George Lings (ed)

Messy Church Theology: Exploring the Significance of Messy Church for the Wider Church

Bible Reading Fellowship, Abingdon, UK, 2013

ISBN-13: 9780857461711

The rich theological reflection, practical suggestions and inspiring case studies of Messy Church Theology is excellent reading for Messy Church practitioners, anyone having a go at all-age worship or outreach, or missional church leaders ready to learn from this growing movement.

Messy Church is a creative, all-age, hospitable, celebrating expression of church whose time seems to have come. A decade on from its pioneering by Lucy and Paul Moore and team in Portsmouth, there are now 1400 registered messy churches in the UK alone, and Messy Church coordinators estimate 4000 Messy-style churches with 360,000 participants in the UK. 

It is the single most common and most rapidly multiplying expression model of the Fresh Expressions movement, and is connecting with un-churched, de-churched and marginally churched people. Its reach has spread across denominations and continents; the Messy Church website directory shows me there are 20 in my home city of Melbourne, including three within three kilometres of my house - Anglican, Uniting and Baptist!

There are more than a dozen books on how to start and run a messy church with its crafts, cooking and conversations. What Messy Church Theology uniquely explores is where Messy Church fits theologically as ‘church’, where it is growing (or wants to grow) in disciple-making, and what other streams of the church and missional movement could learn from Messy Church. 

Nineteen writers contribute case studies or chapters in three sections. Firstly there are ‘messy questions’ exploring when fresh expressions are fresh, when they are church, and when they are messy church? What is the DNA of messy church, how transferable is it, and how does Bible Reading Fellowship as its sponsor ensure quality but not expect control? The most recurring questions are how can Messy Church foster discipleship, and how can it ‘be church’ for all-of-life beyond certain life stages. It is appropriate to bring an evaluative grid to innovative new expressions about how they are doing as church in making healthy disciples and being missional, but these are questions for all churches not just messy new experiments.

The second section digs into ‘messy foundations’ - urging a theology and discipleship that is messy and curious. That is helped as we listen to and not just condescend children, and celebrate and imitate their relentless and playful questioning. Messy Church, like Alpha, allows space for questions and expressing mystery and doubt; elements that are essential for evangelism in a post-modern context, but natural in an all-age setting of Messy Church. The ethos of creativity that Messy Church fosters is intriguing and something all churches could learn from, as George Lings articulates: "Turning church back into a creative, participatory, communal hive of spiritual life is a worthy goal that critiques much existing church practice. Through true hospitality and creativity, those who come to us move from being clients, for whom we provide pre-cooked liturgical dishes, to being guests for whom we care. They also become co-creators with whom we are fellow artists, and co-workers with whom we are partners. In the end, even the distinction between host and guest dissolves, and so all-age, Christ-centred community emerges".

The third and final section unpacks ‘messy practicalities’; not trying to tidy up all loose ends but actually celebrating the mess of life and the adventure of experimenting with church. For example, Beth Barnett offers critique of Western Enlightenment-inspired ‘maturity’ language, pointing more importantly to Jesus’ invitation to become like a child in openness, collaboration and curiosity (rather than aspiring to power, bigness and conservatism). Barnett subversively suggests multi-sensory interactive learning and engaging together with Scripture is potentially a richer and more promising path to growth than a three point monological sermon; and that engaging with Scripture and worship with children ought to be as natural as children around the dinner table. 

There is a rich collection of case studies scattered through the book, but I especially appreciated Tim Waghorn’s Melbourne innovation of offering weekly (rather than the usual monthly) Messy Church as a way of breaking down barriers and offering church accessibly for families, complete with media-guided worship (using common technology people are used to) and sensory engaging learning. Waghorn celebrates how Messy Church involves a wide range of lay leaders and does not rely on the hired holy person, but he also challenges Ministers to engage in Messy Church leadership, as a fast-track way of connecting and being accessible. 

Convinced as I am that we desperately need more innovative and colourful expressions of church that are shaped around mission, there are important lessons to learn from Messy Church. We can continue to develop and multiply Messy Churches, but also boldly reinvent church in other surprising directions and reshapings. We need the kind of courage and creativity that characterises Messy Church, but also the permission and resourcing that existing churches and sponsors have generously given. We need to unleash the creativity of all of God’s people, and not be preoccupied with a particular inherited worship format or bound by reliance on hired holy people. As we experiment, messy does not mean sloppy as George Lings warns, and churches need to be careful about focusing on and evaluating discipleship and mission and our foundational values, as the Messy Church Theology authors have done.

I have my own unanswered curious question to ask of these Messy Church Theology writers. Their concern about discipleship seems to largely settle on utilising and the 10 minute celebration teaching time, or increasing the frequency of gathering or adding extra programs or resources. But I would love to hear more about how Messy Church practitioners utilise their craft and hospitality times for disciple-making. What can we learn - or what do we need to learn better - about coming alongside people in the midst of activity and relationships, and as spiritual companions urging one another on as disciples? In what ways can we best be open to ‘God moments’ that Paul Moore urges us to be attentive to in the midst of the "create, chill, chomp and celebrate" of Messy Church, or even everyday life?

The rich theological reflection, practical suggestions and inspiring case studies of Messy Church Theology is excellent reading for Messy Church practitioners, anyone having a go at all-age worship or outreach, or missional church leaders ready to learn from this growing movement. 

This review was originally published in Ecclesial Practices 2:1 (2015), 121-123

Follow this link to buy this book - Messy Church Theology: Exploring the Significance of Messy Church for the Wider Church.