Playfully Serious

How did we approach this research? Further discussions on research methodology

Terminology and abbreviations

MES – While we used the full terms Messy Church and Messy Churches in the overall findings, in the statistical reports we have often used MES as a shorthand abbreviation for both. This three-letter acronym was first coined in The Day of Small Things, our 2016 report on fresh expressions of Church in 21 dioceses of the Church of England. 

MES fxC – In referring to the two types of Messy Church in our sample, we add the three-letter acronym fxC to refer to those Messy Churches that are developing with fresh expressions of Church intentions, according to the ten criteria set out in page 18 of The Day of Small Things. As no Messy Church in our sample had achieved formal (i.e. legal ecclesial) independence, we liken these Messy Church fresh expressions of Church as something akin to multiple congregations of existing parish(es) or ecumenical partnerships. These congregations remain informal in their leadership and existence, but work to develop a fuller congregational life for attenders who do not attend any other church or congregation or who prefer to see Messy Church as their main place of ecclesial belonging.

MES outreach – Broadly speaking, this type of Messy Church focuses more on outreach and evangelism, in the hope that Messy Church will act as a ‘bridge’ for newcomers to begin to attend existing church services. This category also contains a proportion of Messy Churches for whom it is too soon to know what intentions are contextually appropriate for them in the long-term or who meet too infrequently to be called a congregation. 

The difference between MES fxc and MES outreach is subtle. For example, leaders themselves might intend their Messy Church to be a MES fxC, but their sending church may see it as MES outreach. Or, a small number of Messy Church families begin to attend the existing congregational worship on a Sunday while, for the majority of attenders, Messy Church is intended by its leaders to develop as church. Adhering to the ten definitional criteria in The Day of Small Things enabled us manage this subtlety.

How many?Who?How?
174Messy Church leadersTelephone survey with leaders

See ‘Preparing the Canvas’, page 3 in Painting with Numbers report

Additional comment on Painting with Numbers methodology: For most of the Messy Churches in our random stratified sample, one leader was interviewed; sometimes there were two or three leaders if founders and current leaders were different. 

The fxC half of the sample created from Messy Churches analysed in The Day of Small Things were those identified as Messy Church as their only or main designation type; the Messy Church statistics presented in The Day of Small Things report also drew on findings from fresh expression of Church that ticked Messy Church as a minor descriptor of what they were doing. We were glad that this research enabled us to follow up on Messy Churches that were outreach initiatives as it was with regret that we had to exclude them (and other outreach initiatives) in our The Day of Small Things research as we had been asked to look at fxC specifically.

Thus, the overall random stratified sample reflected the same variety of geographic and social contexts as the 21 dioceses of The Day of Small Things. A small number of Messy Churches were removed initially from the sample to respect previous requests not to be further contacted, or for acute pastoral situations in the parish. 

Survey data was gathered by six team members over nine months. By January 2018, data had been collected from 174 (88 MES fxC and 86 MES outreach), with 66 non-respondents despite repeated attempts at making contact. Data was transferred from hard copy record to an Access database and, in January/February 2018, all data was cleaned by team members (working in pairs for accuracy) before analysis.

The survey instrument and telephone interview were piloted with the sampled Messy Churches in the Diocese of Sheffield (14 in total) in March/April 2017. Following this, a few minor adjustments were made to the questionnaire layout and wording. There is an inevitable weakness in that there is only one data source: the leader’s perspective.  However, the pilot confirmed that a relational approach by telephone was needed to gain as much precision as possible from the leader; interviewers were able to unpack some of the more complex questions for more accurate reporting.

For brief headlines, see methodology throughout Messy lifespan analysis report

Additional comment on Messy lifespan analysis methodology: Where the Messy Churches in the sample had come to an end or been put on hold indefinitely, we referred to these as ‘dieds’. We created a slightly different version of the survey for these 49 ‘dieds’ to acknowledge their existence, track progress while they lasted and make a note of reasons for their stopping. Using The Day of Small Things contacts meant we did not include any Messy Churches begun since 2016 (when data collection stopped for The Day of Small Things).

Tracking down anyone willing to reflect on a Messy Church that had stopped or died over three years ago was also a challenge and we are indebted to those leaders who gave of their time to reflect with us on initiatives long since ended.

