Is Messy Church ‘Proper’ Church?

Andrew Wooding

The bold heading that greets you on the Messy Church website is: ‘Church, but not as you know it’. Yes, Messy Church has ‘church’ in its title, but is it actually church?

The answer is: it depends. Not all Messy Churches intend to be fresh expressions of Church.

Last year, Church Army’s Research Unit released its findings, Playfully Serious; a detailed two-year survey of the deeper effects of Messy Churches in the Church of England. Not all leaders we spoke to saw their Messy Church as church in its own right.

Of the 174 Messy Churches interviewed in the survey, 86 (slightly less than half) viewed themselves as outreach initiatives. The main goal was to get more people to become part of the ‘main’ Sunday morning congregation.

But 88 out of the 174 (slightly more than half) saw themselves as church congregations in their own right, designed to reach new people – in other words, fresh expressions of Church.

Some critics, however, aren’t convinced by the ‘fresh expressions’ Messy Churches. In his book, Testing Fresh Expressions, John Walker writes that Messy Church is “community service provision rather than church” and that “it will function, in practice, ‘as a halfway house to Sundays’”.

Alison Milbank, speaking on the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4, echoed this by saying Messy Churches are “incredible as a traditional Sunday School happening in the week … but as your only thing of church in your life, they’re not an equivalent of the parish.”

Others have referred to Messy Church as ‘church lite’. Clare Watkins and Bridget Shepherd, in The Challenge of ‘Fresh Expressions’ to Ecclesiology, talk of Messy Church being the ‘shallow end’ of church where beginners can explore, play and build confidence, while keeping their feet safely on the bottom. The implication is that eventually they should wade deeper into ‘real’ church.

While Messy Church’s critics do have valid points which need to be listened to, in general their statements can come across as ecclesial snobbery, with parish seen as the only ‘proper’ way of being church.

What do we say to all the previously non-churched families who are deepening in their faith and see Messy Church as their own worshipping church community? Do we tell them that at some point they need to move on to the ‘proper’ church down the road?

What do we say to the 50% of the ‘fresh expressions’ Messy Churches in our survey that are celebrating the sacraments: baptism and communion, as well as confirmations?

And who is to say that shorter child-friendly talks and songs can’t be just as deep and profound, if not more so, than hymns, choruses and sermons in a Sunday morning service… along with hands-on craft activities that help people explore their spirituality?

In a blog on the Messy Church website, Martyn Payne emphasises: “In Messy Church, there are people coming together to look up towards God, outward to the world and inward to the fellowship, while desiring to stay connected to the big story of the Christian family down the ages and across the world.”

Lucy Moore, the founder of Messy Church, writes in a similar blog: “If [Messy Church is] done as a mere outreach event, that’s all it may be, but if the team believe it’s church and treat it as church, there will be all the opportunities for encounter with God, fellowship, worship and learning that are part of the better models of inherited church too. The higher our expectations, the more space there is for God to work.”

Be honest: how often do we turn up to our Sunday morning services with ‘higher expectations’ for ‘God to work’?

So, can Messy Church be ‘proper’ church? The answer, of course, is yes.

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