I worked with two very different audiences recently, although they were exactly the same people!
On one level, those who came to my storytelling morning were all children’s and youth workers from a variety of local churches. Some had a paid post but most were volunteers. They were all responsible in some way for the children’s groups on a Sunday morning, running midweek clubs, coordinating the youth work or helping with assemblies at local schools.
On another level, those very same individuals were also leaders of a fresh expression of church for adults and children and therefore involved in pioneer church planting within their community. They were church leaders on a journey of reimagining church in 21st-century Britain.
The fact that each of these individuals wore these two very distinct hats is both a personal dilemma for each of them, in terms of the demands on their time and their understanding of their place within the local body of Christ, and a challenge and a source of confusion for the churches they work with. Are they emerging church leaders, managing mission teams engaged in evangelism and pastoral care? In other words, are they ministers with as responsible a job as those who have been ordained to the ‘ministry’ – that is, those who coordinate the work in inherited church on a Sunday morning? Or are they simply willing members of the Sunday morning congregation, who happen to have a heart for children and their families, whose chief responsibility therefore is to nurture the faith of the next generation so that one day they can step into the shoes of those who at present sit in the Sunday pews? And is the fact that they are also involved in Messy Church just an incidental extra?
I had been invited to this training morning to focus on creative ways to tell a Bible story, and it is always a joy to share some of the ideas that we have developed over the years in our Barnabas in Schools and Barnabas Children’s Ministry teams for doing just that. However, these folk were far more than just storytellers of the Bible with children. Among the group that morning there were six Messy Church teams represented and one other which was just about to start. Yes, Bible storytelling skills are needed in Messy Church, of course, but far more skills than that are required. I found myself slipping between ideas for lifting the Bible story off the page and into the hearts of the groups we work with, and sharing insights into how, across the network, we are now seeing Messy Church slowly grow into becoming church in its own right, while still remaining under the broad umbrella of the local church where it is being held.
Messy Church is a strange sort of church planting, isn’t it? Maybe it’s a new sort of church planting for our 21st-century, post-Christian Western world? It isn’t about opening a new church building in an area of the parish where there’s not been a church before; nor is it about grafting some of an existing congregation into a neighbouring, struggling church community and creating a clone of the mother church there; nor is it setting up a small missional community on an estate, meeting in a home usually, and developing a church from scratch that will be independent from the start. Instead it is planting a church within and alongside a church that already exists in a community – a parallel church that works in a different way, is at a different time and uses a different language and methodology, which is as a result making sense to people who have never been to church before. This is a new missionary skill and a new calling that these children’s and youth workers have ‘fallen into’, simply because children are involved in this new style of church.
Those I worked with in that training session were not on the whole officially ordained but simply volunteers suddenly thrust into church leadership, and as such they need all the encouragement and support they can get – even more so, I believe, because the church, as it stands at the moment, is still largely controlled from ‘Sunday morning’. This leads to inevitable tensions around the status and authority of these new lay church leaders and around where they fit into the bigger scheme of things.
This is just a flavour of some of the conversations and issues that bubbled up as we talked together that morning, sometimes about storytelling and sometimes about Messy Church leadership. It was a fascinating discussion! I wonder what you think, particularly if, like most of those reading this blog, you are in exactly the same boat!