One of the activities in Messy Church does science is extracting human DNA.
Dr Dave Gregory, author of the book and Baptist Union President, took great glee in extracting the Archbishop of York’s DNA, dangling it in a glistening strand from the end of a stick. It’s probably the closest we get in Messy Church to cloning. (Is the world ready for a battalion of Sentamus to be unleashed?) We might not be cloning, but God is undoubtedly creating new life in other ways in and through Messy Church.
An environment for growth
What factors have caused Messy Church to grow over the last 14 years? We all know there’s nothing new about the different elements of Messy Church: for years churches have cooked meals, been creative, had a heart for families. There are several factors that have made the Messy Church concept fly, the first few being cultural:
- The timing, arriving as it did at the same time as the permission given by the Church to reimagine church after Mission-Shaped Church.
- The culture of desperation felt by so many churches around their lack of under-16s.
- The growing understanding around the need to be intergenerational if we want our children to grow up as confident disciples and members of church.
- The desire of parents and carers to spend time with their children, not split off from them in church, after a working week.
The structural factors include:
- The generosity of BRF (The Bible Reading Fellowship, home of Messy Church) in taking the risk of investing in the ministry.
- The growth of internet access and social media platforms, making it possible to communicate the concept with relatively limited resources.
The spiritual factors include:
- The Holy Spirit blowing where he wants to.
- The latent skills and leadership qualities of lay people in our churches desperate to be used in God’s service.
Will it carry on growing? (We’re currently registering on average one new Messy Church a day with an attrition rate of 10 or so a month.) Will it “work” for a season then fade away like the Sunday School Movement has? Does it actually matter, as long as churches are equipped and enabled to meet the needs of families in their communities today, the moment we have been called into? “I’ve really missed Messy Church over the summer,” a mum said to me recently at my own Messy Church.
People often ask, “When you started Messy Church, did you expect it to get this big?” When we started, it was just to be a blessing to our own community. So… no. Was it a surprise? Every day.
Some ideas for mission are great and their owners might ask us for help with “going big”. One thing I feel strongly about is that an initiative should be created with total integrity, tailor-made for the people it’s trying to serve rather than trying to prove an abstract concept, or, indeed, to aim to head up an organisation. If you’re genuinely concerned for the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of the 90-year-old limbo-dancing, ketchup-drinking, hornpipe-dancing inhabitants of a remote island off the Lincolnshire coast, you’ll create something very focused on those people, rather than creating something around geriatric ecclesiology in the hope that the result might be transferable elsewhere.
When we created Messy Church, it was not about “How can we get the whole Church to be all-age?” but “How can we be a church for and with that family waiting at the bus stop in our suburb? How do they want to worship God? What was the good news of Jesus for them? When were they free? What could we give as a church that they wouldn’t get anywhere else?” (Hornpipes didn’t really come into it. Ketchup did.)
From innovation to replication
What have we learned about replication as the network has grown from one example to around 4000 in 20 to 30 countries? On the negative side, registering trademarks and logos is a hideously costly necessity, once things grow beyond a certain size. “Brand” is a dirty word in Christian circles. Christians hate – really hate! – being told, “Sorry, no, you can’t…”
The tension between creative improvisation around Messy Church and naming anything that involves children, pasta or glue sticks a “Messy Church” is a real one. Any apparent protectionism around the name is actually about avoiding misunderstanding: about helping families understand what to expect, whether they go to their local Messy Church in Manchester or visit one on holiday in Melbourne.
But as the Messy Church concept spreads into different spheres, how to keep the clarity of the original concept while acknowledging that calling something “Messy…” might (weirdly) help that initiative succeed? A church ran a “Family Fun” that was dying; they rebranded it as Messy Church and it thrived from that day on. We find “Messy Toddlers” starting up, for example: is this actually Messy Church, as the logo and name may imply? Or is it actually toddler crafts, piggybacking on the success of the Messy Church name, but creating confusion on the wider horizon by associating Messy Church with small children, paper-plate crafts and a biscuit, when Messy Church itself is inherently all-age, involves far more than craft and always has a sit-down meal?
