Why is it called ‘Messy Church’?

Published 17th September 2015 by lucy moore

It’s been a while since I explained why Messy Church is called Messy Church. And anyway, we find out more about it as a name the more we go on with it, so perhaps there’ll be something novel for everyone here.

Firstly, the ‘Messy’ part: the incongruous word ‘messy’ is saying that God is interested in people and families who are ‘messy’ rather than perfect; that Jesus spent time with outsiders, ‘sinners’ and social misfits more happily than with the orderly Pharisees, some of whom seemed to live neatly by the rule book and didn’t appear to need God as urgently as the ‘outsiders’. The Church has an image problem in that we sometimes communicate a slightly pious and judgmental ‘you must be perfect to approach God’ message. Think of the number of families who have been told to ‘behave better’ in church services. (As if that mattered in the supposedly happy household of God’s people). But Messy Church says ‘We’re all messy, our lives aren’t perfect, our families and children aren’t perfect and we believe the best space for God to deal with us in our messiness and disorder is in church. Come and join us.’

It also describes the creative, exploratory nature of how we worship there. And the brand name is becoming increasingly recognised by those outside the Church, so it makes sense to benefit from the good PR rather than reinvent a name of your own. Though that is always an option, where a church council vetoes all mission simply because of the name…

To be safe and extreme in the messiness, teams actually need to be hyper-organised and work together with military precision, so ‘messy’ does not apply to many teams that we’ve heard of: the words efficient, detailed and thorough are more appropriate.

The ‘Messy’ approach also says something about a willingness to lose power, to let go of control. The messy approach lets God’s Spirit blow where he will, lets learning happen that doesn’t rely on teaching and enjoys discipleship growing spontaneously as well as strategically.

If it’s any help, I’ve not heard yet of a church that destroyed their church building through getting messy in it. There might be the odd blocked vacuum cleaner though.

And ‘Church’ is because it is church for those who belong to it. If it’s done as a mere outreach event, that’s all it may be, but if the team believe it’s church and treat it as church, there will be all the opportunities for encounter with God, fellowship, worship and learning that are part of the better models of inherited church too. Messy Communion? Yes, it happens. Messy baptism and confirmation? Yes indeed. The model has plenty of space for the local values of a church to be celebrated. The higher our expectations, the more space there is for God to work.

If we just see Messy Church as a stepping stone into traditional church, it will never reach its full potential and risks falling into the historic mistakes of segregation and a hierarchy of ‘proper churchiness’, which will not help us grow disciples of all ages in the present climate and culture.

It isn’t the only way of being church, but it certainly is a valid and tried-and-tested model that sits well in the family of congregations of a local church and can be nurtured there.

‘Messy’ doesn’t work in German – it means an old man who is acompulsive hoarder and lives in a slightly smelly dusty mouldy house full of rancid newspapers so the Germans have gone for ‘Die Ü-Kirche’ instead (Surprise Church)… The French Canadians have gone for ‘L’eglise pele-mele’ which is rather fun. The Icelanders have chosen ‘Kirkjubrall’ and the Welsh have the rather snazzy ‘Llan Llanast’. The Dutch versions include ‘Kliederkerk’ and the Norwegian one went for ‘Kreativ Kirke’. Doubtless more will join the family in due course, sharing that joyful creativity that so many churches are enjoying. It’ll be messy. And that’s just fine.

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