Messy Churchgoing: A Sign of Things to Come?

Claire Dalpra

Is Messy Church taking over the world? That isn’t quite what I mean by ‘a sign of things to come’, although the growing number of Messy Churches does baffle me in an eyebrow-raising, slightly jaw-dropping kind of way.

Clearly this model of church for families is popular. But for this blog, I’m interested in the challenges that Messy Churches wrestle with that I suspect other kinds of church will have to face in the future also.

Communicating Christianity from scratch

The findings from our two-year project researching the deeper effects of Messy Church have been summarised in a booklet entitled Playfully Serious. We note very encouraging numbers of families who wouldn’t otherwise be in church. Three cheers for mission impact!

But there’s an attendant complication. How do you explore discipleship with children and adults who aren’t familiar with church language and culture?

As the age profile of attenders at existing Sunday morning worship continues to creep up, the need for outreach to anyone under the age of 40 is increasingly pressing. Sadly, it is now entirely normal for new families we meet through playgroups, schools work, and foodbanks to have had no history of regular church attendance for three or four previous generations. There is no one living in their extended family who can explain the basics of the Christian faith.

How many of our Sunday morning congregations know how to respond to newcomers when words like redeemer, sacrament, Bible study and spiritual disciplines seem like a foreign language? Have we done the necessary background work to be ready to explain at a moment’s notice?

Lay* leaders taking responsibility for discipleship

In some parts of the UK, full-time paid clergy are now spread very thinly indeed, with the threat of more cutbacks looming. If we as lay volunteers are hoping a clergy-person will appear at our shoulder at the right moment to ‘do’ discipleship with the person we’ve been evangelising, we have a problem.

Lay volunteers or self-supporting clergy taking a lead in developing discipleship locally is the inevitable conclusion. But we are busy. We need light-touch solutions to encourage discipleship. If running a ten-week Alpha course seems too onerous, finding simple, creative ways is vital. In our research, we found that families were very eager to share about their faith journeys. We used art as the springboard for reflection and discussion.

Life-giving patterns of gathering in the busyness of life

At my church I can go weeks at a time before seeing a particular friend of mine on a Sunday morning; work and family commitments mean we attend on alternate weeks and miss each other. 67% of Messy Churches in our sample met monthly. Clearly, monthly has certain drawbacks (compared with weekly gatherings), but I can understand gathering less often if it means more people can come to the same gathering.

41% of the leaders in our sample were running Messy Church in their spare time. On top of this, leaders told us of the temptation to help with other parish responsibilities – refreshments, reading the lesson, sidespersons’ duties at Sunday services, as well as organising the annual summer fete or holiday club.

Our research asked the question: what would it look like for Messy Church leaders to only lead Messy Church? Would this give them the time to do the much-needed pastoral visits with new families, nurture the team, develop discipleship and (what I like to call the ‘Holy Grail’ of voluntary leadership) some ministerial development for themselves?

In sharing findings of this research with parish priests, some have voiced similar frustrations for existing congregational life. Now spread more thinly, they too wish they had more time for all of the above. It’s no wonder our mission initiatives don’t yield the results we hope for if we’re all manically multi-tasking across parish life. Our research suggests that quality is more important than quantity.

Working on a shoestring budget

Many Messy Church leaders showed deep appreciation for being able to share buildings. Messy Churches tend to operate on miniscule budgets supplemented by unpredictable giving and team members who kindly neglect to submit receipts for food and materials.

Adapting to unpredictable attendance numbers – reasons for which often seem as unfathomable as our doctrinal mysteries – is fairly normal for Messy Church. The last-minute stretching of a donated sausage casserole for 20 to feed 35 is but one example of the capability of leaders to make something out of nothing, gathering after gathering. To our surprise and delight, only 49 of our sample of 174 Messy Churches had died since we were last in touch with them.

Increasingly, we suspect other kinds of churches will have to work creatively with limited or unpredictable budgets and partner with others to share valuable resources such as buildings to sustain the lives of our church communities long-term.

Whether you’re a devotee of Messy Church or not, these are just some of the challenges that may be heading your way too, whatever church you’re in. Messy Churches are just meeting them more quickly.

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