After almost 10 years Messy Church is continuing to pick up momentum, spreading across the globe (Australia, Ireland, Canada, USA, Denmark, Switzerland, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany & Alaska) and shows no sign of slowing down.
The memories are still fresh in Paul Moore’s mind as he thinks back to their humble beginnings in his Church of England Parish Church, north of Portsmouth.
“We were aware that we had good quality work for children in the Church. It was being led by people with lots of creative ideas and lots of energy and lots of dedication and lots of faith but we simply weren’t getting the numbers. We would have a tiny number of children coming along, and some Sundays we’d have nobody at all.”
“We began to rethink everything; we talked to local families asking: ‘if we [the Church] were able to do something for you, what would you like and when would you like it to be?'”
These playground conversations were the first sparks of inspiration. It quickly became clear that Sunday’s were too busy and parents wanted something for the whole family where everyone joined in. “We thought, ‘that sounds interesting’.”
Paul explained they didn’t jump into the project, but took some time to reflect on the community’s needs and the skills his church already had. His congregation had a flourishing group of amateur painters who’d meet regularly and it become obvious that creativity was their major strength.
“We held our first Messy Church and around 100 people came. We we’re amazed. It spread via word of mouth, we didn’t do any advertising. It was just the church families telling other families that it was on. We really believed that for many people, this was going to be their church.”
“We’re about to celebrate our 9th birthday in April. We’ve invited every family to bring a cake, so that we can all have a huge amount of birthday cake”, chuckled Paul with a smile in his voice. “One of the traditions of our Messy Church is that there’s always lots of cake.”
Paul had a well placed sabbatical in which he was able to travel to Australia, Canada and all over the UK to experience Messy Churches. He spent 3 months doing a study project on discipleship, which became the ground work for his book, ‘Making Disciples in Messy Church’. “It wasn’t in the plan to become a book”, he admits. “It was just my project in my study leave.”
“Some people have looked at Messy Church and have said, ‘that’s just Church-Light’. It’s a simplified version of church just to get people started. Then when you’ve got them started they need to move on to something else. They need to come to proper church on a Sunday.”
This common criticism from onlookers holds a traditional view that real discipleship can only happen in church, specifically on Sunday mornings. But Paul comes to the defense of Messy Church, explaining that its discipleship model is biblical, effective and essential in our secular landscape.
“We often make the mistake, and we’ve probably done for a few hundred years, thinking that discipleship is about knowledge or about knowing your Bible better. Actually discipleship is not about information, it’s about transformation. It’s about behavior; it’s about building your Christian character, becoming more Christ-like. That happens when we grow together in the Christian community.”
In his book, Paul discusses three forms of discipleship: teaching, apprenticeship, and soaking. Using Jesus and the Early Church as biblical examples, he encourages readers to become intentional in using and balancing the right modal at the right time. But the common factor throughout each is community.
“The Early Church didn’t have projectors and computers and lots of money to throw at discipleship programs and Alpha Courses and so on. Yet they made disciples, so with God’s Spirit I think we can still do a good job today. They don’t seem to have sat around making things out of sticky-back plastic and recycled egg boxes, but the community aspects are similar.”
“I’ve made this book short, easy to read and very practical. It’s aimed at Church leaders who perhaps are a little skeptical, it’s aimed at Messy Church leaders who need encouraging and helping to see how they can sharpen up their community, it’s aimed at anyone who is interested in the issue of discipleship.”
With solid, first-hand experience, Paul speaks from the firm context of Messy Church. Although, everything he describes applies to everything the Church does in making disciples. He wants to help Christians become more intentional and deliberate in discipleship, to be crystal clear on the why’s and how’s and who’s and when’s that help people grow closer to God.
Most Memorable Messy Moments
“In Messy Church you get these moments where you see God at work.”
I couldn’t resist asking Paul what his most memorable moment was, knowing there must be hundreds of encouraging stories to tell. “Early on in the adventure, a little boy was about to go home at the end of the meal and he was collecting together all the things he made.”
“His arms were full and with a big grin he said, ‘look at all this stuff that I’ve made... and it’s all free!’ That was a fantastic response to what we do, it’s about God’s grace and that child had experienced something of the grace of God.”
Ready to move on, Paul leapt into a new story before I could ask another question. “Another memorable moment happened when we were first at Greenbelt two years ago. We made this life-size boat out of cardboard and boxes. We encouraged people to take a paper shaped wave and write on it their fear, then put it beside the boat and walk across the stormy waters towards Jesus in faith, like Peter did.”
“A little boy and his mum were doing the activity and they were writing down their fears. The little boy wrote down on his ‘I’m afraid that when I’m naughty I make mummy cross’. While his mum wrote down on hers ‘I’m afraid that I’m too harsh on my son’. Something special happened in that moment that she realised her little boy was getting worked up because he thought he was being too naughty and she was aware that she was getting too angry. So they put their fears on the sea, they walked over them and they knew Jesus could help them to get the balance right.”
One Hit Wonder… Or the Sign of Good Things to Come
When I asked whether Paul he'd caught the writing bug he laughed, “time allowing.”
“I’ve got a couple of other things in the pipeline. There’s a more academic book about Messy Church coming out in the autumn, which is I think going to be called Messy Theology. I wrote a chapter for that about what it’s like to have a Messy Church that’s ten years old, which it will be by the time the book comes out, almost. It’s talking about maturing your Messy Church.”
“I’m also doing some writing for BRF Bible study notes, the Guidelines Series of daily notes.”
With the movement firmly rooted and established, it seems that Messy Church will be moving into a season of maturing. A time for fine tuning the mission values, sharpening the vision and maturing as a collective. Paul Moore is becoming a key voice in this important process with his timely book, ‘Making Disciples in Messy Church’, and his and Lucy’s continuing work in Portsmouth.
The work of BRF also seems to be reaching a new season, with magazine style resources for leaders and volunteers. ‘Get Messy’ represents a new step in growing the movement, with a focus on nurturing the hard working grassroots pioneers with interviews, Bible studies, testimonies, ideas, session plans, stories from across the globe and opportunities to get involved.
This snowballing adventure is gathering more and more momentum, inspiring more and more churches, and engaging more and more families with God’s love and grace. And for that we say long live Messy Church!
April 19th, 2013 - Posted & Written by James Warwood