Fr Philip North on his experience of Messy Church and its evangelistic effectiveness
`Messy Church? That’s not Catholic is it?’ That certainly used to be my view. For a long time all talk of Messy Church made me cringe and turn the other way. For a start we Catholics dislike use of the word `Church’ without an article. It’s ‘The Church’ not `Church: And in any case what is all this talk of mess? We like `Church to be orderly, tidy, nicely arranged and properly presented. A Messy Church can’t possibly be a Catholic Church, can it?
Then quite accidentally I found myself at a presentation given by Lucy Moore, the BRF Messy Church Team Leader. And as I listened to her I was suddenly struck by the realization that Messy Church, with its combination of worship, arts and crafts and hospitality, is in fact a micro-reduced version of the Children’s Pilgrimage to Walsingham. I then found out that quite a large number of my Catholic friends have been running Messy Church for ages but keeping quiet about it lest they face mockery from their peers. And that was enough. We decided to give it a go in the Parish of Old St Pancras and have now been running Messy Church shamelessly and gratuitously twice a term for the past two years. We do it quite simply because it works.
Structure of the evening
As a formulaic package, Messy Church is very easy to run with a relatively small group of volunteers. The evening starts with the Welcome when refreshments are served and people are introduced to each other (though we don’t really bother with this part in Camden Town because our families are always so late). The next part of the evening is Activities. Four or five tables are arranged around the room each with an art or craft activity that illustrates the Bible story or theme chosen for the evening. The idea is that adults and children engage with these jointly and that during the course
of doing the activity, there can be shared learning about the Gospel.
The third section of the evening is the Celebration. This is a time of worship, usually comprising a couple of hymns or songs, a short talk and some prayers. The evening ends with a Meal. Sitting down together at a table to eat good food is an essential part of Messy Church and is in many ways the reason for its success, so the most vital member of the team is someone who is prepared to cook without having much idea of the numbers for whom they will be catering.
Messy Church is genuinely aimed at all ages. Children remain the responsibility of their parent or carer and since the Church is therefore not acting in loco parentis, safeguarding becomes a much easier thing to manage. We find that
older people come along on their own simply to enjoy the company of the young. Volunteers do not require advanced skills in children’s work, and after a short time parents will happily lend a hand in running activity tables or even being part of a planning group.
The substantive Catholic objection to Messy Church centres around what it claims to be. Hard core Messy Church exponents will say that this is ‘Church’ for those who attend, that attendance at Messy Church is sufficient as an expression of the Christian life. For those of us who hold that weekly attendance at the Eucharist is a primary expectation of the baptized, this is a hard line to follow. As one of my clergy team stated when I first mooted the idea, `I just wish they wouldn’t call it `Church”
Means to an end
There is no doubting the meatiness of this objection. But surely what it should impact is not whether we use a resource as evangelistically effective as Messy Church, but how we use it. In the Parish of Old St Pancras, we do not see Messy Church as the full expression of the life of the Church, but rather as a way of making contact with new people and enabling families on the edge of the Church’s life to encounter the Good News of the Gospel. Our ultimate aim is to draw people into full Eucharistic membership of one of our four Churches, and for us, Messy Church is a step in that direction. Already baptisms have resulted from Messy Church connections, new families have started attending our churches and we have recruited new servers and children’s workers. For us Messy Church is a means to an end, and not the end itself
In addition, if one objection to Messy Church is that it is not Eucharistic, that is very easy to address. Our second Messy Church each term is Messy Mass in which the Celebration time is used to offer the Eucharist. It proves what we all know, which is that children in particular have a rich understanding of the holiness of sacramental worship, for the engagement shown even by unchurched children is never less than profound and sincere.
A lotto offer
Coming to faith is a process. If our churches are to grow and Sunday attendance is to increase, we need to find stepping stones along which people can walk on the way to discovering to the full the transformative power of Eucharistic relationship with Jesus Christ. Messy Church, a resource within the reach of all but the smallest local church, can be one of those stepping stones. If we think about it in those terms, it has a great deal to offer.