When Lucy Moore established the first Messy Church in 2004, she never imagined it would grow into a worldwide phenomenon.
The seeds of the Messy Church movement were planted in a small Anglican parish in a village north of Portsmouth. Fourteen years later, it has spread to more than 35 countries, including Australia, United States, South Africa, Germany, Mauritius and Mongolia.
There are now approximately 4000 Messy Churches throughout the world.
Ms Moore was recently in Melbourne for the Australasian Messy Church Conference. More than 170 Messy Church practitioners from Australia and New Zealand gathered in Parkville to network and share stories of faith and discipleship.
Ms Moore developed the concept of Messy Church because her church’s traditional Sunday service was not meeting the needs of local families.
“There were fewer and fewer families coming to our inherited – or ‘normal’ – church service on a Sunday,” Ms Moore said.
“When we tried inviting people who weren’t already members of that church to come too, we found it really hard to think why they might come.
“We have a really strong sense of a need to pass on the message of God’s good news to the next generation and we felt we weren’t doing that in our little parish.”
Ms Moore and a group of friends from her parish explored different ways to connect with children. They concluded that instead of sending all the children away into a separate group, they should include all families together in worship.
“There’s a lot of research that shows that’s how faith sticks, by being with people from other generations,” she said.
A common misconception of Messy Church is that it is a children’s program. Since its inception, Messy Church was designed to be an intergenerational church for people of all ages.
“It’s very hard for people in traditional churches to get their heads around that because we’ve always done things by sending children out,” Ms Moore said.
“Bringing people together is a huge mental leap to make.”
A typical Messy Church meets monthly and begins with Bible-themed activities, such as crafts and games.
This is usually accompanied with a short worship using story, music and prayers. Most Messy Churches end with a sit-down meal.
Ms Moore said the meal is an integral part of Messy Church as it is an expression of God’s hospitality.
“In the UK, there are so many broken bits of families that aren’t functioning and parts of the community that are isolated from each other,” she said.
“I think the meal is an expression of togetherness, of sitting around a table talking with people and giving a listening ear that they might not have anywhere else.
“There’s something really wonderful that happens at the meal, because you build up to it. It’s not a meal between strangers; you’ve had an hour and a half of having fun together and laughing together and maybe sharing some quite vulnerable stuff.”
Rev Greg Ross is a Uniting Church minister and member of the National Messy Church Team. He initiated the second Messy Church in Australia eight years ago in Bunbury, Western Australia.
“Many who grew up in the inherited forms of church are unable to see why people are attracted to what we’re doing,” Mr Ross said.
“But people who come to Messy Church will tell you again and again this is where they feel comfortable.”
Church – but not as you know it
Messy Church was designed to be accessible for families who do not normally attend traditional church services. For many of these people, Messy Church is their church community.
Ms Moore believes this is why Messy Church should be seen as a congregation in its own right, rather than a stepping-stone to Sunday services.
“Some people think Messy Church is failing because we haven’t got anybody new coming to church at half-past-10 on a Sunday sitting in a pew or doing a liturgy,” she said.
“But when those families are coming to a Messy Church, they are coming to church. They are meeting God and learning the Trinitarian God; they’re studying the Bible through hands-on fellowship.
“Some are having the sacrament of Holy Communion, they are breaking bread together, and they are worshipping God, not just being taught about him.”
Ms Moore insists Messy Church is not trying to replace traditional church. It should instead be seen as a separate congregation working in synergy within the same church.
“The Messy Church brings new life and new hope and new opportunities to serve God and develop new leaders,” she said.
“It’s a fresh expression of the same truth. We’re not saying this is a better way of being church, we’re just saying there are different ways of being church.”
The language familiar to many Christians – such as the body and blood of Christ – can be uncomfortable for children with no prior exposure to Christianity.
Mr Ross said this presents a challenge – but also an opportunity – for congregations to share the Gospel in fresh ways.
“Messy Churches are attracting more than half of their membership from people who have little or no exposure to Christianity,” Mr Ross said.
“Teams running Messy Churches must never assume that prayers, music and sacramental life that shaped their faith have ever been experienced by the majority of people who attend their Messy Church.”
But because Messy Church is built on a solid theological foundation, it retains its focus on Christ. All Messy Churches share five key values: Christ-centred, all-age, creativity, hospitality and celebration.
“If we’re not about introducing people to the mystery of the risen Christ, we’re just another kids’ club,” Mr Ross said.
“There is a liturgical movement to what we do in Messy Church. The liturgical part of the meal is like the Eucharist.”
Mr Ross believes churches need to recognise Messy Church as a congregation, rather than a church program. He challenged Messy Church leaders to invite their church council so they can see their community in action.
