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Messy Church


On any estimate, the growth of Messy Church has been remarkable. It began at an Anglican church in Portsmouth which was concerned that it was not reaching families effectively, despite having good premises and an annual holiday club. Messy Church (MC) was born out of that concern in 2004 and in the last decade has become an international phenomenon, operating under the umbrella of the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF). In Edinburgh alone ten MC initiatives are registered on the website and there may be other un-registered ones. I was able to visit three events, talk at length with another eight leaders and converse briefly with some exhibitors and colleagues from other parts of Scotland at the Heart & Soul event on General Assembly Sunday. What is its appeal in so many different countries (currently 17 and not all English-speaking)? Why does it work across wide denominational and theological spectrums? Should every church have one?

Certainly the core values are appealing. These are

hospitality - expressed in the welcome participants receive, especially in the shared meal. This taps into a strong element of the culture in both Old and New Testament times

creativity - a major part of an event is always the craft activities. The worship times can also be an opportunity for a creative approach

all-age - children may not come on their own but should always be with an adult (there have been behavioural issues when unaccompanied children have been allowed in). The different age groups as encouraged to work together on e.g. the crafts, so there is a counter-cultural strand to MC, challenging the separation of age groups from each other in the home and in the church

celebration - there is always a time of worship with an emphasis on story-telling, catchy songs and prayer (there are even actions for a MC benediction); also acknowledging birthdays

Christ-centred -  MC is not meant to be a children's club with a worship time attached but an expression of the Gospel

So an event will involve a mix of crafts, worship and food. Some places provide a hot meal, while at least one serves afternoon tea. The MC organisation has trademarked its logo but otherwise organisers are pretty free to do MC in a way that suits their context and that the leaders can handle. Lucy Moore, the originator of MC and an "inspiring person" - in one description of her - writes of wanting the Spirit to have "free play". So there is no statement of faith or franchise agreement to sign up to, though there are Regional Co-ordinators who can offer advice and encouragement. The logo is trademarked so that anyone using it should be doing something that is recognisably MC.

People are intrigued by the name. Some feel threatened; after all, Presbyterians do it decently and in order. But MC seems to have tapped into something in 21st Century culture that scratches where people itch. As John Drane points out in his chapter in Messy Church Theology, discipleship is messy because life is messy.

Visits & Meetings with Leaders (Apology to readers: the alliterative headings were to help me during interviews to have in my head key areas to ask about)

Most initiatives have been started out of a concern to reach families who, it is obvious, will never be reached by traditional Sunday worship patterns and times. Several leaders spoke of their elderly congregations and few if any children in Sunday church. One indicated that MC was originally started as a gathering place for church families but over the months has tended to attract newcomers.

The most common time to hold MC is at weekends, generally the last of the month. Late afternoon on a Friday or Saturday was frequently mentioned, but some are held on Sundays (even Sunday morning) and a few on a weeknight. The advice is to find out what suits potential team members and participants; availability of premises is also a key factor in some instances.

The most common pattern is to have a biblical theme that runs through the whole of a particular session, sometimes even the food (e.g. to link with the Prodigal Son theme, decorating tea biscuits to look like pig faces; or a cake in the shape of something in the Bible story). Themes include anything from parables to the weather.

a) Arrivals: most MC organisers I spoke with have a fairly light touch attitude to registration. There is normally a sign-in sheet for names only and people are given a name badge. Some ask for an email address so that families can be contacted about further events, though this is not always asked for on a first visit. Those groups that do ask new people for an email address find that they don't object, especially if it's optional

b) Craft and other activities: these will include anything from four to 11 crafts. The MC books have lots of ideas; there is also a quarterly magazine. Baker Ross is often used as a resource for materials, and apparently they offer a discount to registered Messy Churches. Several events have an area for toddlers. Finding something suitable for boys seems to be a particular challenge - activities like balloon volleyball, building a nativity scene from cardboard junk or making a water filter seem to work well.

