There is no doubt that social media can be a great gift to the church and the gospel. Indeed, Messy Church growth owes a lot to its Facebook family of loyal followers; but there can be drawbacks. The pressure to post our stories or tweet our events can sometimes give the impression of an uninterrupted narrative of smiles and success. We don’t so easily make public our failures and disappointments.
Within the Messy Church community, however, we need to be honest. We’re as vulnerable and fragile as any shape of church, and although we are excited to let you know of the new registrations coming in every day, the truth is there are also some Messy Churches that stop. Indeed, a few of the ones I have visited these last five years are no longer running.
Over this last year, we have kept a list of the deletions and, more importantly, the reasons why a particular Messy Church no longer meets. This makes for interesting reading and it has prompted a number of reflections among us as a team recently.
You might not be surprised to discover that the top two reasons for deletions are falling numbers and an over-stretched team. On my visits and at Messy Meet-ups, these two issues are very often brought up.
The fact is that our gospelling in the 21st century in the Western world has a lot of competition. However welcoming we are towards families who come and however attractive our activities, storytelling and Messy Church meal times, there are quite simply a lot of other things on offer for adults with children and young people. A new after-school club, a re-scheduled sports team practice, a children’s party or even, in some cases, another Messy Church not far away (!) can cut our numbers and discourage us.
No one promised it would be easy, of course, to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation, and we are not the sort of church that can just expect people to turn up simply because we are there. Nevertheless, perseverance through times of low attendance doesn’t come easily to any of us! What I have noticed, however, is that those Messy Churches which do ride the storm of low numbers are those that are continually seeking new ways of raising their profile in the community. Messy Church is in its very DNA innovative and risky, and that needs to apply to our publicity and preparedness to try new strategies as well.
But let’s be honest. Teams do become despondent: the reason given for one deletion was, quite bluntly, ‘Our team is tired.’ I wrote about Messy resilience in the current edition of Get Messy! and, although I acknowledge there are no easy solutions, from my visits I have noticed that those Messy Churches which are prepared to take the risk of handing leadership to young people, trusting activities to parents who are not yet part of the church and even inviting help from secular groups in the community have been blessed, and God has used this both to grow the team and win new friends for Jesus.
Before I joined BRF, I worked for eight years with the Church Mission Society, where I learned much from the stories of how the gospel was shared and churches were planted in different parts of the world. I know there are miraculous stories of amazing preaching producing what looked like instant results; nevertheless, I noted that for the most part evangelism was and is a slow process – person to person, one step at a time, over a long period. There are so many stories of mission partners or small teams sitting for years and years alongside those they wished to see come to Christ, gently sowing seeds with acts of love as they stepped into their culture. Only this way could they discover, with humility, the best way to be Christ among those to whom they were sent. Many never even saw the fruit of their work during their lifetimes. There’s no doubt that our mission through Messy Church belongs to this same spirit of patience and sacrifice.
As a team, we are always sad when we hear a Messy Church has decided to end and often we wish they’d asked for help sooner. There are so many good ideas which may have encouraged them to keep going. For example, messy Jane has put together a really helpful list of suggestions in one of the Maximising the Mess pieces on the topic of low numbers. And in so many cases, Messy Church is the only way a local church is breaking new ground with the gospel, so finding ways to keep going must surely be a priority. It can be all too easy, but I believe incredibly short-sighted, to stop a Messy Church just because maintaining a traditional congregation is deemed more important. Where there is no growth, there is no life!
The third most often cited reason for deletions was that ‘the church wanted to try something new’. Well, if Messy Church has opened an alternative door for mission, then that is of course good news – but if it hasn’t found a better way to reach the 95% of children and families who aren’t in our churches, then it seems to me that the church has turned in on itself and closed a door to fulfilling the great commission.
So, if you happen to be wondering about whether to carry on or not, if you are thinking of deleting your Messy Church, then please remember that the BRF Messy Church team is here to help you, through its amazing nationwide network of Regional Coordinators, its many online resources and books, and its wealth of experience and good ideas. All of us on the team run Messy Churches too and so are more than eager to cheer you on!
Blessed are those who persevere, for theirs is the messy kingdom!