When I arrived here into my first pastoral charge one of the projects my predecessors had begun was an experiment with Messy Church. In one of the two churches this had had very limited success but in the other some real progress had been made, not least in the enthusiastic participation and leadership of two members of the congregation. These two women, but with children in the target age range, were planning and leading the sessions very competently. In the circumstances it made good sense to continue with the experiment.
The main respect in which this differed from the classic Messy Church format, as described in Lucy Moore’s excellent books was that it was not monthly. Monthly sessions felt like too much of a burden for the two busy mothers who were the mainstay of our programme. Instead we had an ad-hoc schedule at more or less six weekly intervals. Numbers weren’t fantastically high but were certainly enough to seem worth doing in a church where regular Sunday numbers of children were very low.
I attended and offered support but was happy to leave most things to the voluntary leaders, given my inexperience in this kind of work and the other things I had on my mind as I adjusted to the radically new way of life of a pastoral minster. We weren’t increasing our numbers and indeed had the somewhat dispiriting experience of seeing numbers dwindle in this, the larger of my two churches.
It seemed an obvious step to me, given that the crafts and worship were being prepared by the members of the larger church, to try offering the same sessions in the smaller church, set in a village (where the larger church is in a small town). This was encouraged by conversation with the Anglican priest whose parish includes the village. She had experience of Messy Church in a previous parish and was open to the idea of a joint MC in our building (her church is set in the country a few miles from the village, which was build on the estate of a large house in the 1920s).
We tried for a few months but had no children coming other than those who were already regular attenders at the churches or whose grand-parents were. Numbers were very small and although the sessions were good fun and felt worthwhile to me, not least in maintaining contact with the grandchildren and their parents they didn’t justify having two clergy present and my colleague withdrew.
In the meantime I had, with generous financial support from the Synod via its new Mission Fund, entered into a strategic partnership with a local charity, the very excellent Act4, who specialise in work with primary schools. Their main activity is the delivery of high quality assemblies although they also run more extensive workshops in rights, citizenship and social justice drawing on Christian faith and the Bible. This partnership involved my churches hosting two German gap-year students who were volunteering with Act4 and these young women being involved in the churches, especially in Messy Church.
This was especially valuable in that the mainstays of the Messy Church when I arrived both had changes in their personal circumstances that made it difficult for them to commit as much time as they had been. The Act4 volunteers were able to pick up the gap that this left and enable us to continue without it being too much of a drain on my time.
In addition the volunteer based in the village church was asked to develop links to the guiding groups (1 Rainbows and 2 Brownies) that met in the church building but had, over recent years, had little or no contact with the congregation. She began helping out with their sessions, especially with the Rainbows.
Four and five months into this new arrangement I was feeling thoroughly downhearted. We were producing high quality sessions, with excellent crafts and enjoyable story-telling (the main emphasis in the worship part of our time together) but were having no joy with increasing numbers. At the larger church we had two families who were very faithful attenders but had got to a point where nobody else at all was coming. At the village church we had one session where nobody at all turned up (although this was in the end a good session; a craft group attended by elderly ladies runs in another room and we went in and did our crafts and story with them, to the great delight of all, including us).
I was at the point of calling time on the whole project but decided that we should have one last real push before doing so. We had a meeting with me, the original moving forces of the project, and our volunteers to discuss how we could try to bring new families in. We had various ideas including making a determined effort to reach out to those our volunteer had got to know through her work with the Rainbows.
That month we had 15 children at our village session, almost all from the Rainbows group, including their leader who had encouraged her group to give it a try. The following month we had 25, all those from the first session plus a number of other families. We also had something much closer to a balance of boys and girls. Additionally we are planning a parade service with the groups, something that has not happened for many years.
Although it is too early to say that a corner has been turned in our children’s work it is certainly the case that this is the most promising sign of growth in that church for many years.
As I share and reflect on this experience I would say that the lessons I will be continuing to think about and learn from are:
- there is no substitute for getting to know people, forming relationships by going to where they are and meeting them on their terms – without the patient and apparently non-missional work of our volunteer in attending Rainbows week by week I’m sure we would have by now folded up our Messy Church project
- forming partnerships and working with others on joint projects opens up opportunities one would not undertake alone – I’m not sure if I would have been confident enough to launch in the village without the support of the parish priest, even though she pulled back when numbers were small her cooperation was essential and I’m delighted that now she’s needed again she is stepping back in. It is absolutely clear that I could not have done it at all without Act4. The two young women they have brought have been central