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One church's journey with Messy Communion

Posted by Lucy Moore on 20 Feb 2014

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Chris Rowberry and his team have been exploring Messy Communion. They have kindly written up an inspiring piece about their experiences of the service known as 945@945.

945@945

Moving to a new church always means that you bring something from the old place with you and moving to St John’s in Hedge End was no different. Those interviewing were sure that they wanted to try to bring in more families and children, always an ask for the new parish priest! But then I came with a plan, not a cunning plan but a plan nonetheless. Occasional offices, particularly weddings and baptisms, bring people who have already come to the church themselves into the orbit of the life of the Sunday worship and the community of the church, but how do you engage them in something that is increasingly alien to them?

Shortly after arriving it was apparent that there were some very creative and talented people at the church some of whom would find change difficult and some who could not wait for it to begin. The ministry team at that point was three people: myself (parish priest), a non-stipendiary deacon and a lay reader. The church already had a 'family service' and it was liked by the congregation who enjoyed the more relaxed style. The other three Sundays were a fairly formal middle of the road Anglican style with sermon and communion. One thing that was very clear was that this was a church that highly valued weekly communion and that whatever we did would need to include this. Many of the Messy Church services we had encountered had been non-communion, and often on another day. However we liked the concept of activities mixed with worship.

Our first principle then was that whatever we did should include a eucharistic element. It seemed right to start with setting guiding principles along these lines, and others quickly followed. One of the things people were resistant over was helping with Sunday School because they felt as if they had got stuck with being on duty, if not weekly then monthly, so we set a rule that, no person should have to provide an activity every time. We also felt that where possible any activity should be self-running, that is, the facilitator should be able to participate in other people’s activities rather than being tied to their own for the whole time. We very much wanted this to be a democratized group, in fact we wanted everyone to be able to participate, both in the activities and worship, so we needed to have something for the youngest member, who at that time was 2 years old, to the eldest who was 93 years old. It should not be that every activity was perfect for the whole age range, but that there was something on the day for them.

We also felt that we wanted to ask people in the wider congregation to offer an activity, Bible study, session of singing meditation, poetry workshop or whatever they felt skilled to do. So one of the rules was that we would look to set a theme and then offer that out for people to respond to. This has meant practically that we have had some sort of craft activity, some sort of Bible exploration, some form of meditation each time, but we have also had activities that are outside, in the church, the centre and the coffee bar. We have cooked gingerbread disciples, eaten mock locusts and honey, made crosses and many of the other familiar Messy Church style actives. These are often facilitated by different people each month, and a spin off this has been a greater inclusion of people in leadership on both 945 Sundays and through the month. We think it has been a huge confidence boost to the church.

Having guiding principles we tried to work through a service with all the elements we wanted in it. A gathering / setting time based around some act of confession, a reading some singing, followed by activities with a chance for people to engage with more than a single one, some time back in church with a re gathering song, the peace and then celebration of the Eucharist. This was problematic in that we did not want to become too churchy at this point so we decided to use the responsive prayer from the Eucharistic provision for schools. This included a responsorial section where, as in the Seder meal, a child asks a question and both parent and the following liturgy, reply with the answer. We have a roving mike that one of the families uses to ask the questions. This is a shorter form but holds an interactive sense of participation.

We have two distribution stations, one at the back of the church and, after petitions from older members, one at the altar rail. This speeds up the distribution and leads into singing, closing prayer blessing and then time in the coffee bar where we give out notices, certificate of baptism and happy birthdays.

The initial service was fairly well accepted but was a whole way away from what people had experienced, and so we set up initial briefings to explain what we were doing and a three month trial. The ministry team was very clear that we would be making change, but that we would not be going back to the original service even if we did not use this approach as it was presented. After three months we set our review. This was a lively event.

Some of the congregation felt that it had been a disaster and that we should go back to what we had had. We explained that this was made clear from the beginning that this would not be possible. Some people just wanted anything other than this, and yet others loved and relished the whole new idea. One thing everyone agreed on was that we could not sustain more than one Sunday a month! Some of those not happy thought that it should be done at a different time, perhaps a Saturday. It was something of a surprise to find that a few people in their travels away to other churches, had met with Messy Church in other churches and now saw it as a legitimate church activity. Timing was seen as important and how the choir could be brought into the worship, and issues about the distribution of the sacrament were raised hence the use of the altar rail for those who chose to use it.

We were very clear that we would not be going back to what was and so the movement had to be forward into something new. It is interesting that people had thought that this sort of change would 'bring in the families' in the three month period we had just been through. Clearly this was never going to be the case, but what happened was surprising. We found that in the months following more people came forward to help with offers of activities, there were singing activities and a bible study group started, people obviously felt that if they really wanted things and that they could facilitate them.

We have been somewhat challenged with main festivals - Palm Sunday and Harvest being two. St Johns is seen as the more traditional parish church in Hedge End and a group of people would look to come here to celebrate such festivals. When they fall on the first Sunday there is an obvious mis-match. Perhaps such folk may enjoy a new service - but it is often the case that they are looking for the traditional service and the new is threatening and way out of their comfort zone. Harvest we now do twice! First Sunday 9.45@9.45 (Messy Communion) and second Sunday 'trad' with gifts and ' We plough the fields' it may be in the future that the two become integrated but for the time being this is a good compromise.

Palm Sunday is more problematic and is not open to the split Sunday option. In order to cope with this we decided to suspend a few of our basic rules and engage in a 'safari' 945. Rather than having activities randomly spread around the church and centre we made a specific route and travelled as a pilgrim people around so everyone undertook an activity together at various stations. Shan, our Deacon, produced some wonderful small folders and as we travelled around there were cards crosses stickers and stamps to collect and take home with you. They were used through Holy Week and the lead up to Easter Sunday. The movement of people was very much an enactment of the pilgrim people with the children running on ahead, able folk helping the less able, people going up the stairs helping people into the lift! Parts of the story were told at various places, such as candle lighting and drama.

We have recently done something similar with the theme of the Eucharist. A number of our children are preparing to receive first communion. We have a fairly relaxed attitude to how this is done, but wanted to do something that looked at Eucharist for us all. In Easter week we have a re-enactment of the Passover each year and felt that something based around this might be helpful. Maintaining the normal 9.45 set up we began with remembering our baptism with some symbolic use of water as a remembrance that we had been forgiven - washing not feet but hands as we moved as a group to spend time in one of the upper rooms of the centre, hearing and re-enacting the Passover - through a 'danced peace' back down in to the church for the Eucharist itself. Some of the bread, the afikoman and Elijah’s cup from the Passover meal travelled with the people to be brought up at the altar to be used as Eucharistic elements. The worship is never supposed to finish in the church but over coffee and tea in the coffee bar - this Sunday a team provided a heavenly feast with a table overflowing with cake, pasties, fruit, wine coffee tea and much more. The dismissal to go in peace to love and serve the Lord was done a little later after the notices.
We are blessed at St John’s with some very creative people, from story tellers, artists, liturgists, people who can create a sacred space of beauty and wonder. At times we maintain one of the areas for the evening service. We have generous people who give of their time and often materials because, well this is worship, but it is also about creativity, inclusion and fun.

945@945 has been running for more than 20 months and has seen more families come, we need to be better at selling ourselves - we need to be stronger in saying to people to come, but what we do is now supported by most people.

If you would like to come and visit St John’s 945@945 please do come along on the first Sunday of the month @9:45
Rev Chris Rowberry revchrisrow@me.com