Thinking about Messy Church…

Messy Church logoI’ve been thinking a little bit about church planting recently – more on that some other time. Anyway, in my conversations about it, the idea of Messy Church has come up more than once. If you’ve not been to Messy Church and don’t know what it’s about, there’s plenty of information on the official website. A couple of people have suggested to me that Messy Church might be a good way to start a new church in a fresh location (and one of them was a Bishop, so he ought to know what he’s talking about). Apart from all that, I’ve just finished reading a book on church growth (by Bob Jackson) which says that the numbers of people at Messy Church over the last few years has grown massively – if I recall correctly, nearly half a million people per year now attend Messy Church.

In short, the Church of England (as well as other denominations) are really waving the banner for Messy Church at the moment – some see it to be the future of the church. It is, as people have described it to me, “church for people who don’t do church.”

Back in January, I had an interesting conversation with one of my fellow curates about some of the challenges of Messy Church: there are some serious issues which I think really need to be thought through if the church is going to continue to promote Messy Church as the solution to the problem of getting families involved. As we will see, I hope, Messy Church may solve one or two problems but creates a number of others which I’m not sure can be adequately answered.

I think one of the fundamental questions is this: is Messy Church supposed to be church ‘in itself’? The answer to that question is, apparently, yes. The official website says Messy Church is not:

… a way of getting people to come to church on Sunday – There are examples of people starting in Messy Church and deciding to join Sunday church as well but these are the exception rather than the rule. If people wanted to go to established church, they would be going by now. [My emphasis] Messy Church is interdependent with established church, but will usually operate as a separate congregation or church.

Messy Church is, as I said before, church for people who don’t do church. The idea is that it’s reaching a set of people who wouldn’t come on a Sunday morning. It’s church for them – not half church, or church with the hope of them coming to join ‘proper’ church, but proper church in itself.

I just find this whole thing somewhat confused and, well, messy. One has to ask, why do people not come to church on a Sunday morning? I would venture to suggest it’s not because they simply don’t have the time – you make time for what is important to you. As I highlighted in the quote from the MC website above, if people wanted to go they would be going by now. I’d suggest instead that it’s because they’re not Christian. In the past, the traditional way of reaching people who don’t come to church is to hold evangelistic events or otherwise share the gospel with them, to help them understand the gospel, make a commitment to Christ and join the church family. The point is, people who don’t already come to church are being encouraged to consider the claims of Christ and then join an existing church family.

This is what I don’t get about Messy Church: I think Messy Church would be a fantastic evangelistic tool. I just struggle to see it as a church.

Another question I have about Messy Church which cuts deeply to the heart of the matter: does Messy Church actually introduce people to Jesus? Here’s the thing. The Messy Church philosophy seems to assume that people would just love to come to church if only they could find a time and a place which suited them. People don’t come on a Sunday morning because they’re busy or it’s inconvenient – hold it on a Saturday afternoon, people will love it. People would just jump at the chance to get to know Jesus, given a convenient time and format.

However, this is not how the gospels portray Jesus. Jesus is always a deeply divisive figure. At the end of John chapter 6, some of Jesus’ disciples said: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (v60), and then: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (v66) In other words, people who had the real, living, breathing Jesus in front of them couldn’t accept his teaching and turned back! It wasn’t a problem of finding a convenient time – it was that his teaching was unacceptable to them. In the very next chapter, just a few verses on, Jesus says: “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” (John 7:7) So Jesus says that the world actually hates him – because he testifies that what it does is evil. 

As I said, Jesus is a deeply divisive figure: Jesus is not someone whose teaching is inoffensive and all about ‘love your neighbour’ – he testifies about us that we are sinful, that our sin is offensive to a holy God, and that we need to repent of our sin and come to him for forgiveness and seek to live our lives with him as Lord. This is a message which the world finds deeply offensive! Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 that the message of the cross is “foolishness to those who are perishing” – the Christian message looks bizarre and ridiculous to the world which is blind to God.

And this is the heart of the matter with Messy Church: what worries me with Messy Church (as a separate congregation) is that people come along because kids enjoy the crafts, the Bible story, the meal – it’s a fun thing to do together as a family. But by its nature it never really gets to the heart of the matter: to actually testifying that our deeds are evil and that God commands all of us to repent and believe in the gospel. I think a lot of people have a craving for some kind of spirituality in their lives – perfectly natural, as Augustine said ‘O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless above all things until they find their rest in you.’ However, I think Messy Church – rather than helping people – might actually hinder: it helps to fill the void in the ‘God-shaped hole’ in someone’s life without ever encouraging them to do what God requires. In other words, Messy Church could actually hinder the gospel.

This Sunday I am preaching on Matthew 7:13-14, where Jesus talks about two roads – the broad road which leads to destruction, and the narrow road which leads to life. If we do not warn people about the broad road which leads to destruction, then we are not showing them love. To love someone means to warn them of the danger they are in, in this case – the danger we are all in if we do not repent and believe in the gospel. If people are never warned at Messy Church about the broad road which leads to destruction, and are never encouraged to seek the narrow way of repentance and faith in Christ, then that is not the gospel and that is most definitely not introducing people to Jesus.

So, to conclude, I have a real problem with Messy Church as church in itself. I think it would work well as an evangelistic tool, provided that the gospel was presented clearly. But I have big problems with the way it is presented by many in the church as the solution to our problem of getting families involved – it may be creating more problems.

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