Messy Church

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Godly Play and Messy Church

Posted by Lucy Moore on 08 May 2013 (9 comments)

Martyn and I had a good and helpful meeting the other week with Mary Hawes, National Going for Growth Adviser and Peter Privett, known by many for his work with Godly Play across the world.

I'd compiled a list of similarities and differences between Messy Church and Godly Play and thought they might be useful to ponder on for others who are interested in both approaches. What do you think?


  • The child her/himself and the child's spirituality are taken seriously
  • The importance of all-intelligence learning and experience is taken seriously
  • The environment is important
  • Community building is important
  • There is an encouragement to take personal responsibility for your worship, learning, engagement and encounter with God
  • Space is important
  • Play / creativity are key
  • Both are non-directive
  • Food plays a key role in both
  • Both are and can be done well and are /can be done badly
  • Both make people laugh a lot
  • Both grow at the edge of church life
  • In both, the practitioners are more commonly women than men; more commonly lay people than ordained
  • Both encourage the encounter of the extra-ordinary (or supernatural) in the ordinary
  • Zones, thresholds and liturgical actions are important in both
  • Schools enjoy both
  • They are both grown around people's needs.

However the differences include the following:

  • Godly Play (GP)  is designed for children; Messy Church (MC) is for all ages
  • GP prepares for church; MC is church. GP reinforces the liturgy of traditional church; MC changes the concept of what actually happens in church
  • GP is predominantly for children of church families; MC is predominantly for newcomers
  • GP has a symbolic feast; MC has a stomach-filling feast
  • GP has 'set texts' or scripts; MC is contextualised and adapted every time
  • GP is for a small group; MC is for any sized group
  • GP is designed to be done weekly; MC is designed to be done monthly
  • GP's 'mood' might be associated with the words focused, disciplined, quiet, reflective; MC's 'mood' might be more associated with words like exciting, fun, messy, vibrant.
  • GP was worked out over many years then published; MC publishes as it goes along
  • GP is much more obviously eucharistic than most MCs.

As Jane will explore in a future edition of Get Messy!, the techniques of Godly Play are being used in many Messy Churches in different ways. It's important to accept they are two very different approaches although they share some similar values. It's also important to use the gift of Godly Play with integrity and respect for its roots and intentions.

Discover more about Godly Play UK


From Carole Davison on

Interesting. Can I be provocative and suggest that Godly Play is not very friendly to working class settings? We find it somewhat controlling and kind of not very human, with its lack of eye contact. Does anyone want to continue the debate and prove me wrong? I'm open to fresh thinking :)

From Rev Greg Ross on

Hi Carole,

Depending on how any program is offered it can be unfriendly and unwelcoming to any group or person. Many of our western churches may not be friendly to people from working class communities. I walk into my own church and many others and am staggered at how 'child and family unfriendly' they are and yet the people there always talk about wanting more children and families to come..... a work in progress.

We use Godly Play in our predominantly working class after school groups for children and they respond to it amazingly. In fact - one of the treasures that we have learned and never expected to work is that when you don't eyeball those listening to the stories - they actually become far more engaged in the story and the deep theology that happens then and after the story is astounding!

We also use GP stories as appropriate in Messy Church depending on the theme. We find that GP stories at MC actually engages the whole group and all ages enter into the wondering theology after the story. We are also trialling using GP in a variety of other settings with adults and young people. Some of the loudest proponents of GP are our 2 under 20 years story tellers..

Both MC and GP are wonderful gifts to the whole church! Neither is the 'cure' for declining numbers across the western church - but used wisely and well they can reach people who are churched and unchurched with the message of love, welcome and the chance for a new start in Jesus!

From ibuzzybea on

I think it totally depends on the individuals, I totally understand where you are coming from we have a range of "classes" within our church and I would say that I lean toward a more flexible approach with children from socially deprived backgrounds and associated issues, this sometimes has its own issues but it's where I feel most comfortable with working at this present time. We do use Godly Play philosophies but not a Godly play sessions. That is not to say that with another group with similar needs Godly play would be more appropriate. I have used Godly play with children who live in shacks in Romainia and they are way more socially deprived and worked very well.

