'Church growth strategies are the death rattle of a church that has lost its way.'
and having considered just some of the many strategies for church growth I've encountered thus far, we return to that most lauded and even more often wrongly places element of church growth: The 'messy church' approach!
One of the more intriguing things about this, and there are many that intrigue me, is the fact that many of those who 'do' it don't actually catch on to what it is all about. So let's start with three things that I think it actually is:
i. It is 'church'. This means that it is a body of people who come together to hear the word, to break bread together in a 'fellowship meal' *, to sing praise and to enjoy being part of a fully sacramental community**
ii. It is about bringing families into a place (which might not be a 'church') where there are activities and fun and food and friendship on offer - yeah, not like Sundays at all then is it?
iii. It focusses on reconciliation to God through the cross of Jesus, the Christ - But it is not about claiming scalps. We do it to share God's love, not pay the parish share or 'bring children in' (but of course it will do that too, but that's not the goal).
Not 'messy evangelism'
One of things that really winds me up is people coming to me and complaining thus:
'We've been doing messy church for over a year and no one has come to the other services!'
It's not supposed to be the means by which we bring the people in and then, once they're comfortable in the place, repot them in the Sunday services like young plants taken from the greenhouse! It is evangelism, but not the sort that builds up your ageing and largely failing Sunday gatherings. The messy folk might come to have a look at a Sunday but wherever and whenever the messy church takes place: That's church for them!
Having told this to some church groups I've been met with the response, 'So what's in it for us then?'
The answer is simple: 'You're building the Church (universal) and not the local expression of it in your building. You are being obedient and going into all the world and making disciples and all that stuff!'
As usual with Church. It isn't rocket science!
Not an overnight success
Well it hasn't been where I am anyway!
Messy church is hard work because you need:
i. People who will be praying for it (and during it too is good),
ii. People who will plan and lead and cater and assist and wash and clean and be there to become familiar faces and to be 'friends' (this means actually being friends but he way, not just pretending to be such).
iii. People who will keep on doing i. and ii. for a jolly long time - through the feast and the famine times - as faithful and committed members of the project.
iv. A church (or group of people) who are willing to fund the thing (but I believe there should always be a charge for the event - this is important) for as long as it needs funding.
Messy church is about servanthood and sacrificial giving (of time, money and self) - it is great fun and one of the most rewarding things I have done with families ever.
Some points to ponder
Paying and messy church
I've met some who claim that asking people to pay to come to messy church is wrong. I don't think so because it starts people off on the right foot with them realising that there are bill to be paid and costs met and Church doesn't have bottomless pockets. It's good value and good practice we need to be looking at here. (I must add the caveat that where there is financial hardship then costs should be reduced or removed - but making people feel like a charity case often sees them leave, never to return). (whoops - was moving this and forgot to paste it) . . . The thing is that if we see messy church as a fresh expression (FE) then we need to start as we ought to go on, for those who make up the Church are also responsible for making sure it pays its way. I have met many who tell me that ALL FEs should be paid for by the diocese or the church who are organising it, or someone else, because, like children, 'They didn't ask to be brought into the world so why should they pay?'
The answer to this is that everyone who brings their families to messy church ( and this is every that I've met who have said this) have told me that they pay for other sessional activities for their kids but messy church is THE best value (one of those who said this paid a fiver for 'parents and toddler's' and other groups) - £3 for a whole family: Mum, dad and three kids - they want to pay towards the thing.
And back to the 'parent and child' debate: As parents I am aware that we need to teach our children to pay their way and to learn that if they want things then those things need to be paid for. This is good parenting and is what we do in other expressions of Church: we call it a gift, tithe or offering in that context though, don't we?
Leaving unattended children at messy church
Another issue is that of letting the parents leave the children at messy church. This one of the big problems and whilst, should there be a pastoral need, I'm happy to see it happen occasionally when a crisis arises, we don't offer messy church as free (see above) or cheap childcare. It is Church and therefore needs to be engaged with as such.
There - that's the missing bit repasted!
Doing what works or doing the same old stuff?
Some of the messy church setups I've visited have been doing the same thing for years and they can't see anything wrong with that because it worked when they started. One even offered the same fare (pizza!) and assumed that pizza and chips was what children liked and had never thought of cooking shepherd's pie, pasta and other things. Don't get stuck in a rut - be inventive with your crafts, flexible with your formats and adventurous with the food (and if you do a beef wellington - call me).
When and where to do messy church
Times and places should be the time people can come and the place they can easy come to. There are so many people who think that by making the venue 'their church' is a great way to 'add to their church' - but it isn't (and isn't why we do it). Add to this the fact that some like to do it on a Sunday because, as one churchwarden told me, 'Adds children and numbers to the ASA!' If I had my way I'd exclude messy church from the ASA altogether and make it an evangelistic end in itself rather than a means of justifying the church by numbers (we had 30 adults and 7 children at the Sunday communion yesterday by the way - the numbers are small but the gathering was wonderful. The numbers condemn us as a small church - the fellowship confirms us as valid Church. All about perspective).
The point of what we do is to communicate the Gospel and make Jesus, the Christ, known. We do this safe in the knowledge that He in turn will make the Father known and bring about reconciliation with Him and us. It isn't rocket science, is it?
__________________________________The way that we do this is to become incarnate; that is to be present 'in the flesh'. and be real and grounded in reality for those around us. Being 'present' means that we are able to offer friendship and support and also be part of the solution (which means point to the solution rather than actually just be it for people - all about the give a fish/teach them to fish principle).
This is where messy church becomes something of inestimable value.
* I've met some people who want to offer 'a communion' from day one but to do so is to encourage people to enter into something they don't quite understand and to cheapen the Eucharist and diminish the importance of it for those who come and those who put it on too!
** All we have in terms of sacrament is (according to Cranmer) is 'bath and bread' - and these should be on offer in this, as in every, church setting. Messy baptism and confirmation should all be on the menu when the time is right :-)