My previous post on Messy Church generated a fair bit of interest and comment (on Facebook – unfortunately comments here remain closed). I thought it would be good to try and close out the matter with some clarifying comments.
So, here goes:
1. A lot of good stuff happens at Messy Church.
I didn’t make this clear in my previous post, but I appreciate that a lot of work goes into Messy Church all over the country and God is using it. Someone on Facebook, for example, commented about interest in the Alpha course as a result of MC. If people are coming to MC and then going on courses like Christianity Explored or Alpha, that’s great.
My point in the post was not to try and tear down all the good work people are doing! However, I do think we need to ask serious and hard questions of everything that we do – not to tear down, but to see whether we can do it better. We must always be prepared to ask the hard questions of ourselves – and I include myself as the chief of sinners in that regard!
So, given all that, I still think there is a fundamental confusion with Messy Church.
2. What is Church?
Church, according to the New Testament, is comprised of Christians. No exceptions. I’d love to do a full study on this but we don’t have time for it here! – maybe one or two verses will do. In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul writes: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours”. So the ‘church of God’ is equated with those who are sanctified and called to be God’s holy people, all those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus. Christians, in a nutshell.
And Ephesians 5:23 talks about the Christ being “the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.” Christ is, of course, not the Saviour of those who do not believe in him. So I think it’s pretty clear just from these two references that in the New Testament, the church is always comprised of believers.
This is not to say that the church will never have non-believers in it – Paul suggests that such a thing will happen in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 (“if an unbeliever or an enquirer comes in…”). And, of course, the church in its visible manifestation on earth will always be a mixed bag – comprised of believers and non-believers: we don’t know who they are, but not everyone who is a member of the visible church is a member of the invisible church (to put it as they did at the reformation).
Being a good Anglican, I always like to look at how the 39 articles puts it! –
XIX. OF THE CHURCH
THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
So what makes a church, according to the 39 Articles, is (1) a gathering of ‘faithful men’ – i.e. Christians; (2) the preaching of the Word of God; (3) the sacraments (communion and baptism).
Given all this, I don’t think I could define Messy Church as church in either the general Biblical or specific Anglican sense. So…
3. How would you categorise Messy Church?
In my previous post I’d say that Messy Church was a good evangelistic opportunity, but not church. I still think that: I’d be much happier if Messy Church was not seen as church in itself, but as an opportunity to bring people to the good news about Jesus. I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘church for nonbelievers’ – there is only church, comprised of believers, and anything else is designed to bring people to the church.
And this, I think, leads us to one of the fundamental questions which I think caused disagreement:
4. What is the good news?
In the discussion I think some people had a different understanding of the good news to me. In the gospels, Jesus summarises the good news as repentance and faith: turning away from sin and turning to God in faith. You can see this in Jesus’ first recorded words in Mark’s gospel, Mark 1:15 “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Compare with what Jesus says will be proclaimed to all nations in Luke 24:47).
Why is the gospel such good news? One of the most well-known verses in the Bible is John 3:16. However, the verses which follow it are a little less well known:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
… (36) Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
The gospel is good news because it is a rescue. It is a rescue from sin, a rescue from the just judgement of a holy God, a rescue from hell (a subject, by the way, being something which Jesus talks quite a lot about e.g. Luke 12:5, “fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him”). 1 Thessalonians 1:10 talks about Jesus as the one “who rescues us from the coming wrath”.
The book of Revelation talks about the future return of Christ – a day which will not be a pleasant one for those who do not know him:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’
And in Revelation 19, we see the well-known description of Jesus as the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” – coming just after the less well-known verse 15: “He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”
Why am I spending all this time labouring this point? Because I think we need to be crystal clear on what the gospel actually is. If we are confused about the gospel, we will be confused about many other things. If we’re confused about the gospel, we might end up thinking that the gospel is simply ‘being nice’. It is right and proper (and a command of the Lord) to love our neighbour – but that is not the gospel.
The gospel is about salvation. Jude 23 says, “save others by snatching them from the fire” – and I think that’s quite a good description of what the church is about. The fire of divine judgement draws near, the church must be prophetic in warning others but boldy proclaiming the good news that God has given us a means of rescue. The Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
5. A final challenge
So, my final word when thinking about Messy Church is this: a challenge. At what point in Messy Church do people hear the gospel as I’ve just defined it? At what point are people confronted with the challenge to repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour?
I think it’s something which is worth asking for everything a church does – how does this particular activity help people towards the gospel? If, for example, you want that to happen over conversations – you could consider doing an evangelism training course for your team. But our goal must always be to hold out the hope of salvation, and we must ask hard questions and think through everything we do with that in mind.