(What) do we think about Messy Church?

I am very excited to announce that the book on Messy Church which I have contributed to and edited is out this week. Being Messy, Being Church includes a wide range of reflections from some fascinating contributors (including three bishops and contributions from Switzerland, South Africa and Australia) and tackles key practical, pastoral and theological questions around Messy Church. How does MC sit with Sunday church, and how does it relate to the sacraments? What impact does MC have on the faith of team members? What are the practical dangers and pitfalls, and how does MC offer opportunities for pastoral care? How does MC engage with postmodern culture, and can it play a part in evangelism? What missional structures does MC need as part of the wider church? and many others.

Lucy Moore, in her foreword, comments:

An email came round recently, from a member of the BRF Marketing team, asking if we had a generic word to describe books like Messy Church Theology, Messy Hospitality, Making Disciples in Messy Church and Messy Togetherness. They said, ‘The word we use in-house is thinky books, but we can’t really use that in public…’ Well, Being Messy, Being Church certainly fits into the series of ‘thinky’ books! We are deeply grateful to Ian and all the authors who have put so much thought into their fields over the years and have had the grace and skill to apply that thinking to Messy Church in such an accessible, generous and wise way, to help us all to think.

I came across a word this morning in the context of reading about the wisdom of God in Ephesians 3. The word is ‘phronesis’, a fine and noble-sounding word that one can pronounce with a slight elevation of the chin, as it feels so lofty and impressive. ‘Today I shall set out to be phronetic,’ we may chant as we get up each morning. It’s the word Paul uses for insights that help us live out the wisdom of God in a practical way. I would offer the concept of phronesis to Messy Church team members as a happy attitude to have in mind as we read the collected wisdom and experience in these chapters. In other words, there’s a lot of theory in these pages, and it’s our job as Messy Church practitioners to let that exciting theory sift through our grounded, hands-on experience and, with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, transform us and our actions.

Messy Church is firmly associated with practical wisdom; the outworking of discipleship; the living out of faith; and the mucky hands of disciples serving communities by washing up, sweeping up, peeling potatoes or creating works of art from the stu of the earth and noxious explosions from chemicals. It is the applied wisdom of a lifetime of following Jesus, so that when we sit alongside a family, surrounded by planks of wood and screwdrivers, we know how to respond to the unexpected question about God—and we know how not to reply. After all, what would you say to an eight-year-old with autism who listens carefully to your introduction to the yoghurt-pot-based activity at Easter time, about Jesus’ death and resurrection changing the world for ever, and then politely asks, ‘Exactly how did Jesus change the world for ever?’

The huge themes and questions dealt with in the chapters of this book will challenge our attitudes and ideas and encourage us to do what we do even better in our Messy Churches—to get on with the phronesis with renewed vision.

The contents are as follows:

  • Foreword (Lucy Moore)
  • Introduction: a church for all generations (Ian Paul)
  • Missional structures for missional outcomes (Tim Dakin)
  • Messy Church in different contexts (Karen Rooms)
  • Messy teamwork: developing the faith of team members (Isabelle Hamley)
  • Messy challenges: dangers and pitfalls (Greg Ross)
  • Making sacred spaces in Messy Church (Jean Pienaar)
  • Messy Church and the sacraments (Philip North)
  • Messy Church in a postmodern world (Sabrina Müller)
  • Messy Church and Sunday church in conversation (Mark Rylands)
  • Messy Church and play (Judyth Roberts)
  • The pastoral implications of Messy Church (Irene Smale)
  • Messy Church and evangelism (Tim Sanderson)
  • Messy Church and the challenge of making disciples (Stephen Kuhrt)

The stimulating mix of practical and theological reflection will help anyone involved in Messy Church think through both the challenges and the opportunities.

The Kindle edition is available now; the print edition is released on Friday. It is also available on the BRF website. Archbishop Justin Welby commends it as follows:

A timely book offering theological insight and asking probing questions into the creativity, mess and gift of an extraordinary phenomenon. A challenging and inspiring read for those leading, helping or simply wanting to understand more.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

9 thoughts on “(What) do we think about Messy Church?”

  1. My own experience of Messy Church is that it is a wonderful ministry and often fantastically effective outreach. But I take issue with any suggestion that it is church itself (rather than a church ministry and outreach) because:
    1) It does not aim to be universal but only aims at one demographic
    2) It does not involve teaching appropriate for adults and so is deficient for adult discipleship
    3) It does not encourage, or produce, people committed to regular giving to the church
    4) Its sacramental life is very limited

    I therefore resist any idea that it is not desirable for those who attend to come to (one of) the main services of the church. I think we sell people short if we tell them this is fully church.

    So I will have to read this book to see if it provides any reassurance on these points!

    • Thanks Will. I think those are good questions, and they are ones that different chapters tackle head on, exploring both the practical issues and the theological principles involved.

      Let me know if you find the answers convincing!

    • I agree very much with what you’ve said Will, so rather than repeat it I’ll simply add my own thoughts/comments on top of yours.

      1) I think aiming at one demographic is fine, but my objection is that Messy Church clearly aims at one despite still marketing itself as fully inclusive of everyone, when I’m not convinced it is. As a specific example there is almost nothing about Messy Church that appeals to dads, and they are the single most underrepresented group at them. This in spite of them being statistically the most influential group regarding a family’s involvement in and attendance at church*. Some of the later Messy church literature has addressed this, but only in brief. Much more has been written about, say, special needs inclusion, than nearly 50% of the adult population.

      2) Exactly. I would say however that where there is intent to do this it can be achieved, it is not impossible. I am not sure Messy Church pedagogy encourages strong teaching as a focus, but I do not think it is excluded as a possibility either. It is just harder, and requires a well practiced team that knows exactly what they’re doing, led by someone with clear vision for it. The barriers to this do not come from Messy Church ideas themselves, but from ‘messy people’, unequipped for it. I am not sure I have ever seen this done effectively, though I do not doubt it has been.