At present we do not run Messy Church but if/ when I would want to consider a Godly play story- response model and may well consider using Godly Play stories in the story telling, I wonder (not meant as a pun) how the families from working class/ socially deprived situations would respond.

From Brenton Prigge on

Hi Carole. I think you have raised a very interesting point that I believe is important for any ministry, whether it be Messy Church or Godly Play, or even our traditional Sunday worship services, and that is that we do need to consider our own context and the special circumstances of that context very carefully. We can't just take a programme or any one model that is being used somewhere else "off the shelf" and unthinkingly reproduce it in our own context. What may work perfectly in one context may need to be adapted to another.
Like Greg, I often use Godly Play methodology in our Messy Church sessions, and like Greg's context, most of our Messy Church families are working class.

My own take on the "eye contact" thing is that eye contact actually is often very much part of the controlling that working class people are used to in other settings - school, work, and other forms of authority will often tell them "look at me - look me in the eyes - look at me when I am talking to you!" They are also quite used to being told, "I'm watching you!"
So I think the lack of eye contact can be quite liberating. That's the experience in my context. Whether that is true for your own context or not is another matter. That is why I value a forum like this - we can share ideas, share opinions, and try things for ourselves, until gradually we will learn from experience what works and what does not work in our unique setting.
Thank you for stimulating an interesting discussion!

From Chris Goringe on

Thanks, that's an interesting and thought provoking list. As someone who is involved in Messy Church and also a Godly Play storyteller, I might push back a bit on the second and third differences. We use Godly Play as our "curriculum" in our local primary school, and have found it to be very popular amongst children (and families) who do not attend Church. The child-centered, non-directive nature of the approach seems to have a strong appeal to many parents who are spiritually interested (or even just prepared for their children to be!) but not Church-active.

It does mean that we tend not to use the liturgical stories very much, focussing on the Sacred Stories and Parables instead, which is part of the reason why (for us) GP doesn't 'reinforce the liturgy of traditional Church'. In fact, in our Church the opposite has been true: Godly Play (and Messy Church!) have been actively reforming the liturgy of 'traditional' Church...

Again, thanks for this list. We're finding great synergies between GP and MC; indeed, our new young families community is in many ways a three way mash-up of GP, MC and traditional Church....

From ibuzzybea on

Hi there I put a link on the Godly Play UK Facebook page to this blog entry and there are some good points have a look or I can cut and paste (with permissions)

From bizteach1 on

GP is not only for children, in my church I intend to do an adult session, not necessarily for just church families, I do mine at pre baptism service, and have never met children before, not always for a small group, I have done in in a class of 25! I do not do it weekly but monthly!
I guess what I am saying is it can be flexible to fit in where ever you are!!

From Gill Hulme on

A very interesting article, having just attended my second Godly Play training session, I think you need to differentiate between 'pure' GP in a room designed for it and a whole session, and what I might call 'adapted' GP.
We use the GP method in a number of the MC that I have been involved in, using a shortend form to tell the story or as part of MC celebration, and it has worked well.
I would take issue with GP being only for children - the name can put adults off, but as a member of Contemplative Fire (another Fresh Expression of church which as its name suggests uses a lot of stillness and silence) we have successfully used GP as part of our gatherings, and I often use GP techniques as part of reflective church services. My last comment would be - don't be afraid to experiment!

From Rev Brian Jago on

Thank you for this summary. While it looks as though GP and MC have rigid settings these be taken from the written material. And they do present like this. However, our worst use of GP so far is trying to do GP as in the manuals. We use it in school for scripture each week and the children are absorbed(church & non church); in church where appropriate with all ages(adults are absorbed in it); as story starter in MC, where appropriate (children and parents); and about to embark on GP in nursing homes/dementia facilities. It's the theory behind MC & GP that is important as we adapt to various situations. So I would offer this advice for 1-3,6-7 and 10 of the above comparisons, and say that we have worked around these so they are not as rigid. Bless you all in this journey of discovery in getting the message of Christ across to this age.