One of the most popular and fruitful forms of fresh expression over the past few years has been Messy Church, which was first pioneered by Lucy Moore and her team. Typically, Messy Church builds a community around a monthly event, which brings parents and children together to engage in creativity, worship … and food! It is relaxed, fun and accessible for people wanting to belong to a Christian community but struggle to be part of traditional church.
The Messy Church website tells us:
“The first Messy Church began in 2004 when a group at St Wilfrid’s in Cowplain near Portsmouth were frustrated because, as a church, we were hardly reaching any children with God’s story … We decided very early on to try to do something for all ages together, partly out of a belief that we grow best as a church when we walk the journey with as many different people as possible, and partly from a desire to help families grow together in their walk of faith, not see Christianity as something you grow out of when you’re eleven.” (www.messychurch.org.uk)
In the years since then, Messy Church has grown and spread so that now there are Messy Church communities and events across the UK and beyond. The central challenge that Lucy Moore identified early on was how to deliver substantial discipleship with a monthly or fortnightly event. Recently, we were part of a seminar exploring this issue of discipleship in Messy Church, and out of that we produced the following observations.
Messy Church: Principles concerning nurture and discipleship
It is essential to recognise that Christian nurture and discipleship are already at the heart of Messy Church events and communities.
- It is suggested that Messy Church provides ‘shallow end’ discipleship – Whilst we shall argue that there is considerable scope to strengthen discipleship in most Messy Church events and communities, we should not ignore the discipleship that is already happening. This is expressed in teaching bible truth, experiencing praise, worship and prayer, participating in fellowship and community, corporate activity and meals. For some participants in deprived areas, sharing in the cooking and eating together encourages the discipleship of quality family life of which they otherwise may know little.
- It can be acknowledged that although all-age, we enter the kingdom as children – So, whilst the level of content takes children into account, in some aspects adults can learn at least as well from this approach.
- Invited participants are not the only ones to experience discipleship, but this also involves the volunteer helpers – Although many team/helpers admit that their church is still elsewhere, they are nonetheless a part of a discipling culture as they are exposed to all that the invitees are and have added to the dimension of discipleship of service.
Two broad paths to enrich nurture and discipleship
In principle, there seem to be two approaches to deepen and extend nurture and discipleship in Messy Church events and communities:
- Add to the discipleship in the Messy Church event/community itself – One evident way to do this is to increase the frequency of the events/gatherings. Since many Messy Churches only meet once a month this is not difficult from the point of spaces in the month, but is a challenge in terms of team workload.
The second way that this can happen is by enriching the content of some or all of the events. The challenge here is preserving the ethos and values of the event and managing the expectations/trust of those invited. But varying the content so that events are not deepened in nurture/discipleship every time could provide some scope.
- Complement the Messy Church events with other activities and groups– This is obviously a way that has the merit that it avoids changing the Messy Church event itself. The extra elements are offered in parallel to the Messy Church event.
This has the further advantage that only those participants who are ready to go deeper respond to the further opportunity – it is not imposed on the rest, with risks of violating expectations or trust.
The extra elements can be resourced in one of three ways. EITHER by the existing Messy Church team – with likely risk of overburdening; OR by organising the invitees to initiate and manage these elements themselves (thereby extending their discipleship); OR by developing partnerships among a range of congregations/cluster of parishes, which could give further legs to the mixed economy.
Challenges to nurture and discipleship
Here are some particular challenges to discipleship in Messy Church that occur to us from relating to several examples:
- It is aimed at reaching the non-churched– Today they have so very little knowledge of the Christian faith or biblical story. As one vicar put it, “We are recreating the ozone layer!” (the lost knowledge of bible story and worldview previously learnt through socialising in Christendom). With this lack of common starting point, it may not be easy to spark discussion of Christian basics in Messy Church.
- There is only a short time for worship and word– A Messy Church event itself needs to be within a limited timeframe and with lots of diversity to keep involvement and attention. Within this overall pattern of a Messy Church event, this leaves only a short time for these discipling elements, which with children anyway need to be short.
- Messy Church events are usually infrequent– Lucy Moore originally started with monthly Messy Church events. This is typical, although some do run fortnightly. Anyway, it is rarely weekly and participants may be only semi-regular. So there is patchy take-up and so you can easily lose momentum.
- An all-age focus– The level of Christian input is all-age and therefore cannot be tailored to discipling needs of any one age group. Some don’t see this as limiting, since anything at children’s level reaches all.
