I can hardly believe that it’s been a year since our International Messy Church conference! What a tremendous three days they were; and we’re still all benefiting from what was shared and experienced then, including Messy Moment videos from friends far and wide, an increased connectedness across the world and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s encouragement to us to be ‘pushing out the boundaries, being flexible, being imaginative, being a circle of love that joins people with Christ at the centre’.
Over this last year too I have visited even more Messy Churches and have always been moved and challenged by the hard work and commitment of the teams, the amazing range of people who turn up, and the passion there is to share God’s love with all. This is surely the church fulfilling the Great Commission. But that was never just about numbers and attendance but ‘making disciples’ and this is where the challenge still remains… or does it?
Questions about discipleship, what it means and what it looks like in Messy Church, must be taken seriously. And do be assured, we talk about this a lot in our BRF Messy team meetings and of course we’re often leading training sessions exploring different shapes of Messy discipleship. Isn’t it great, though, that Messy Church has helped get Christian discipleship back on the church’s agenda and also enabled us to stop and reconsider what it might look like in the 21st century? It’s an issue for all forms of church, whether a traditional Sunday or a fresh expression congregation. In addition, questions about how faith takes root in our lives have become a popular focus for much research and conference discussion over these years and Messy Church thinking has played its part in this.
However, I must confess to feeling sometimes that we have become a little too earnest and introspective in this whole area. When we consider the ways in which Jesus discipled his chosen friends over the three years of his ministry, I think that we, in contrast, are sometimes trying to impose systems, measurements and discipleship formulas that belong to quite a different understanding of the term – usually very academic, and, dare I say it, middle-class. Jesus walked alongside his apprentices, who spent most of their time learning by looking rather than sitting studiously at his feet. Jesus also gave them opportunities to try and do what he did, not always successfully, though they learnt a lot through failure, which was no shame. And Jesus recognised too that much of what he showed them just wouldn’t stick for a long time and it would need the Holy Spirit to bring things back to their minds many years later. The timescales involved in this style of discipleship are long, not easily measured and call for much patience.
Our desire for quick fixes and instant solutions have perhaps tricked us into thinking discipleship can be achieved in a similar smart way. If it took such a long time for the first disciples, who, after all, had a solid scriptural background in the Old Testament and who didn’t need to be convinced that God existed, how much longer will it take for us today to make disciples of those who come along to our Messy Church from very secular backgrounds? Nevertheless, in my visits I do already see the signs of discipleship happening. It’s not that Messy congregations are queuing up to go on courses, join home groups, buy themselves study Bibles or are suddenly speaking in tongues, but rather I see love growing amongst those who are beginning to believe because they are beginning to belong. I see the love that wants to help and serve and take ownership within the Messy Church family they have joined. And, after all, isn’t that the key definition of discipleship that Jesus gave when he told us that people would recognise his disciples by the love we have for one another?
I think that what matters for Messy Churches is not that they should beat themselves up because they haven’t got Messy Church attenders on the electoral roll, or the planned giving scheme, or signed up for the next Christian basics course, but rather that they should increase their love for those who come and also receive love from those who come. Our new Messy congregations are definitely watching to see whether this faith is real in us and are definitely learning more than we realise through the creative, interactive and hospitable ways of sharing Jesus Messy Church offers. ‘Let love be your aim,’ urges Paul to the messy Corinthians and that’s not a bad watchword for us too in our pursuit of Messy discipleship.