Not just playing anymore

north ringwood playgroup

SOWING the seeds of faith, developing relationships and entrusting people to lead have been key to fostering North Ringwood Uniting Church’s flourishing intergenerational ministry.

Last month, North Ringwood members Trevor and Merry Sweatman told a Stories of Childhood Conference at the Centre for Theology and Ministry how the church was turning a wildly successful playgroup program into a growing Messy Church.

The playgroup program, for pre-school children, has been operating for 28 years, growing strongly to operate every weekday morning, catering for 125 children from 90 families.

Trevor Vernon, the Children’s and Families’ Ministry Coordinator at North Ringwood Uniting reflected on the transition from Playgroup to Messy Church.

The Christian content in playgroup sessions tended to be low key and emphasised during appropriate times of the year such as Christmas or Easter.

“Playgroup had for years been sowing seeds with families,” Trevor said.

“There was a real sense of these families wanting to more deeply explore the Christian faith.

“Playgroup offers a small dose of the faith but every single Messy Church has a Christian principle. It’s got Christ being preached routinely.”

Trevor said the relationships formed between the congregational volunteers and playgroup families were an important welcoming factor for those who wanted to interact more with the church.

However, traditional Sunday worship services have not been well suited to some of these families and especially mothers who are single parents or whose partners are not supportive of church attendance.

Approximately two years ago North Ringwood began looking at hosting a Messy Church on Saturday afternoons.

“Our church is very supportive of new ministries, especially one as well-targeted as Messy Church,” Trevor said.

“Approval for Saturday afternoons came quickly.

“Also, important early on was the support of other experienced Messy Church leaders. We got good advice and wise counsel from a number of those who have gone before us.”

Two Messy Churches were held in 2016, five were put on last year and this year it has become a monthly event.

“It basically takes over the whole church,” Trevor said.

“We have about 120 people coming from babes in arms up to grandparents. Playgroup families come in from quite a distance.

“One of the delights for us is that there are families that are coming and wanting to be involved in the running of Messy Church who have no Christian background. That’s a really exciting thing.”

Trevor said that it was important to realise people could develop in their faith while still undertaking the leadership and volunteer tasks that are essential for Messy Church.

“It’s a much more communal type of activity, everyone is involved in different things through the gatherings and there is no sense of when you have reached a certain level of Christian maturity that you are then approved to do this or that,” Trevor said.

“One of the really important things is we’ve realised some of the best volunteers are not necessarily from our church and not even necessarily at this point in time Christian.”

Trevor said that North Ringwood Uniting still has a number of intergenerational ministry challenges.

They have struggled to engage older primary and secondary school-aged children and were also conscious that the faith community needs nurturing between the monthly meetings.

However, one of the most heartening aspects of seeing families transition from playgroup to Messy Church has been the main source of enthusiasm for getting people along.

“We’ve worked out that the best way to promote Messy Church is through the children. The evangelists in the family are the kids!” Trevor said.

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