- The volunteer team are already stretched to run the event– So, it’s unrealistic to expect them to resource and run other discipleship activities.
- Those drawn to Messy Church events don’t expect ‘discipleship’– The very attraction of the Messy Church ethos and style creates a strong identity which can lead to assumptions that ‘this is it.’
- There are trust issues– The promotion and invitation to Messy Church only carries implication of a wholesome family time and some light Christian content and values. To go beyond this can undermine trust of those who come back and who stick. It could put them off altogether.
- Messy Church is limited, as any event must be, by having single social dynamics – Discipleship Jesus style includes one-on-one relationships/mentoring, ministry work parties, prayer workshops, etc. Messy Church has internal diversity but a single social dynamic
Ideas to enrich nurture and discipleship
Having explored the limitations there are still plenty of opportunities to enrich discipleship. Here are thirteen that occur to us, any of which can be resourced from outside the Messy Church teamfrom either mobilising the invitees to organise themselves and co-opting them into the planning (which is excellent discipleship) or by partnerships among those from different congregations. All are extras to the Messy Church event for those ready for further steps.
These ideas can express (as Stephen Lindridge has proposed for discipleship) the full range of the four steams of human nature: community (belong), understanding (believe), kingdom action (behave) and spiritual experience (bless).
- Provide resources for families to do nurture in their daily life at home– And today they have so very little knowledge of the Christian faith or biblical story. These can focus on particular seasons like Advent/Lent. Again, “We are recreating the ozone layer!” The resources can include family prayer, readings/bible, family rituals/traditions and suggestions for activities and social engagement/outreach.
- Activities focused on kingdom concerns (they organise themselves)– Offering Messy Church participants the chance to share in social action – from supporting mums having babies to providing clothes for Romanian orphans to supporting the bullied and everything in between. Jesus discipled his people by mobilising them in action focused on kingdom issues.
- Baby massage and prayer– Mums love their baby being pampered and blessed, and they experience different prayer as they participate in the blessing invoked on their beloved baby.
- Parenting support– courses and groups can be offered to open invitations.
- Cell groups – separate for adults/children or inter-generational– Sally Gaze has planted five adult cell groups and two teen’s cells from a Messy Church-type event. Then there can be ‘Jesus and me’ groups, use of Nooma, etc.
- Standard courses like Alpha, Start, Emmaus, etc– Some fit better because they have a style and ethos that flows more with a Messy Church culture. Again only family members who are ready to respond
- LifeShapes– Offering these tools as support for ‘how to live life better.’ (www.weare3dm.com)
- Storytelling workshops– To equip families with these skills and use bible stories. For resources, visit http://www.storyrunners.com/resources
- Offer ‘adoptive grandparents’– Encourage older Christians to volunteer as friends, supporters and mentors. This is part of the wider option of visiting individuals and families in their homes.
- All-age prayer school– In an all-age setting adults can learn informal prayer and break the sound barrier.
- Links to other church/’parish’ activities and events– Such as baptism preparation, festivals, etc.
- Work into the schools of participating children– Things like Open the Book are perfect to build discipleship into the associated schools. Participants of Messy Church will be networked into many other such contexts where discipleship may be introduced.
- Plant a ‘Sunday Church’ with direct link to Messy Church– At least one midweek Messy Church is planting a similar style but ‘deeper’ Sunday gathering alongside.
One of our main conclusions follows from Lucy Moore’s conviction that most of the Messy Church volunteer teams around the country could not consider adding anything further to their workload, already being fully stretched resourcing and leading Messy Church events.
This crystallised the idea for us that a perfect expression of the mixed economy would be for any/all of our discipleship ideas to be run either by the non-churched participants themselves or by partnership between different congregations in a mixed economy parish or cluster of churches. We already see a tiny example of this at St Thomas’ in Sheffield where Alpha courses that are run centrally have groups from different missional communities, each with a table with their name on it.
Now this also raises the extremely important issue issue that when we are so often addressing the question to Fresh Expressions, ‘Is it fully church?’ we may be mistakenly assuming that all of church has to be delivered in a single expression. If church becomes more of a verb, then we can see church done in its different aspects (constituent actions/parts) in different activities, engagements, families and get-togethers (which seems truer to the New Testament references to church of the town/city or equally of the household … all doing bits of church in that place and contributing to one another to make it fully church).