Starting a Messy Church

Messy Beginnings lead to Messy Blessings

“I keep hearing about Messy Church … what is it?  Is it something our church could do?”

Variations on this question from church leaders keep coming from all around Australia.  Messy Church is a phenomenon that has taken most by surprise.  Churches experimenting with Messy Church are surprised at the simplicity of the premise and how many families come and keep returning.  Families who come are surprised at how much they enjoy coming to church, exploring faith stories, being creative, having fun, worshipping and eating together.  They are experiencing real Christian hospitality and fellowship, but importantly the people of God are strengthening their faith through action.

Messy Church began with a simple question: “How can our small church reach the many families in our community?”

And so began a journey of discovery and the birth of Messy Church, shaping worship, learning and fellowship around the needs of families with children.  Messy Church was created for those outside the church, and became church for them, not a stepping stone to Sunday morning church.

There are now thousands of Messy Churches all around the world in most denominations. A typical Australian Messy Church meets monthly and includes a flexible, relaxed arrival time; an activity-based learning time; a short but explicit time of worship with story, music and prayers and finishes with a sit-down meal for all.  Key values which define Messy Church are Christ-centredness, creativity and joyful celebration in a spirit of generous, inclusive hospitality.

Messy Church has generated a wave of new ideas, including ‘Who Let the Dads Out?’ and ‘School’s Out, Dad’s About’ (SODA) providing thoughtful ways to approach ministry to a new generation of fathers.  There are specific ‘Messy Crafts’ and ‘Messy Nativity’ resources and a Christmas-themed Messy Church is an ideal way for a congregation to experiment with messy ministry.  To celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible in 2011, an ‘Authorised Mess’ is available online with full Messy Church programs for each book of the Bible.  In Australia there are people in each state available to talk to anyone interested in finding out more about Messy Church.   In most states there are ongoing opportunities to explore Messy Church through ‘tasters’ and at conferences.

“How can we begin a Messy Church?”

When asked this question I suggest congregations think about their current contact with families.  If a congregation already has a thriving playgroup or kids’ club or strong links with a local school, then advertising a Messy Church will be easier.  The aim of starting a Messy Church is to invite people who are outside the inherited forms of church and are not interested in attending a church on a Sunday morning.  It is an effective way of strengthening and deepening the relationships you may already have with families through baptisms.  While most families with young children would like to be able to nurture their children’s spiritual development, they don’t know how or where to begin.  Many parents feel uncomfortable talking about spiritual issues with their children.  For most parents life is busy and stressful and Sunday morning is the only time of the week they have to relax.  Attending a formal church worship service is daunting and a further stress.  Most churches also separate families by age groups during worship. By thinking through the situation of families in your community, you are better able to respond sensitively and lovingly to them.

I also encourage churches to look at their facilities with ‘new eyes’, thinking about safety but also about ambience.  Is your church signage clear and welcoming?  Many churches have numerous doors and pathways.  Is it clear where to park? Is there easy pram access and somewhere to park prams? Is it clear which door to enter?  Are the toilets clean and welcoming?  If you are inviting families from the community into your church you want their experience to be positive and for them to know they are welcome.  When I step into an Ikea store or a McDonald’s Cafe I can tell they have considered the needs of young families and gone to some trouble to make them welcome.  Shouldn’t churches also be thoughtful of the needs of young families and make an effort to welcome them?

Welcoming children is something Jesus clearly valued, saying “… whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”  Matthew 18:5

A further key consideration when thinking of starting a Messy Church is a leadership team.  A core team of three or four people need to lead the creation of a Messy Church.  It is not something that should be taken on by one person, although it may be the enthusiasm of one person who acts as a catalyst and gathers a team around them.  There is a lot of work involved in each Messy Church and the tasks are best divided.  A core team will usually do the planning and divide the work into areas like welcoming, cooking, crafts and leading worship. A larger team will then be assigned to pray, cook, shop, promote and whatever else is needed.  It might be different people with a variety of gifts each month.  Not everyone needs to be at Messy Church as many tasks can be done beforehand.  This can be an opportunity to invite people with different skills and gifts to be involved.  Men’s Sheds and Craft Groups are often very helpful to Messy Church craft leaders.

The issue of a budget usually arises too.  Starting a Messy Church is relatively quick, easy and cheap for a church.  It can be done quickly because the ‘formula’ including the name and logo is already available through the website, DVD and books, and it is easy to adapt it to your context.  Most churches do not need to purchase anything new, as the facilities including halls, kitchens and toilets are there and existing tables and chairs, craft materials and crockery are available.  Therefore the only costs are new Messy Church signage and some additional craft materials and food.  While I encourage churches to be generous and missional in their approach, I also encourage them to offer an opportunity for families to contribute.  As it is a church, I do not recommend having a set entry cost at the door, but providing a donation bowl near where the food is served or including an offering in the worship time is preferable.  Many churches allocate a ‘seed grant’ of a few hundred dollars to enable the one-off purchase of signage, some extra craft materials and to subsidise food costs as Messy Church gets established.

Messy Church needs a leadership team who spend time praying, listening to God and reflecting on their local community’s needs.

The leaders also need to be intentional about communicating effectively with the wider church congregation and maintaining strong links.  It needs to be seen as another congregation alongside the existing congregation, each one seeking to worship and serve God.

You may be thinking this all sounds like hard work, with potential to divide the congregation and burn out leaders.  There is no doubt that running a Messy Church once a month is a large commitment and a lot of work.   Starting something new is always risky and can create friction with other groups in the church.  These issues need to be managed sensitively and prayerfully.  Unrealistic expectations that families from Messy Church will begin attending ‘proper’ Sunday morning worship need to be addressed. Everyone must understand the missional nature of Messy Church and value it as a new congregation for people with different needs. Leadership burnout is all too common in churches and particularly in children’s and family ministries.  Everyone involved needs encouragement and support through being part of a functioning team.  And being part of a team doing something new and hopeful, something that is fun and life-giving, this is what will sustain and grow any congregation.

Can you catch the vision? Imagine fathers with young children laughing as they enjoy building a life-size boat or make playdough animals.  Imagine a 92 year old woman lighting a candle with her 12 year old great granddaughter and sharing worship full of memories and meaning.  Imagine a church running out of seats for the many young families, children, teenagers and grandparents all singing and praising God.  Imagine adults decorating angel-shaped biscuits sitting next to children also decorating angel-shaped biscuits, deep in theological discussion about the appearance and role of angels in the Christmas story.  Imagine small congregations being surprised by life and hope through messy ministry. I have seen all of these things happening at different Messy Churches in Australia.  These are the rewards of launching a Messy Church – a whole new group of people exploring their faith in family groups, lots of fun and laughter, many generations learning and worshipping together and churches generously blessing their local communities.

Top Ten Tips for Starting a Messy Church
  1. Pray
  2. Watch the Messy Church DVD and share it with others
  3. Talk to others in your church about Messy Church
  4. Read and share the Messy Church books
  5. Visit another Messy Church and ask lots of questions
  6. Form a team, get together and pray
  7. Be clear about your aims
  8. Plan your Messy Church – When? Where? How often? Communicate with church leadership about your plans.
  9. Get organised and practical about timelines, budget, child protection, insurance, forms, menus, crafts, themes.
  10. Join the Messy Church network online and get updates, ideas, news and encouragement.