How many?Who?How?
29Messy Church leadersRegional focus groups

See methodology section on page 1 of Managing the Mess report

Additional comment on Managing the Mess methodology: Five focus group interviews were conducted between May and July 2017 to capture further data under all four broader research questions to see how discipleship and ecclesial maturity were being explored and developed in some local contexts. Messy Church regional coordinators acted as co-facilitators, subsequently inviting interested local leaders to participate. Groups were asked to contain Anglican Messy Churches that had been going three years or more, in a variety of urban/rural settings, with a diversity of leadership resource and ecclesial intention. 

The participants were self-selecting, so groups may have contained a higher proportion of leaders invested in, and passionate about, Messy Church to give time to a focus group. The guidance we gave for participants could not be strongly enforced so the final make-up of participants was beyond our control to some degree. At our pilot focus group, there was more ecumenical variation than we planned for. However, strong feelings were expressed during the pilot that ecumenism is an important aspect of the Messy Church phenomenon and it was likely that neither regional coordinators nor leaders would be willing to participate in further focus group work if we had strictly adhered to only Anglican participants.

How many?Who?How?
26Adult, teen and child attendersInnovative visual data-based research and interview

See introduction and appendix of What Goes on Inside report

Additional comment on What Goes on Inside methodology: Collecting qualitative data from attenders was a priority in gaining a valuable further perspective to complement the leaders’ views we were gathering in survey work and focus group interviews. It seemed particularly important to include the voice of children and teenagers during the research, recognising them as key recipients and co-contributors to the life of Messy Churches. 

This was a piece of innovative research designed in a Messy Church style, responding to the challenges of interviewing both children and adults simultaneously and creating as natural a setting as possible to put them at their ease. Researcher and consultant, Dr Rebecca Nye, was consulted on the methodological design to ensure best practice and the Church of England’s ethics committee reviewed research ethics.

Participants were selected by asking for volunteers via Messy Church leaders, both within and beyond those we were in contact with. Adverts went out via Church Army and Messy Church websites and social media. 

The research session began with some opening stimulus on what discipleship is, presenting participants with questions of whether Messy Church helped them begin, keep and/or deepen their journey of following Jesus. Participants were invited to respond in the medium of art – either painting, sculpture or collage – and semi-structured interviews were subsequently conducted, reflecting on the artwork. Some observation data was also recorded. 

Almost all child and adult participants saw Messy Church as their primary place of church belonging; where families were brought along by leaders, care was taken to ensure attender interviews were conducted discreetly away from fellow attenders or leaders to encourage as much honesty as possible. 

For both children and adults, we were aware that we were asking questions about subtle, complex and personal issues for which our methodology was only able to offer a snapshot of reality in that moment.

How many?Who?How?
12Families who have leftTelephone interview

See methodology section on page 1 of Messy Leavers report

Additional comment on Messy Leavers methodology: The leader(s) of a Messy Church can only share their impressions of attenders’ experiences and hazard guesses as to why families stop coming. This research task enabled us to speak to some leavers first hand, with notes of the interview taken down by the interviewer during the call. Only adults were interviewed, not children or teenagers, so we acknowledge the potential ‘adult view’ bias interpreting their children’s experience through their own ‘lens of understanding’, but our approach had the added benefit of taking adults seriously as leavers too and not simply asking them to report on their children’s experience only. 

Though a small sample, the data gathered was nevertheless valuable to speak into a research task that has not or seldom taken place before as part of a larger research project, as far as we are aware.

Researcher standpoint and research ethics

We recognise that, as a team of researchers, we are (broadly speaking) a group of white, middle class Christians involved in local church life. But we endeavoured to maintain as objective an approach as we could throughout the research. We acknowledge our previous research, The Day of Small Things, led to a more appreciative view of Messy Church and we see the hard questions asked by this research as important for the continued effectiveness of the Messy Church movement (as well as providing valuable learning for the wider Church). The examination of MES outreach as well as MES fxC (a more inclusive approach than The Day of Small Things) ensured a degree of objectivity.

If you are conducting similar research and wrestling with issues of methodology ‘hitting’ reality, feel free to get in touch with us if you want to know more about our experiences. Our contact details are on the Who we are page.