Embracing the glorious mess of church.

Childhood Girls floor painting

In churches, we tend to avoid mess. We run our Sunday morning worship services to a predictable schedule, we rehearse the music and performances in advance, we neatly package the gospel into a three-point sermon, and we send the children out to another area so the adults can listen in peace.

But does it have to be this way? Do adults actually learn best by listening quietly to a monologue lecture? Could all ages benefit from exploring their faith together in hands-on, tangible ways? In our attempt to keep church tidy and clutter-free, are we missing out on something vital and life-giving?

The all-age worship approach of “Messy Church” began just over 10 years ago in the UK, when Lucy Moore and her team wanted to create a space for families who didn’t normally come to church. They had a vision that church could be a place to be creative, to ask questions, to explore faith and to fellowship around the table together. Today, there are nearly 3000 congregations across 18 countries putting the Messy Church principles into place in their communities.

Lucy has written an easy-to-read, accessible book to help you start your Messy Church service. There are three main elements of each meeting;

FUN – everyone joins in an inclusive, participatory experience. It could be craft, or games, or gardening, or any creative activity that gets everyone involved.

FAITH – the group explore faith through a short worship service, or storytelling, or discussion, or facilitated learning experience.

FOOD – the gathering ends with fellowship and friendship through sharing a meal around tables, creating a space to connect and be human together.

I love the values of inclusion, participation and empowerment in this model. I especially love the name itself – Messy Church. We are all messy people. We live messy lives, have messy families and messy relationships with God. Church should be a place where we are welcomed and accepted as we are, without having to clean up or hide the messiness.

In his blog post, Martyn Payne describes Messy Church as “putting the communion back into the Eucharist; the conversation back into our worship; the community back into our conversion; the serving back into our services; and putting the shared experience of our friendship with Jesus and each other into true discipleship.” Let’s stop trying to make spirituality and community neat and tidy, orderly and contained, and embrace the glorious messiness of being the church together.

14 thoughts on “Embracing the glorious mess of church.

  1. Works for me and am sure a lot of others,,Bible study,prayer,live the life ,Of a true Christian, service, Telling others about our story,, True Gospel of CHRIST!AMEN!

    • While this concept is an improvement of a passive church service, it still assumes that going to institutional church is an activity that Jesus would say is in His design of Kingdom life. I don’t think it is and do not see it modeled in scripture. The entire concept of going to a church service is a man made invention. Jesus moved spiritual life from the Temple building to inside you. You are the temple and God resides in you. Jesus left you The Holy Spirit to guide and teach you. (Not teaching pastors.) We are all priests, a brotherhood of priest, equal to each other. Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath. Our rest is in him, daily, not just one day a week. Going to church is not what Jesus died on the cross for. Love God, Love Others, Make Disciples. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-147JgJ3ZJs

      • Hi Chris, I totally agree with you that the institutional church model can and has stifled many of God’s people in their calling to be the church, and the priesthood of believers. That’s why I’m excited to hear about any forms of church (inside our outside of the institution) which are moving towards empowerment, inclusion and participation.

        Blessings,

        – Kathleen

  2. Kathleen,

    I really love this idea of messy church. I think Christendom has gotten into the unfortunate idea that our christian meeting should somehow be “fitting” for God, which means a bit formal or “sacred”, not much fun, very “religious”, etc. But I don’t think the God who made caterpillars, our digestive system, mosquitos and sex has the same sense of “fitting” as we do! If we are sharing in community, encouraging ourselves to follow Jesus and love and serve the world, then that is fitting enough.

    15 years ago my wife led a meeting that was a little like this. Previously, church had happened for the adults while she and I led a small Sunday School for primary school children at the same time. So we started a 45 minute meeting before all that happened, called Shazam! It was aimed at primary aged children with a little more meat in places for the adults, and it included craft, discussion around tables, fun, occasional singing, prayer, story-telling, sometimes food (but not a meal). Everyone enjoyed it, I think we all we more encouraged than we were in regular church, and I don’t think we learned any less.

    I’m glad to hear of messy church.

    • Hi Eric, I had a good laugh reading your comment about “the God who made caterpillars, our digestive system, mosquitos and sex”! I agree that church has become a formal, “sacred” environment, where our spirituality turns into something arms-length, theoretical, non-relational and disconnected.

      I love the sound of your wife’s “Shazam” meetings. We also went through a similar process in our journey, while we pastored a local church and forced them to do “interactive services” once a month. There was one sweet 92 year old woman who was very impressed that we were being so “progressive”.

