On Friday, I had the privilege of visiting one of the many wonderful Messy Churches in our Diocese. This one was at Kensworth, and is run by a team of volunteers, along with the Vicar, Nicola.
Here are some tips I picked up. Very few are unique to this one Messy Church, but by showing how they work in this particular context, I hope I’ll nudge out some of the underlying principles that you might be able to apply to your Messy Church (or Sunday morning, or monthly Family Service, or …)
- Messy Church is held at the church hall, three miles from the church itself. Why? Because the church hall is just across the road from the primary school. Messy Church begins at 3:30 pm on a Friday. As Nicola said, “you can bring the kids straight from school, it’s Friday, it doesn’t matter if their uniforms get dirty.” You get to socialise with the other parents, and by the time you get home your kids have been fed and your Friday night is much more relaxed. By starting with the thought “what do our families need?” rather than “how can we make people come to church?” the job of getting people in the door is much easier.
- There was a broad variety of activities. We were doing the Lost Sheep, and there were art projects, cooking projects, and sensory tables. I ended up spending most of my time at a table with three tubs – one had slime, one had rice, and one had water gel beads. Toy sheep had been hidden in all the trays, and kids spent ages sifting their hands through and finding the sheep. (They also poured the gel beads in the slime, got rice in the gel bead tray, and made a proper mess). While we were doing this, we chatted about school and families and life, and also talked about what it felt like to get lost and to be found again. Another table made sheep biscuits, another drew pictures of themselves enfolded in the arms of God – and more. By providing a variety of activities, children of different ages, with different skills and interests, were catered for. Messy Church has lots of resources to make this easy for you, so do make sure you get their magazine and check their website regularly.
- The worship was real worship. The story was told clearly, and in detail – and the story is the centrepiece of worship. Kids relate to stories, adults need to hear them again and understand them in new ways, and they’re the source of all the symbols and imagery we were exploring during the free choice time. If we gloss over the story, nothing else makes sense! And, importantly, the story was given CONTEXT. Nicola made it clear that this was a story Jesus told. Imagine a kid coming to Messy Church with little Christian background, and hearing “David was little and fought Goliath and won” … okay, who was David? Why should we care? Why isn’t Jesus in this story? A few sentences to explain where the story fits in can help. There were songs that are repeated every session, so people knew them, and a prayer written by the original Messy Church group.
- Adults participated in worship. The songs chosen were accessible for everyone – adults didn’t feel silly joining in. Beware “cutesy” songs, or songs that require participants to “perform” in a way that adults and older children might be reluctant to get involved in. Also, the fact that this Messy Church is in a pretty small space for its numbers probably helped the worship – in that adults and children had to sit together. You couldn’t have a situation where children sit at the front for worship and adults disappear to the back of the church, twenty yards away, to chat and look at their phones. How could you use your space to naturally push everyone together? How could you encourage adults to interact with their children during worship, to help them get involved? How could you use music and prayer in ways accessible to all ages?
- There were connections, and a pathway. Just like in Sunday church, worship included an announcement time. This Messy Church has started “Messy Holy Communion,” to help families make the leap to sacramental worship, and to connect with the church building three miles away. It was made very clear, though, that the next “Messy Holy Communion” WAS MESSY CHURCH – they were being invited to their community’s gathering, which would also include people from the Sunday congregation, not to something different and scary. Leaflets were placed by the door with information. There was also a signup sheet for “Messy Minus The Kids” – a social gathering for the adults, and a “Beyond Messy Church” youth group signup sheet. While a few teenagers were present as helpers, it’s good to have something available for your kids who feel they “grow out of” Messy Church and who don’t want to get involved as helpers, if possible.
- Finding the right balance between service recipient and community member. If your Messy Church was started by a group of volunteers from the original church, it’s easy to fall into an “us/them” mindset. “We, the church, are service providers – they, the families, are recipients.” This is important – you’re loving and serving your community, and as the volunteer leader Kathie said to me, “this is a place where the parents can relax and not have to do anything, just be taken care of. And they’re all doing the school run while we’re setting up, anyway.” However, you also need to think of long-term sustainability if your volunteer team is primarily elderly or could get burned out without new blood. Maybe a few parents could be encouraged to help once a term, on a rota, so not every one is helping every time. One dad in this Messy Church had taken the day off work to cook the dinner for everyone! Another mum said to me, “now, with my kids coming here, I can’t volunteer to help, but when they’re in secondary school I’d love to come back on my own and pitch in.” One thing that distinguishes a church from many other places in our lives is that it’s our community – we belong, and that means we’re part of making it happen. Providing opportunities for your “service recipients” to become “community members” is one of the ways in which Messy Church can be Church.
- There was a donations box at the door. Stewardship is another way in which Messy Church can be Church. If it’s our community, we support it in whatever way we can.
And a final note: None of this sprang up overnight – this Messy Church has spent years being developed, and there have been changes and adjustments along the way. So if you’re just getting started on your Messy Church (or family service, or holiday club, or …) journey, use these tips to help you build your own vision, for your own community and your own church’s gifts, and take it one step at a time! And as always, get in touch with me if you need help or guidance at any time.
UPDATE: I wanted to add a few comments from parents, which don’t fit neatly into the list above, but are worth thinking about.
“We’ve been to Sunday church a few times, but here it’s more relaxed and we know we’ll be made welcome.” (this is a very welcoming Sunday church, incidentally – but parents are always a bit nervous about their kids’ behaviour, and whether it’s okay!)
“We heard about it through a leaflet at school – and then a few of her friends started coming and invited us to join them.”
“It’s a real community feel here.”