      3) This is, in part, my principle objection. Messy Church does not expect, and is not built to achieve, continuity between itself and the life of the church that (most often) runs and sustains it. It is excellent at introducing children to biblical material, and providing welcome to adults, but it is still too foreign, too different from the rest of church life (this is very much part of point 4)), so much so that people who come to Messy Church are probably going to find a regular Sunday service just as alien as they would if they had never been to it, especially worship and prayer. It is not meant to be secular, but Messy Church often has far more in common with Forest School or Local Authority activities, such as Play centres. I imagine this is even more pronounced in the CofE, than in my own Baptist context. It is not that these are bad things to emulate (I am an accredited forest school lead, who worked for the local authority Play and Youth service for a few years) but that their objectives are often not dissimilar from those of a standard Messy Church session.

      I echo your comment, “I think we sell people short if we tell them this is fully church.” but add that this does not devalue what Messy Church does and is. Like you I readily accept it has been used very effectively, but it is often treated in the same well as Alpha, a “5-point grow your church plan” that disappoints when you find that it gets very well attended and you get lots of good feedback, but 12 months down the line there is no discernible growth in discipleship, giving, membership or attendance.

      I realize this have been a very negative comment, but I will add that I own most the other messy church literature and think it’s genuinely valuable, it has certainly given me lots of ideas and things to think about. I will buy and read this book eagerly, hoping it addresses some of my concerns too.


      *I am not sure where this research is, but I have encountered it many times. I can find a citation if you want it.

  2. I look forward to reading the book – thank you Ian for helping with the vitally important task of theological reflection on Messy church, both through this post and through the book.
    I’m a vicar in a church which has had messy church up and running for 7 years, and though others organise I attend pretty much every time. I value it especially
    1) for the contact with local parents and children that it gives. There are countless churches who 5-10 years ago had almost given up on the prospect of having young families engage with them (other than perhaps for a crib service on Christmas eve)– but through messy church this has happened
    2) for the potential route to Christian discipleship that it offers, both for adults and children
    3) For the children present it seems to me to have just as much right to be called ‘church’ as Sunday school (or its re-badged equivalent, Sunday club)
    1) Along with most churches we have felt that the model is too resource-intensive to put on weekly. Where it is offered monthly, a family that sees attendance as a high priority might make it 8-9 times in a year. Does this really represent active or full church membership, or is it best described as representing, as yet, no more than a very constructive contact with the church?
    2) I get the impression that our church is not alone in seeing few if any families who have been drawn into messy church showing significant signs of progressing any real distance on the route to Christian discipleship.
    3) This culminates in the question as to whether it is really helpful it is to see Messy church as church for the parents present. To my mind, in our context there are so few signs that they are engaged in any meaning reflection on Christian discipleship & worship that for us to count them in any sense as church worshipers seems to me to put us in danger of self – delusion; and also to risk lessening the urgency of experimenting with what might possibly take them one step closer to any serious thought or reflection on issues of faith.
    Martin Payne’s earlier volume in this series ‘Messy Togetherness’ represented a passionate articulation of the conviction that this kind of all-age gathering had as much, if not more, claim to be authentically church than traditional age-segregated worship and learning. And yet, as I remember it, the only concrete example he cited of a person coming to a mature articulation of Christian faith came via their being recruited onto a ‘Christianity Explored’ course which, I take it, would not have included young children. (We’ve repeatedly tried plugging this kind of thing but as yet have had only one participant from Messy church in 7 years)

  3. A local church has a men’s group – they renovate a house and/or garden on an estate over a weekend – a team of local Christian men, with their friends working together. That sort of stuff seems to attract men.
    I also heard about Sweaty church – an SU initiative – last week. Sounds as if with spin off groups of running, cycling or walking might work for more men rather than than the mostly indoor-based messy church.

  4. I disagree that Messy Church offers nothing to fathers. One surprising outcome for us was to find that MC can be particularly attractive to non custodial fathers looking for somewhere other than McDonalds to spend quality access time with their children. I see Dads getting very enthusiastically involved in craft activities with their kids. It does need careful planning so that MC teaches rather than simply entertains children, but it has a partucular attraction to families who do not have the resources in their home for ‘hands on’ activities.
    Quite unexpectedly for me (as Vicar) I have not only seen new people, but I’ve seen MC engage old people in new ways. The team it takes to plan, cook, run MC has involved the entire parish. I agree with Andrew that it is too resource intensive to entertain weekly sessions, but we run two a school term and although it was never the intent, a good many of the chikdren and families attend on a Sunday morning too where ‘traditional Sunday School’ has morphed into Fun, Food and Faith. I think we need to keep our theological/spiritual goals simple. A greater awareness of God, of God’s love for them and a sense of belonging to both the physical church building and the people who gather there is enough for me. I have taken two funerals for MC families, one an infant, one a grandfather, and it was a real privilege to have this opportunity.

    • Thanks, Jan
      Really encouraged that you have had some messy church families come along on Sunday morning too
      I can see the attraction of morphing sunday morning sunday school to ‘fun food and faith’. Do you have any other wisdom to share as to what might have enabled families to make the jump to giving sunday morning worship a try, or even better liking it enough to come back?

    • Jan,

      An excellent point on non-custodial dads. From my own personal experience of many years ago, as a non-custodial dad I took my children to Sunday School and in retrospect this was a small positive in a very grey and oppressive world. Non-custodial dads will often be isolated and suffering and to find a way to support them, alongside the MC for their children, would be a great service. In particular, a route away from bitterness and anger can only be good.



Leave a comment