Traveller's tales: Martyn Payne offers food for thought
This article appeared in Get Messy! Jan-April 2015 and is proving a very encouraging and thought-provoking one. So here it is as a taster for those of you who don't subscribe already.
On my travels around the country over the last year or so I have definitely eaten more than my fair share of fish fingers, baked potatoes, sandwiches and cakes! But I wouldn't have gone without any of them. These messy meals haven't just fed my stomach but have been vital moments when I've really engaged with the people attending Messy Church. I've listened to their stories, probed a little deeper into their opinions, talked about faith, and of course made friends. I couldn't have done this so well without the opportunity of the meal.
The meal, though, does come in various shapes and sizes, not all of them ideally suited to the sort of friendship-making and faith-sharing I have described. Many Messy Churches opt for a high tea as their preferred style of eating together. This choice makes sense for many, particularly for afternoon Messy Churches at the weekend and those without adequate cooking facilities. But I have come across high teas and low teas! The offer of two cakes and a cuppa is hardly different from the tea and biscuits at the end of a traditional Sunday service, and I don't think this can adequately express the Messy Church value of memorable and distinctive hospitality. One of my commonest experiences is to be presented with the 'party meal', where everything on the table is geared solely to the children's tastes - fish-finger sandwiches is a case in point - and often, as a result, the adults simply opt out of eating, declaring that they will do so later at home. So there I am, left eating with just the children and, as you can imagine, it isn't long before they too opt out of sitting at the table and the whole hoped-for togetherness around the meal evaporates.
In some Messy Churches the meal has simply been left out, and I know there can be pressing and valid reasons for this. Nevertheless, to leave out this part of the whole experience of Messy Church is definitely to diminish it for all who attend. I have come across plenty of Messy Churches that, when faced with the challenge of providing a meal, have found ingenious solutions. For example, I have enjoyed pizzas that have been bought in, watched a set of six slow cookers arrive, like the cavalry, just in time to save the day, and been treated to traditional fish and chips, hot from a local takeaway. There is something particularly welcoming about being served hot food, and I've heard so many families express sincere appreciation that this has been made available that I can't believe it isn't worth trying to find a solution. It warms hearts and opens people up to life-changing conversations that the lone sandwich can never aspire to.
Sharing food together was so often the context for Jesus' ministry in the Gospels. His table talk and the stories he shared between courses are well known, and this clearly demonstrates how faith and food can go hand in hand. It is still the tradition in most parts of the world to express hospitality by the provision of a proper meal, and Messy Church is in this respect only repeating a lesson in welcome and evangelism that is well attested.
It was indeed in the context of the shared meal that the first Christians included the service of bread and wine, and there are surely important parallels to explore here for the way in which today's Messy Churches can grow into eucharistic communities, simply because the people have already become used to eating together.
We all know that the family meal is an endangered species in most homes nowadays, and therefore Messy Church's inclusion of this element is distinctly countercultural. But at the same time most of us also recognise the huge value of sitting down to eat together, as an intergenerational community learns to listen to as well as share with each other. It's not without good reason that most of the major religions in the world have opted to pass on the heart of their faith story via some sort of festival meal, where all ages are gathered and all contributions welcome. If we are serious about nurturing faith and growing disciples in Messy Church, then the sit-down meal is definitely one of the first places to explore what this means in practice. Let's keep it on the menu!