The craft/activity section usually lasts about an hour, with people arriving up to half an hour after the nominal starting time

c) Celebration: if practical, most events will be in a dedicated worship space, usually the church sanctuary, which perhaps sends an unspoken message about changing public perceptions of church. There will always be a Bible story and prayer, with usually some children's action songs, though in one place they make a conscious effort to have at least one more "grown up" praise item. Birthdays may be acknowledged and celebrated (with a cake to eat at mealtime). One organiser ensures there is a take-away leaflet which has a visual reminder of and text that retells the story. The worship time lasts 15-30 minutes. In one initiative, they have some songs and the story at the start of the afternoon, so that the crafts make more sense, followed by a return to church for another song, application and prayer.

d) Food: The arrangements for this are quite varied. Where there are assigned kitchen staff a hot meal is often served (e.g. pizza and salad / soup, bread and cheese / barbecue). Other places usually serve a cold meal. At least three don't provide a meal as such. One begins with afternoon tea (very fashionable), while another only provides hot and cold drinks - a food-based craft activity supplies the eatables. The catering aspect of MC seems to be one of the biggest challenges - some places just don't have either suitable facilities or a catering team able to prepare and serve a meal. A question in my own mind was whether something is lost by not having all ages sitting down together to a meal of some kind, however simple. It doesn't happen often in most homes, and this counter-cultural aspect of MC is a welcome sign of the kingdom. Visits to all the MC events taking place around Edinburgh might have answered this question, but that's not been practical. The question was posed to one leader whose MC offers a light finger food buffet after providing a full meal in the early months - she didn't think there was any significant difference.


Expenditure: One leader reported that the food alone costs about £120 per month! However, around £400pa seems about right for the total cost of running MC, though this will vary enormously depending on numbers, the crafts provided and the type of food served. Inevitably, start up costs need to be budgeted for, e.g. the banner which seems to be an essential and effective part of the publicity strategy.
Income: some places have a donations box, others have taken deliberate decision not to. The "signal" of this latter approach seems to me that it's not a fresh expression of church but an outreach run by the main congregation. In one or two places donations, where they are invited, cover the total cost; in most they only a fraction of it. Grants from e.g. Presbytery Mission Resourcing funds have been obtained by some, but it's clear that a congregation starting MC will need to make a financial commitment in support of the initiative


Team: A health warning - the MCs that have not continued after start-up are reported to be those that have depended too heavily on one person. However, it's clear to me that MC will only work well where there is at least one individual with vision, enthusiasm and energy who is able to motivate others. For example, some are headed up by a children and families worker, part of whose remit is MC. A core team seems to be pretty essential. Some have planning meetings and prayer times, others don't. The size of the team varies enormously; in one instance there are just three regular team members who recruit others on an ad hoc basis; it's hard to see how that can continue successfully. But in general, team size depends on the number of visitors - 15-20 is about the maximum, with more substantial food requiring significantly more caterers. Most teams try to have a leader looking after each craft table or other activity.

Participants: It's impossible to give an average figure because numbers vary so much - from place to place and from month to month in any given setting. However, they are certainly higher than I expected, varying from anything around 20 to 150. A mean figure would be 40-50. Where MC has been operating for a year or more leaders reported a fair bit of regular attendance. Nearly all leaders indicated that the measure of success some of their congregation use is the numbers who progress from Messy Church to Sunday church. But all the literature and all experience warn against expecting that to happen with any more than with a tiny fraction of families.

Remarkably, several leaders find that just having a banner outside the church in the week leading up to the MC event does bring people in. Is there some kind of wider public awareness of MC or is the name an attraction in itself? Publicity by all means possible seems to be the best strategy, from leafleting groups who use church premises to invitations distributed in local primary schools where that is deemed appropriate by head teachers. People telling friends and bringing them with them to an event is also how many get started with MC

There is a common desire to continue to develop MC among those people who run it. Where there's a possibility of it folding the reasons have nothing to do with low numbers or a belief that it's not serving a good purpose; rather, the key leader/s may not be able to sustain the effort required without adding to their team. In one case there is a pending union with another congregation (which thankfully also runs MC). One or two are still running MC as a pilot project and will need to review progress before deciding whether or not to continue.

