Read this as less of a ‘Here am I, the Expert, advising You, the Ignorant’ and more of a ‘Well, you asked me what I thought, so…’ sort of blog. Yup, you’re the expert on your own context and, let’s face it, I’ve been uprooted from the lovely Messy Church I belonged to back in Hampshire, since October last year, so can only bring you an overview at best, rather than a hands-on ‘Speaking as a practitioner…’ And I’m only thinking about the UK – sorry, friends elsewhere – you’re at such a different stage of unlockingdown from us!
It’s March 2021 and here, the restrictions are gradually relaxing. What about your Messy Church? Perhaps you’ve shut up shop for the duration. Perhaps you’ve been flat out doing bags or boxes or YouTubes or Facebooks or exciting broadcast systems. Perhaps members of your team have moved away or died or – being a year older- feel wobbly about committing again. Families have grown up by a year, new ones may have moved into your area: life has happened. Perhaps you’re desperate to go ‘back to normal’ or perhaps you’re aching for a break.
Whatever you do, pause, take a breath, acknowledge you’ve been through the mill in some way and that bits of you (yourself, your community, your Messy family) have been damaged over the last year and still hurt. You’ll find bullet point suggestions at the end of this blog, but I would encourage you to wallow a while in Isaiah 61, which helps it all make sense. Isaiah puts it so much better than I ever could. Perhaps a roadmap that depends not on the data but on the Deity?
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
A reminder, dear Messy leader, you may or may not have been literally anointed for your role, but God has chosen you for the work God wants you to do, and has filled you with the Holy Spirit, in your battered state, to work with and for Jesus for the sake of the poor of all sorts in your community. There is nobody better than you. You are just the right person at just the right time. Woot.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
We’re going to be mourning as individuals, as a nation, as a world, for a good many months to come, and that grief is going to manifest itself in some painful and uncomfortable ways. We will see that pain being expressed in outbreaks of violence, emotion and unreasonable actions and words. And here is God’s prophet calling us, with all our own hurts, to be the binder-uppers, the rescuers, the openers of doors, the comforters, the providers of parties and people who point out the light at the end of the tunnel.
We’re going to be rooted, weather-beaten but still standing, magnificent in our resilience and a home for a marvellously diverse range of creatures, just like an oak tree:
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour.
And as we take the first tentative steps into the new landscape, there’s so much work to be done:
They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
Rebuild, restore, renew those relationships, those friendships, those communities of trust that lie shattered and apparently destroyed forever around your feet. They may have been ‘devastated for generations’: you will rebuild them to be the meeting places of many generations coming together in love and laughter, in food and fun, in praise and wonder.
Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.
Perhaps you’ll be amazed by the unexpected people who help you restore those communities and make them fruitful and nourishing ones: outsiders will work hand in hand with you; newcomers will lend a hand, outsiders will share their skills. And while Isaiah probably meant ‘Ho ho, those other nations will be your slaves,’ in the new creation of Jesus, we can rejoice that these words now mean our global Messy network generously shares wisdom and riches and ideas and stories from one nation to another. That’s riches we can all boast in very happily.
Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.
Perhaps you’re feeling guilty that you didn’t provide 6 million Messy Churches in a bag over lockdown or that you had to shut up shop when all your older helpers had to retreat behind closed doors. Dear friends, there is no shame or disgrace: God’s promise here is for giving us slatheringly loads more than any of us actually deserve: the double scoop icecream with a flake AND sprinkles in a waffle cone WITH SAUCE. Woot once more.
For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing. In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.
God’s in it for the long haul. Jesus invites us to be in it for the long haul too, not to give up at this point when the going has got tough (so very tough!) but to take one step at a time and trust in this amazing intergenerational vision for sharing the goodness of Jesus for generations to come.
I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
And God nudges you now to dig out your creased Messy Church apron from the back of the drawer, the stains reminding you of that afternoon when Isaac accidentally sprayed you with indelible ink and the teatime when Melanie tipped her spaghetti Bolognese over all six people at her table. The delight. The joy. The rightness and privilege of being so close to people of all ages in your church.
For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
I have never grown a sprout in my life, but dear friends, our God is a God of growth and will be our sprouting place and a growing place for the families in our neighbourhood. Just as the daffs can’t help but grow in the garden, just as my new and empty wildlife pond will gain newts from who knows where, so our God will trigger life through the spaces we create. And, with or without us, God’s kingdom will burst into life and praise and transformed lives and communities in this new season of Messy Church.
Practically speaking, here are my thoughts.
Don’t rush back the second you can. It could be better to use the time between now and restarting face to face to do some construction work. Here are some suggestions:
Book time with your team and have some meals together. Reconnect. Rebuild. Restore.
Find out who’s missing. Send out a search party.
Remind each other why you started a Messy Church. Talk about what the changed needs of families are now. And if you don’t know, talk about how you can find out. What might you need to keep the same? What might need to change?
Invite other local Messy church teams to chat with yours – is it an opportunity to work together?
Talk about your lockdown online / in a bag / at home ministry: how might you continue to reach those people, who may not be able to manage face to face? Will something hybrid work for you?
Talk about how your team works: could some Zoom planning continue, to allow those who need babysitters or transport to join in more easily?
How can you make the most of the opportunities to grow disciples in your Messy Church? The team? the families? Look at the resources fresh out – how about a book group looking at Messy Discipleship? How about joining in with a free discipleship Masterclass? How about keeping an eye open for the launch of ‘A Voyage of Discovery’ and the resources that go with that (mid-April onwards)?
Now is the chance to update your role descriptions, safeguarding training, risk assessments, training in food hygiene or first aid – do a bit of spring cleaning for a fresh start.
For what it’s worth, my own thoughts about starting a new Messy Church in my new home are along the lines of using these months to pray, gather people, inform, discuss, persuade everyone to join a ‘Starting a Messy Church’ Masterclass, listen to families, listen to the wisdom of the team, shape and plan together, set up robust and efficient systems and structures, buy exciting equipment (ooh, stationery shopping once more), try out outdoor Messy Church events over the summer to practise and get to know each other, and only then, think about starting face to face with actual monthly Messy Church sometime in the autumn – September at the earliest, possibly not till Christmas. But that’s just me. Your context will be very different.
And your context is different from the church’s up the road. Do what is right for you. You’re the expert. And more importantly, you’re the ‘anointed one’ for where you live.