I should have said ‘no’ of course but I didn’t. I suppose my reasoning was that this is a church on its way to setting up Messy Church and by working with them and meeting the team on their Holiday Club, it might reap its reward later when their Messy Church gets going properly. I fear though that my justification may be flawed; only time will tell. What today’s Holiday Club did however reinforce for me, was the important differences there are between a Holiday Club for children and Messy Church.
Like most of us on the BRF Messy Church team, I have been involved with huge numbers of Holiday Clubs over the years and there is no doubt that God has used them in their time and in their way. But watching today’s leader juggle with the application forms at the door as people registered and hearing her repeated reassurances to parents about what was going to happen while their loved ones were left with us for the day, reminded me of all the paperwork and potential problems involved for a church that decides to look after other people’s children for however long at a special event. Contrast this with the welcome for a family at the reception table in Messy Church, the relatively speedy filling in of a form with permissions, names and contact details, and then the joy (relief?!) of inviting the children and their adult carers to stay and take part in what lies ahead.
And then there’s the team. Both Messy Church and Holiday Clubs depend on teams of course but in the case of the latter, quite a lot more hangs on how well prepared they are. At the children’s event the only adults present are the home team and it’s up to them to make sure everything happens, whether it’s at the craft tables, during the games and story-time or over lunch, where once again they are in loco parentis. What huge responsibility lies on their shoulders, particularly in an age when there are so many fears and suspicions about the relationship between some adults and children. Contrast this with the all-age atmosphere of Messy Church, where children are still the responsibility of their carers and parents, and where safe, known adults are in the mix with the messy team who work with them rather than instead of them.
And then there are the children themselves. In a Holiday Club they are in the majority and need to be shepherded, protected, entertained and cared for by their leaders every moment during the day. And because there are so many there, peer groups are quickly established which means it’s not long before some of those groups can become quite influential and even possibly dangerous. One or two start a game of sliding across the floor and then, before you realise it, large numbers are involved and the risks are multiplied; a few start playing hide and seek and then suddenly a crowd are in and out of the chairs and banging into furniture. Consequently the leaders turn into crowd-control officers, policing the boundaries, while unexpected gaps in the day’s risk assessment are revealed! The team’s roles as craft leaders and story-tellers become compromised as they need to get heavy and enforce discipline and control. Contrast this with Messy Church where the children are in the mix of generations together and where the only peer pressure is intergenerational rather than focused on one particular age group. The home team are free to be welcoming, to enthuse about the story and the activities, and to work at creating a true family atmosphere where no one group dominates.
And finally, there are the parents. Today, apart from those parents who were helpers in the club, these arrived, dutifully and as advised, to pick up their children at the end of the day. They came in the last 5 minutes as we had a final prayer together which was their only experience of what we had been doing for the last 4 and a half hours of their child’s life. They heard some of the children in the circle sharing their thank-you prayers for having had a great time, but of course they themselves had no idea what that had involved. The Holiday Club may have given them some child-free hours (and perhaps child-minding like this is a useful service to the community in some circumstances), but when it comes to sharing something as important as the Gospel with these children, then surely their parents should have been present? The stories we had today were rich and life-changing and not just for children. Those parents and carers who turned up at the end have most likely never heard our precious story of Jesus and God’s love, so why should they be excluded? Contrast this with Messy Church which recognizes two realities: firstly that we have at least two, if not three, generations who have not heard the Christian story; and secondly that, if this story is to be fruitful, it needs the support of those who look after these children at home for faith to take root.
We live in a time when traditional separate children’s work still exists alongside new inter-age models of evangelism and faith nurture. But the tide is definitely turning and today reinforced that perspective for me. In contrast to the Holiday Club, Messy Church is, or at least should be, very distinctive from children’s work, and as such is part of a vital sea change in the church’s mission and ministry as we move forward into the new messy world of 21st century church. Messy Church and resources like Messy Family Fun are part of the way ahead.