“We need to say to the church council that this is about incorporating people into the life of the church,” he said.
“Once they come and experience what’s happening there, they too will get a touch of this magical, wonderful dancing of the spirit in people’s lives.”
There are now 220 registered Messy Churches in Australia. Approximately 40 per cent are Uniting Church and 40 per cent are Anglican.
Synod intergenerational ministry (children and families) coordinator Chris Barnett attributed the growth of Messy Church in the Uniting Church to the enthusiasm and foresight of leaders.
“Messy Church grows where people are passionate about it,” Mr Barnett said.
“In the Uniting Church, there have been a number of people who are passionate and see the value of it.”
Messy Churches do not work in every congregation; they must be appropriate to the denomination and needs of the local community. While rare in evangelical or more conservative churches, Mr Barnett believes they are a perfect fit for the Uniting Church.
“The idea of Messy Church being something that’s open and hospitable and creative is an excellent match for the Uniting Church and our ethos,” he explained.
“It’s not as if you’re buying into a franchise. The beauty of Messy Church is that you can be uniquely Uniting Church and still be Messy Church. You take on the values but you express them in the way you do things in your theological tradition.”
The Messy Church movement has also given opportunities for members sitting in the pews to take up leadership roles. Many Messy Churches have been initiated and organised by lay people who want to share the Gospel in a more relaxed and flexible setting.
“One of the strengths of Messy Church is empowering women in leadership,” Mr Barnett said.
“You find women exercise leadership who would otherwise not have a chance because of their church structure.”
Karen Morgan is children and families coordinator at Western Heights Uniting Church. With the support of her presbytery, she has helped train two Messy Churches at Lara and Hoppers Crossing Uniting Church.
“The Presbytery of Port Phillip West has offered coaching for anyone in the presbytery interested in Messy Church,” Ms Morgan said.
“It’s a great opportunity to mentor a team and develop them in their Messy Church journey.”
Ms Morgan said each Messy Church has its own challenges. Most require a dedicated team of at least three to four people to keep it running every month.
“Each Messy Church struggles with different things,” she said.
“I think resourcing the team is a big one and also maintaining your enthusiasm. It’s quite labour intensive to run.
“Because it’s every month we have to work really hard to connect with people in Messy Churches in between services.”
But while Messy Church demands plenty of preparation and hard work, it can also be extremely rewarding for all involved.
“We had one little girl come along and she said to her mum ‘I just love Messy Church, it’s so much fun’. The mother said to me ‘I never thought I’d hear my child say church and fun in the same sentence’,” Ms Morgan said.
“So I think connecting with God and learning that faith formation in a fun, creative, Christ-filled environment is fabulous.”
The future of Messy Church
A national survey conducted last year found that many Messy Churches want training on how to connect with teenagers and young adults.
Ms Morgan said her Messy Church tries to nurture the leadership qualities of youth members by encouraging them to join the musical band.
“We also develope their faith formation using technology and things that they’re interested in,” she said.
“This year we’ll hopefully include them in some leadership activities too.”
Another priority for Messy Church is to encourage fathers to attend. Mr Ross’ Messy Church specifically organises activities to engage men.
“A lot are more comfortable doing something other than just hanging around,” he said.
“We very specifically engage men in doing some of the woodcrafts. We also have men who love to barbecue and cook.
“We don’t separate people from their kids, so they sit with their kids, do craft with their kids, eat with their kids – all those things that dads value.”
Following her trip to Australia, Ms Moore will travel to Wellington for the New Zealand Messy Church conference. Ms Moore said she is constantly amazed at how a simple grassroots initiative has spread to all corners of the world.
“I’m glad we didn’t know in the early days that it was going to get this big because we wouldn’t have started,” she said.
“We wouldn’t have dared because we would have been insisting on getting it right before we started anything.”
Ms Moore’s hope is that other churches will be inspired by the hospitality and creativity at Messy Church as they reach out to people in their community.
“I would love it to impact not just on Messy Churches but the whole of each denomination, so that we manage to take those good things we’re learning and help us to shape all sorts of church,” Ms Moore said.
“The faith moving on from generation to generation will be strengthened and that chain will get stronger and stronger and the kingdom will grow.”
MESSY CHURCH FACTS
- The first Messy Church in Australia was established at Sherwood Anglican Church in Queensland in 2010.
- 67 per cent of Messy Churches meet monthly.
- 45 per cent meet on a Sunday afternoon/evening.
- Typical attendance at a Messy Church is 20 to 49 people.
- 21 per cent reported an increase in Messy Church numbers over the past year.
- 35 per cent of Messy Churches have a Facebook page.
- 89 per cent say they will continue with Messy Church in 2018.