Jesus was a carpenter-a hands-on teacher with a common touch that brought the news of the kingdom to those on the messy fringes of society. It’s not hard to imagine his presence around a crafts table awash in paint, paste and pots of glue in Messy Church, the church of the unchurched.
Messy Church is a missional initiative of the UK’s Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) and the Fresh Expressions movement founded in 2004 by Lucy Moore at St. Wilfrid’s Anglican Church in Cowplain, near Portsmouth This fast-growing ministry brings the gospel to families that are not churched or cannot attend formal services on Sunday mornings. And for that it has not lacked traditionalist criticism.
Typically, its all-age sessions take place monthly in a church or hall, on a Saturday or a weekday-and centre on Bible story themes. After refreshments, people do theme-related activities and crafts, then take part in a short worship celebration with prayer, music and story-telling. The sessions close with the sharing of a hot meal, and significantly, kids and adults work together in every aspect.
“Over a third are adults at our monthly Sunday afternoon meeting, and it’s exciting because most don’t go to any other church,” says Bishop Larry Robertson of the diocese of Yukon. He started hosting sessions at Christ Church Cathedral in Whitehorse in 2013, and recently helped start a Messy Church group in Belize.
“A couple of people have said that Messy Church is their church. They’ve found a home here.” Occasionally a family will start attending regular weekly services, although that is not the intended goal of Messy Church, he stresses. “It’s designed and shaped to meet the needs of families in the community.”
Robertson’s forté in Messy Church is puppetry: he’s a dab hand with a talking lamb or a wolf.
His group at Christ Church is one of 2,860 Messy Churches registered worldwide across a range of denominations from Iceland to New Zealand. Launched in this country in 2007 by the Rev. Nancy Rowe of St. George’s Anglican Church, Georgetown, in Ontario’s diocese of Niagara, it has grown to at least 150. Of these, 65 are Anglican, 60 United Church of Canada and the rest are Lutheran, Presbyterian and Salvation Army Messy Churches, says Hamilton, Ont.-based Sue Kalbfleisch, Canada team leader for Messy Church Canada. It operates under the auspices of Wycliffe College theological school in Toronto, and has 14 regional coordinators, including Bishop Robertson. “It’s grown like crazy over the last couple of years,” says Kalbfleisch.
The BRF has trademarked a highly recognizable splashed-paint logo to be used with certain conditions. In fact, the Messy Church model is now an established brand whose proponents work together to follow the organization’s religious values and play/worship/hospitality format. “If a group is just doing straight crafts, we discourage it from using the official logo,” Kalbfleisch says.
At its national meeting this past April at Wycliffe, Messy Church Canada explored new ways to expand its national network. “We need to find more regional co-ordinators,” says Kalbfleisch. “At the moment we have no one on the east coast, though there are Messy Churches in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.”
Canadian Messy Church is also connecting with people in Quebec to establish a francophone version. Workshops to be held this October in Montreal will look at using the logo with a French name that would retain the playful and positive aspects of messiness signalled by the English. The group may produce some basic materials in French.
As well, the Canadian franchise is looking at ways to raise funds for supporting its national network and fully developing its website so people will not have to consult the UK website for resources.
In May 2016, eight or nine regional co-ordinators will head to the UK for an international conference outside London.
Meanwhile, everyone’s wondering how Messy Church will translate into French without losing its creative, mess-is-good connotation. L’Église qui se salit les mains perhaps?