Does it matter if, locally, Messy Church itself becomes identified solely with under-fives? How big is “local”? Just in that village, county, district, country? How soon in its development should anyone from BRF suggest this wonderful but distinct ministry chooses a different name? It’s extremely difficult to be wise!
People assume size means raking in the cash and that surely we sell so many books that we’re making plenty of money. The fact is that while the network and its needs keep growing, the sources of funding are drying up and BRF works unbelievably hard to finance the support it gives local Messy Churches. Seed funding from trusts is no longer available. Selling affordable books makes peanuts. Where should the money come from to keep the website running, to keep the training sessions affordable, to have someone available to answer the queries from Teddington, Truro or Trinidad? Sustainability of something sizeable is tough.
More positively, the best advice about growth that we were given in the early days was from George Lings, author of Reproducing Churches , who told us not to worry about the shape of Messy Church as it spreads, but to concentrate on the values behind it, and let the shape look after itself. This has proved excellent advice and has enabled us to give a very generous understanding of what Messy Church is. The values are defined as Christ-centred, hospitable, all-age, creative and celebratory. This has given permission for churches to be flexible with what order to put on the component parts, what day of the week or time of day to choose, what themes to explore, what weight to give to their own particular churchmanship. In short, each church can contextualise these values for their own setting while keeping the integrity of the concept. It could mean it helps to make it future-proof too; time will tell.
Maintaining the flow of the messy river of life
We’ve discovered that the Messy ministry is a bit like a river fed by tributaries. As riverbank managers, our tiny team has a certain amount of routine maintenance to do on the robust structures that help people begin and continue well. These structures enable people to register if they want to, answers FAQs made easily discoverable online and find available training. But most of all, relationships must be maintained around the world and across the denominations: all in the day-today running of God’s happily gushing initiative.
On top of that, you can imagine the dredging and weeding that needs doing to keep the river flowing. And our small “central” team insists on being involved in the running of a local Messy Church too, in order to stay real – this is also part of that non-pioneering, unglamorous “pressing on towards the goal”.  Our recent intern’s first job was to go and meet the leader of the Messy Church she wanted to join.
The main river is refreshed and nutrients added to it by different tributaries that feed into it. These are the short- or long-term projects and initiatives, people and organisations that have a beneficial effect on the body of the river and keep it fresh and flowing – and might even steer it into a slightly different direction.
The Messy Church Does Science initiative is one of these, as is Messy Vintage, the #RealMe campaign, the collaboration with Southwark and Hereford Dioceses, Messy Liturgy, the Messy Church International Conference, our Messy Intern commitment and so many more. Without them, the maintenance alone would run the risk of the river becoming a stagnant pond. With them, we meet inspirational people from a range of backgrounds and are given the opportunity for fresh insights from different sources.
For individual Messy Churches, the possibilities for innovating, pioneering and experimenting are endless. If, as a pioneer, you start getting fed up with maintenance – the plod of running a church rather than the high-energy of organising a one-off event – don’t give up on it, dig a deeper channel! As George Lings said, “Don’t tinker with the shape: develop the values.”
How does your initiative, Messy or not, encourage discipleship among its members? How is your team growing in faith? How are your members learning to express faith at home, school and work? What are you doing with your teenagers or they with you? There’s so much to develop and pioneer with integrity at a local level, bringing in your own God-given vision, your own insights and those of the fast-changing culture we live in to create something unique to the specific groups with whom you are called to work.
If the insights you gain are useful to the wider Church, that’s wonderful; if they’re uniquely helpful only to those in your community, that’s something awesome to celebrate too.
With or without ketchup.
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 George Lings, Reproducing Churches (Abingdon: BRF, 2017).
 Philippians 3:14.