Development issues to reflect on include whether MC is an outreach or a fresh expression of church, and whether it can hope to make disciples. These will be developed below, but first it should be noted that there are at least a couple of other all-age events in Edinburgh that reflect several MC values

Woods and Wellies, Colinton
This is an all-age happening on Sunday mornings, led by the Associate Minister. People gather at the entrance to the church grounds at 11.15am, the start time of the second morning service. There's a more informal 9.30am service which some, though not all, have already attended. The group explores the Dell and the Water of Leith Walkway, stopping at appropriate points for a Bible story, song or prayer - making use of the natural environment in an imaginative way. The group then returns to the church halls for lunch. As well as attracting people who don't attend the services, Woods and Wellies is proving a way of bridging the gap between the very different Sunday morning congregations

TGi Friday, Davidson's Mains
This aims to provide a fresh experience of family-based worship and a stepping-stone to Sunday church. Messy Church had been tried on a Sunday afternoon, but it petered out. TGi Friday is held on the last Friday of each month, 12.30pm-3.00pm. There's lunch in the church café, followed by a talk and a song; there's a single take-home craft for all ages to do together. Numbers are typically 60-70, only half of whom will be regular church-goers, though some others have started attending on Sundays. An issue to address is what to do with teenagers who come along, but otherwise this - and Woods and Wellies - seem to be working well. Both make creative use of facilities and surroundings.

Reflections on Messy Church

Fresh Expression or Fun Outreach?
Messy Church is fun but is it any more than that? Certainly, it is reaching people not reached in any other way. One leader indicated that his few years of MC events are bringing more children into contact with his church than in the whole of the last ten years. All the literature claims that MC is part of the fresh expressions movement rather than just an outreach. In practice however it's obvious that there is little evidence of the formation of what might be called church, even in the longest running MC in Edinburgh, which has been going for around nine years. Yet most leaders recognise that the majority of participants are extremely unlikely ever to attend Sunday worship. In any case, what do we mean by "church"? A classic working definition offered in the literature is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic which in many respects is of course an important framework. It was however interesting to talk with a PhD student researching fresh expressions who viewed this as too "dogmatic"; he is coming to the conclusion that any gathering of people who experience the presence of God in Christ may be called church.

An assessment of what is happening in Messy Church will have to take this loose definition into account, and avoid any expectation that MC will every add significantly to numbers at Sunday church. Better to be in the business of multiplication rather than addition.

Making Disciples or Making Friends?
Some of those who attend MC are part of the main congregation; some are on the fringes, while others have no other contact. Most people I encountered were friendly and talkative, whether regulars or first-timers. MC is breaking down barriers and building friendships. But what is the long-term impact on people's lives?

Just as there is a need to rethink what we mean by church, Messy Church challenges easy assumptions about discipleship. Is a disciple of Jesus a person who turns up on Sunday, sings the hymns, makes an offering, receives the sacraments and thinks about the sermon? MC writers use the cycle of Blessing, Belonging, Believing and Behaving; they also call on us to take seriously how long it takes for a person to set out on the path of discipleship. It has been instructive to read again the argument that the process of learning to be a disciple involves a combination of the Formal, Socialisation and Non-Formal (apprenticeship) means. People need solid biblical teaching, they need to be part of a discipling community and they need to learn by doing. Jesus used all three methods, but the church, in Scotland at least, has been relatively strong in the first and relatively weak in the other two. With Messy Church it seems like the situation is reversed.

"From the moment they walk in the door, everything we do is about making disciples", writes Paul Moore in his book on discipleship. My own research suggests this may be a national aspiration rather than necessarily a local reality. Messy Church initiatives need to keep this aim constantly before them; as one leader put it, "The key is intentionality".