      Blessings,

      – Kathleen

  3. Many years ago I had a book that had some very interactive activities in it and over the years I have lost track of it and can’t even remember the name or author. It suggested things like sharing the story of the woman who was bent over that Jesus healed by trying to drink a glass of water while bent over at 45 degrees. Another one was the lost coin. There were others that I so wish I would have hung onto, but sadly forget. If this rings a bell with anyone…please let me know.
    My church is pretty messy…I have had to take a break more than once as it hardly seemed worth the effort to get there. But we have carried on for over 4 years now and have had many different seasons and directions. I love the analogy that Frank Viola makes in Pagan Christianity about organic church being like a group of folks walking together vs a train on a track and how that makes us flexible and able to respond to the Holy Spirit in a timely manner. There is a lot of love, we are all gaining wisdom and growing in grace, expanding our tolerance for messiness and sometimes the meetings go really smoothly and real chaos is more effectively addressed. We don’t try to create a Sunday school project oriented atmosphere, but instead we work with the children to be respectful and quiet and stay under their parents direction and close by. Our meetings are rarely longer than 2 hours and most of the families with small children attend a more structured church where they get their crafts etc. on Sundays. These are kids that get plenty of freedom of movement at other times as we are a rural farming community.This is a midweek meeting and primarily focused on sharing, with some worshipful singing and prayer. There is no hierarchy. That is such a key to my thinking. Whichever home we are meeting in each week, someone from that family prepares a short teaching…which usually is just a spark for conversation, open to all including the children. If that family enjoys having a meal, we do and if they do not, we don’t. Some families are older and need the meeting to end promptly and some are younger and the meetings at their home are more open ended. It feels a lot like just an extension of our lives together, but with a focus on the Scriptures and with effort made to use the time for that purpose rather than just socializing…which we do at other times. We feed and encourage each other and share burdens for prayer and we all go to other activities which involve the unsaved or young Christians, from this meeting which is primarily mature Christians and not evangelistic. It works for us. I think each little community needs the freedom to conform to the needs of the folks in it and that could be very different…rather than the usual established patterns…however, I am grateful for a lot of what those established patterns have accomplished over generations…I just think there is a lot of bondage in that package. I think having new and fresh perspectives, such as the work of Viola and others…is much needed and very encouraging…even to us old Christians.

    • Let me know if you remember the name of that book, Rita. Your church community sounds healthy and loving. The whole concept of getting out of hierarchical models frees you all up to bless one another more.

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  5. We are now in our 6th year of running a Messy Church (MC) in our Anglican parish in Brisbane. It is done somewhat differently to the usual MC model of craft, celebration and shared meal. We offer our MC at the main morning service once a month and include Holy Communion. We focus on a Biblical theme (story or life concept such as “forgiveness”) with crafts and activities to reflect that theme. We also provide a self serve morning tea throughout the service.
    Over the years of running MC, I have been constantly blessed by the response of the families who come, especially the fathers, along with the response of the older members of our congregation. Messy Church has the ability to reassure men that it is okay to “play” and be creative and our “mature-age” saints rediscover the joy of just making something. God has a wonderful way of showing up at each service as young and old work together, creating things, learning more about God and, most important, building relationships. In an age where extended families can be very “extended”, it gives children a chance to relate to a “granny” and gives the grannies the opportunity to interact with children. At our most recent MC one such granny realized that she had been deserted by her two young charges. Looking around, she noticed that they had gravitated to the “grannies” who had helped them with their activities at the previous month’s MC!
    Messy Church should never be treated as a stepping-stone into Sunday Church – it is Church in its own right. Nor is it a substitute for Sunday School. The real strength of MC lies in the fact that it is Church For All Ages Together.

    • I like the sound of your Messy Church, Susanne – and I think the self-serve morning tea is a really practical part of it. Somehow, the act of letting people serve themselves tea and coffee during the “worship” time is freeing and permission-giving. It sets up an atmosphere to talk, and share, and be involved.

      I’m glad to have connected with you through my interest in the Messy Church model.

      – Kathleen

  6. I like the concept of the “Messy Church.” The opportunity to interact with fellow Christians from all walks of life in unconventional ways is certainly an idea I believe to be acceptable to Christ Jesus. In my opinion, the very act of churches putting forth efforts to create new ways to interact with those who love our savior (and especially those who may not yet know Him) honors Him in a special way. Loving and reaching out to others in new ways does not demean or threaten our reverence for our Lord and Savior. On the contrary, it is a sign of a caring, growing body of Christ. I see no conflict between having fun in a loving environment and worshiping the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One of the greatest dangers a church can face is stagnation. Stark rigidity in our worship experiences can close doors to others instead of opening them. He tells us in His word that we, as individuals and as a church, are to share the good news of salvation through His finished work on the cross with all who will hear. The “Messy Church” concept can only bring us all closer to Him.
    Thank you for sharing this concept Jeff! No stagnation going on around here!
    Soli Deo Gloria!

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