Foundations: No.68 Spring 2015

Review Article: Messy Church Theology

Messy church theology: Exploring the significance of messy church for the wider church
(Ed. George Lings; Bible Reading Fellowship, 2013), 288pp, £9.99

Introduction

I first heard of Messy Church a few years ago but finding out more about it was not a priority. Then last summer I was invited to preach at a fellowship in the south of England, with a view to perhaps becoming its pastor. Looking at the church profile I noticed that they had been running a monthly “Messy Church” for a few years now. Apparently some tens of new contacts had been made and maintained, although apart from coming along to special seasonal events none of these had made the hoped-for transition to the traditional weekly services. Having had an enjoyable preaching visit I thought I should look into this phenomenon, hence buying the book (“the first title to encapsulate the theology of Messy Church”) and now offering this brief review.

Definition

What exactly is “Messy Church”? The editor, George Lings, sums it up in five statements, each containing an affirmation and a denial:[1]

  • It is for all ages; it is not merely a children’s activity.
  • It is about creativity; it is not narrowly about craft.
  • It is about worship and community; it is not a bridge back to real church.
  • It aims for transformation of family life; it is not simply fun for kids.
  • Its hospitality is a conscious missional value; it is not merely easy access.

These underlying values find expression in an “advised shape” or itinerary:[2]

  • 3.30: A period of welcome, games and light refreshment
  • 4.00: Craft time in families
  • 5.00: Celebration service in church
  • 5.15: Hot meal together
  • 5.45: Time to go home

In 2004, Lucy Moore and her husband Paul, a Church of England vicar, began the first Messy congregation in Portsmouth on a Thursday afternoon. The name and format were soon copied and after five years there were ninety-nine known Messy Churches, a figure that has doubled yearly so that by August 2013 two thousand such congregations were registered in the UK alone.[3] The vast majority are in this country and the bulk of these are in an Anglican context.[4] However, other denominations, notably Methodist, are utilising the brand. On average one new Messy Church registers on the website every day.[5]

Comment

This volume deserves a more in-depth review than I am able now to provide, and I should perhaps point out that I have yet to attend a Messy Church event; hence my observations on the movement are not borne out of first-hand experience but on the theology and practice described and advocated here. There is indeed some considerable variety amongst practitioners and churches, and this is reflected in the book itself. As Lucy Moore says, “We deliberately chose to invite a messy selection of writers, people with whom we didn’t necessarily see eye to eye, in order... not [to] produce a ‘look how wonderful Messy Church is’ tome.”[6] This openness to constructive criticism is commendable, as are the following five aspects of Messy Church that I noticed.

Positives

(i) Recognition of a problem/challenge

The percentage of Britons identifying as Christian is sharply declining, from 72% in 2001 to 59% in 2011. This may not be all that bad a thing if merely nominal believers are realising that they are not actually followers of Jesus. But this statistic also reflects the sad fact that fewer people are being exposed to the gospel. “By 2000, Sunday schools were reaching no more than about five per cent of the population of children in the UK.”[7] In 2006, two-thirds (32.2 million) of our people had no connection with any church.[8] Similar trends are evident in other Western countries and none of the contributors to this book is either ignorant of the situation or resigned to it.

(ii) Willingness to take action

Almost all of the authors have, quite literally, got their hands dirty, being involved in Messy congregations in their own localities. There are hundreds of volunteers who sacrificially give of their time, effort and sometimes money,[9] in addition often to continued attendance at the services of the sending church. The biblical, Christ-like motivation behind this is evident throughout the book.

(iii) Thinking “outside the box”

Messy Church is clearly not a movement beholden to the past and a “but-we’ve-never-done-it-that-way-before” mentality. Although hers is the weakest chapter, Beth Barnett is not wrong to call us to “an openness, an adventurous spirit, the capacity for risk, a willingness to go out as well as come home, [that] will characterise a healthy maturity”.[10]

(iv) Success in attracting / retaining people

The pioneer Messy congregation in Portsmouth has consistently had around 60 invitees at its meetings.[11] Others have seen even more.[12] The common experience has been that it has proved easier to attract women and children rather than men, and that retaining the interest of youngsters as they mature can be challenging. Nevertheless, in a day of small things such numbers are impressive. It would indeed seem that “Messy Church can create the opportunity to take the good news of Christ to people who would never enter a church.”[13]

(v) Recovery of the agape meal?

Finally, perhaps we might see in Messy Church’s emphasis on hospitality a harking back to an ancient yet abandoned apostolic practice. The agape meal, or “love feast”, alluded to in the New Testament (1 Cor 11:17-34; 2 Pet 2:13; Jude 12), appears to have been essentially a fellowship lunch to which the observance of the Lord’s Supper was conjoined. In spite of the fact that Paul does not argue against its use but its misuse, the meal was discarded by the early Catholic church and Protestants, with few exceptions, have not thought it worth retrieving. But, as Bishop Paul Butler observes, “[t]here is something special about community, friendship and family that only happens around eating together”.[14] Maybe it is time we re-examined our attitude to the love feast and consider whether it is really something we can afford to do without.