Make it Messy or Keep it Tidy?
Traditional church tends to be ordered and tidy. Messy Church is, well... messy. There are graffiti walls, hand-painting, running around the church. MC says "come as you are, come together, come and discover, come an experience". And it's a movement growing with remarkable speed as it turns upside down a great many assumptions about what constitutes church. My research, limited as it has been, persuades me that something more than a superficial or childish experience of the kingdom is happening. Messy Church seems to be tapping into a longing for the Gospel by people who have little or no other connection with the Christian church, however unspoken that longing may be. It is a movement for the age we live in.

However, I also believe that Messy Church, at least as I found it in Edinburgh, will need to develop ways of helping people discover and express a genuine faith in Jesus and lead them on in their walk with Him. In common with MC "projects" around the country, experience shows it isn't easy to move people on from an event that takes place maybe eight times a year to more frequent gatherings that will shape a living community of disciples of Jesus. But the conclusion I have reached over the study leave period is that it's worth giving Messy Church a go.

Considerations for Slateford Longstone

We are a predominantly elderly congregation, and though we try hard we find it very difficult to attract the new generation of people in the parish that we need to if the church is going to thrive in the long term. At its meeting in May 2014 the Kirk Sesson agreed in principle to start MC if I gained a favourable impression during the study leave. I did - so can we grasp this opportunity to do something innovative like this? There are a number of things we have to consider.

Fresh Expression: We'll need to see Messy Church as not just another activity, like the Guild or the holiday club. The intention will have to be to reach and keep people who may never be part of Sunday church, accepting that reality from the start - "the key is intentionality".

Time: There are practical considerations about timing. When would we hold it? At the moment the only weekend slot available would be late afternoon/teatime on Fridays, unless we tell the Lighthouse Chapel we need the premises for our own use at certain times. Saturday afternoons probably wouldn't be suitable however because of the keen interest in a certain local football club! A decision will depend on doing a bit of research on the availability of potential team members as well as possible participants.

Food: Timing will also depend partly on what food we try to serve. The afternoon tea idea is attractive, but would many families be free to come along at, say, 3.30pm or 4.00pm on a Friday? And if we decide to serve a meal, are our kitchen facilities suitable?

Soup, bread and cheese might work. More than that would be quite an operation, but I believe whatever we decide, it will be important to offer decent grub.

Budget: There will be start-up costs and a long-term budget implications. It's unlikely in a parish like ours that donations would ever cover the full cost, so the Congregational Board would need to set aside money. It's too early to recommend a precise budget, but I would guess £200 for initial publicity (banner and leaflets) plus the cost of crafts and food, though no doubt the TakeAway and holiday club craft materials could be shared. We would also be able to apply for a grant from Presbytery's Mission Resourcing funds.

Team: The biggest challenge might be getting a team together. Craft and worship leaders, kitchen staff and other volunteers will all be needed. I would want to take some time to gather a team together then train, envision and enthuse them.

Start-Up: Before starting the study leave I thought that we could get Messy Church going by September as a holiday club follow-up, but I now reckon (and this seems to chime with the experience of others) that the earliest we could launch would be with a "Messy Christmas" in late November or early December.

In conclusion, I recommend that we go for it, starting at Christmas-time, then running a monthly pilot project till Easter 2015.


Book List

Susan Lingo (ed.), 13 Very Cool Bible Stories, Standard Publishing, 2009
George Lings (ed.), Messy Church Theology, The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2013
Lucy Moore, Messy Church, The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2006
Lucy Moore, Messy Church 2, The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2008
Lucy Moore and Jane Leadbetter, Starting your Messy Church, The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2012
Paul Moore, Making Disciples in Messy Church, The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2013

Also - the Messy Church website http://www.messychurch.org.uk/

Visits to Messy Church Events and Leaders

Broughton St Mary's
Community Church Edinburgh
Craiglockhart (event)
Joppa St Philip's
Juniper Green
Leith St Andrew's (event)
London Road
Portobello St James'
Tron Kirk Moredun (event)
Colinton (Woods and Wellies)
Davidson's Mains (TGi Friday)

Also - Reuben Addis, Regional Co-ordinator

Thanks to the Messy Church events and leaders, all of whom made me welcome and shared both their passion and pain with me

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