A Renewal Experiment: Messy Church
Written by Peter Armstrong
September 21, 2021
Written by Peter Armstrong
September 21, 2021
Three years ago, our youth pastor brought us an idea: Messy Church. It is a movement that started in England that uses all generations to reach children for Christ. Each Messy Church gathering lasts around two hours, and consists of a craft time, a shortened worship service and a meal. The time of worship is very interactive and directed at the level of an elementary school student. The songs are simple, each element of the liturgy (call to worship, confession and assurance, benediction, etc.) is explained and the sermon is short (5-10 minutes). Afterwards, you share a meal where you can talk about the ways God ministered to you.
At our church, we have experienced fresh joys and kingdom life together as we gather for Messy Church one evening per month. It has been beautiful to see families who do not attend church dip their toe back in the water. And it is so fun to see 90-year-olds and 9-year-olds not just sit in a pew together but make a craft and share a meal. Today, I want to share with you six steps toward starting Messy Church as a renewal experiment at your church. I am praying that you experience the same joys that we have.
Any new ministry initiative must be bathed in prayer. It is obvious but bears repeating! Ask God to give you a heart for entire families in your community that could be reached through Messy Church. It is a wonderful way for families to begin to reconnect to a Jesus community, but is now the right time for your church? Gather a group of friends or leaders and pray in humility and confidence. Only then should you consider reaching out to the Messy Church organization or taking the next step: discerning.
Step back and ask questions of your council, young families and those with a heart to reach them. See how these groups are doing in these tumultuous times. The last 18 months have been especially difficult for parents of young children. Are there other leaders in your church who the Holy Spirit is prompting?
There should be a period of 3-6 months in which you discern the moment. I remember a conversation at council when we were in our discerning period. There was naturally some uncertainty. Often members, especially in smaller churches, can feel stretched. As the old theory goes, there are 20% of people doing 80% of the work. But we truly felt like this was something that God wanted us to do. It was confirmed to me when the President of our Council, Diane, prayed with a smile, “Lord, we are already a messy church. Now help us to start this new ministry called ‘Messy Church’.” She was acknowledging both the brokenness and the beauty of this thing we call Church. That is all part of the discernment process.
After a period of prayer and discernment, you must ask the congregation to step up and use their gifts. There are three teams that you should form in order to lead Messy Church well: crafts, worship and meals. Not everyone can preach a sermon that engages a 6-year-old, but there are so many opportunities to use the gifts God has given your congregation, such as making a meal, writing a prayer or leading a craft.
One of the best parts is seeing new people use their gifts, or unveiling those hidden talents of longtime members. Not everyone loves doing a craft so we’ve started a little music jam session in the corner where we provide background music while others make crafts. Once in a while someone new will sit down at the piano or pick up a guitar and surprise us all.
Oftentimes, we can feel a little sheepish or like we don’t have too much to offer. But like the old Stone Soup tale, when we bring what we have together, it creates something delicious. That is literally true at Messy Church when meals are shared, bread is broken and relationships deepen.
Once people who have gifts to share are committed, it is time to launch Messy Church! Make personal invites to the whole church (we have messy church as part of our regular rhythm of evening worship, so that helps). But don’t forget to also invite grandchildren of the congregation, neighbors, boy scout buddies, soccer teammates and local school contacts. Every person receives a name tag upon entering, and the fun begins from there. It is truly a part of God’s renewing work in our congregations to see ministries like Messy Church started and grow!
So, what happens when you start Messy Church and a global pandemic begins six months later? You persevere! In the years to come, we are going to hear so many wonderful stories of how churches adapted and persevered during 2020 and 2021.
For a while, Messy Church was unable to meet in person, so we sent craft packets home with children. We released ten-minute Messy Church sermon videos on Youtube (check them out here if you like). We encouraged families to finish with a meal, and even sent along recipe ideas for them. My family enjoyed gathering even with grandparents, in a Covid-safe way, to have Messy Church together in our home.
Of course, there was discouragement and trials and thoughts of, “Is this worth it?” But now that we’re getting closer to the finish line of this pandemic, we are glad that we made the sacrifices and continued to engage families.
Recently, we took the step of re-committing to this ministry for 2022 and beyond. That is a healthy and necessary step in ministry. Too much of the time, we keep a group, bible study or service going because we’ve always done it that way. But it is wise to keep praying and discerning as to what God wants you to do. Looking back over 20 years of full-time ministry, I’ve found that the gifts of my congregation frequently matched up with what the community needed. In this time where we are divided as a country and literally hungry for relationships perhaps Messy Church can be part of God’s renewal plan for you.