be happy to send you if you are interested), and providing materials that help children connect with the service such as relevant coloring packets, sermon notes, or places to serve during the gathering. It has been my experience that when this culture of welcome is nurtured, that fear of what others might think or concern that they are being looked at diminishes. In fact, a number of families I’ve had the opportunity to meet with lately told me that this culture of welcome is what has drawn them to the churches they now attend – rather than being made to feel that they had to leave their children and worship separately, they feel welcome to worship as a family if they choose to. While I do understand that many churches still have services that are primarily aimed at adults, I think it is an area that is worth talking about and looking into as a larger Church community.

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  • Christine H.
    Posted February 6, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    As someone who is also a church leader encouraging parents to bring their children into worship to experience belonging and formation, thank you. Your example of the Nutcracker performance was one of the best explanations I have seen of why it is important for children to spend time in worship. Each church will have it’s own best ways of how to include children in worship – but you captured the why perfectly. Will share with our congregation very soon!!

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