Negatives

So there are several things to be thankful for in Messy Church. However, I also have some concerns about the theology and practice described and advocated in the book. The negatives are really counterparts to the positives and I put them in the form of questions.

(i) Has the biggest problem been identified?

Undoubtedly the church in the UK is enjoying less influence than it used to, with increasing numbers of people either ignorant of, or resistant to, the gospel. While certain unsavoury aspects of traditional church may have had a role in contributing to this estrangement, we must not forget that the Bible warns us to expect widespread opposition even to genuine Christianity (John 15:18; Rom 8:7; 1 Cor 2:14). The biggest obstacle to faith is not old-fashioned services but unregenerate hearts. Although I do not recall any author denying this, neither was a robust doctrine of sin and total depravity evident in the book. If we do not grasp the radical nature of the problem we will inevitably come up with an inadequate solution, which leads on to my next criticism.

(ii) Is the most necessary thing being done?

A Messy Church event will typically last for over two hours with just fifteen minutes allotted for the “celebration service”, and not all of this is reserved for the reading and teaching of God’s word. In effect, believers in your average Messy Church are getting the equivalent of what traditional churches call an epilogue, and that only once a month. Even then, “[m]any Messy Churches are reluctant to push a strong Christian message for fear of putting parents off”.[15] Such a programme simply does not reflect apostolic priorities (1 Tim 4:13; 2 Tim 4:2). Of course preachers should be winsome and non-threatening, but if we are not going to present “a strong Christian message” in church, when on earth are we going to preach it? Engaging in Bible-themed crafts is no substitute for sitting under Spirit-empowered, Christ-centred, expository preaching. It is through the living, abiding word of God that sinners are born again, “and this word is the gospel which was preached to you” (1 Pet 1:23-25).

(iii) Doesn’t the Bible prescribe what we do in church?

To a lesser or greater extent all the writers in the book are guided by Scripture in their thinking about Messy Church. Yet it would be fair to say that they mostly find principles there, rather than specific prescriptions. But are the details of New Testament church life merely descriptive or are they also prescriptive? For example, there are specific instructions on who and who should not be speaking/leading in the church (1 Cor 14; 1 Tim 2:8-3:13), and there is already a discernible tradition of the disciples meeting together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; Rev 1:10). Messy Church appears to proceed on the assumption that such things are no longer binding on us, but I disagree. If we wish to be thought of as a church in our own right and not merely as an “outreach” of another church (a distinguishing mark of “pure” Messy Church) then we have to play by the rules, “for God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33). By all means let us think “outside the box” of human tradition, but never “outside the book” of divine revelation.

(iv) Is the distinction between believer and unbeliever being blurred?

As noted above, Messy Church has proved very successful at getting both so-called “unchurched” and “de-churched” individuals and families across the threshold. While it is only right that we give a warm welcome to any non-Christians who come along to our meetings, a clear distinction must be maintained between believers who are (as far as we can tell) truly in the church, and unbelievers who are not.[16] Balancing these responsibilities is not easy! I fear that precisely because they place such a premium on providing a pleasurable and engaging experience for their invitees, Messy Churches may be in particular danger of blurring the necessary distinction. An unconverted husband helping his Christian wife serve refreshments is one thing; “being part of the planning, and helping to develop the ‘spiritual’ bits”[17] is surely quite another.

(v) Aren’t many of the positive aspects also found in traditional churches?

Messy Church clearly excels at some things – friendship, food, fun, flexibility – and we can learn from its practitioners in all these areas. But it would be gross slander against many traditional churches to suggest that these things are entirely absent from their life and witness. Typically such a fellowship will have someone at the door to greet people as they arrive; hospitality will be available during the afternoon, perhaps even the occasional fellowship lunch; social events will take place, to which non-Christians will usually be invited; and at least some services/activities will specifically seek to address the spiritual needs and questions of unconverted friends, rather than focus on the saints. Of course there will always be room for improvement. But just as not all Messy Churches are characterised by shameful disorderliness, neither are many traditional churches by hypocritical lovelessness. This needs to be appreciated.

Conclusion

When the Jerusalem mother-church heard about a new plant in Antioch, they sent Barnabas to investigate (Acts 11:22ff). Most likely he did not find everything being done exactly the way it was in Jerusalem, but he certainly did observe the grace of God at work. True to his nickname (“Son of Exhortation”), he “encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (v 23).

In this review, I have tried to adopt a Barnabas-like approach towards Messy Church, seeing the positives as well as the negatives. I believe the grace of God is in evidence in this movement. Like Barnabas, I want to encourage all those who have come to faith in Jesus to go on following the Lord. Sadly, unlike him, I feel that here the negatives are at least equal to the positives. The chief problem is the insistence by most of the authors that Messy Church is church; in that case, it falls far short of the New Testament standard. But kept in its proper place, as an outreach or ministry of a more traditional and biblically-organised church, it could well fulfil its limited purpose of making first contact and building bridges with people; winning their trust and friendship; assisting in their conversion; preparing them for the transition to traditional church that must, sooner rather than later, take place.

Oliver Gross

Member, Kingswood Church, Welshpool, Powys.