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Reflections on the Messy Church conference 2016

Posted by Martyn Payne on 31 May 2016

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'This conference was the richest I have ever attended in terms of content and teaching - the vocabulary of deep theology, vision, church planting, mission strategy and family was the norm, even at breakfast time!'
Liz Hall, delegate

This was undoubtedly the biggest Messy Meet-up any of us had ever attended, packed full with enthusiastic Messy Churchers eager to share their stories, questions, challenges, creativity and hopes. It was even more than that! It was also the greatest exercise in Messy networking that The Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) has ever attempted, creating space for international friendships and partnerships of discovery and encouragement on a global scale. And it was even more than that! This International Conference was arguably the most effective Messy Church training session ever, with learning, conversations, teaching, discussions and inspiration that are impossible to quantify as all this is now cascading out over the coming weeks and months throughout the worldwide Messy Church family. In short, this was a massive milestone for the BRF Messy Church team and for Messy Churches everywhere!

So many delegates have already blogged their positive reactions, recorded their impressions of the programme, captured the words of the conversations and talks, and generally enthused about these momentous three days, that I hardly need to add much myself, certainly regarding content. Just look at Facebook, the Twittersphere, the feedback forms, the emails or relive it all via the videos and photographs that were taken! However, what was going on below the surface? What was God doing among us in High Leigh during three days in May 2016?

I detected three clear strands from those days: a celebration of the commitment by an army of Messy Church leaders to this all-age fresh expression of church; a challenge to current practice and thinking within many Messy Churches; and a creation of Christian community that was a model to take back and work through in the local context. Let me elaborate.

a. Celebrating commitment

Messy Church leaders are undoubtedly pioneers and enthusiasts, but also those who can often feel very isolated and marginalised - even put down - within their local churches. They are the 'nutters', as George Lings described us in his talks at the conference, who take a risk for God, and that will inevitably leave them exposed and vulnerable at times. They had a chance to tell their stories, to be listened to and affirmed. They were not alone in daring to be different. I heard many Messy helpers, leaders and advocates tell me, at first with embarrassment, that their Messy Churches were not that 'successful', being only small or even infrequent. They were relieved to discover at this conference that this was more often than not 'the norm' and that God was nevertheless at work with the few and with the least likely. Just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame' (1 Corinthians 1:27, CEV). The Archbishop's video message helped with this affirmation, of course, but even without that, the conference table talk was where much building up of the Messy people of God happened, and this is perhaps what most will take away from this conference.

b. Changing current practice

This conference was planned very deliberately to be as untypically like a conference as it could be! The pattern of conversations, Messy Church sessions, reflections, talks and fun together was meant to model the best of Messy Church, where all have a part to play in creating the whole and no single individuals hog the limelight or very publically set the tone. I dare to suggest that this is counter-cultural within the 'normal' Christian conference world. It gave the delegates a living example of what can happen locally in their own Messy Churches. 

Messy Churches, however, come in all shapes and sizes. In my experience, some have taken unhelpful directions with small steps away from the Messy Church values, allowing some inherited norms to derail this experiment in pioneering a new wineskin for church today. The two Messy Church sessions in particular modelled good practice. The emphasis on all age, which came out in so many places, gently reminded some leaders to get back on track with this value. For example, I spoke with one very worried leader who came up to me near the end of the conference, concerned that her own Messy Church had 'got it wrong' and she wanted to put it right. I don't think she was alone and indeed I suspect other national expressions of Messy Church around the world were also challenged to look again at whether they have really caught the Messy vision rather than still just being a new-shape church for children with adults present, or an adult church event with a few crafts for the children.

c. Creating a Christian community

What struck me most powerfully, however, was that this conference was doing so much to demonstrate a new way of being Christian together. Not being Christian because there was a big speaker and a big band at the front; not being Christian because we were all singing from the same hymn sheet; not being Christian because we all shared a particular churchmanship or theology. Rather, the sort of Christian community that discovers 'God in between' in the Messy togetherness; not just God and me, but God and us, in the ordinary everyday of shared laughter, sacrificial service and holy friendships.

So in conclusion:

This conference was transformational for many Messy delegates both in their understanding of the bigger picture of Messy Church and of what God is saying to Messy Churches today, as well as for their own experience of their month-by-month delivery of Messy Church within their community. It has given many a new confidence to go on, even when numbers are small and support is half-hearted.

This conference was incarnational in that it modelled in every part the way church could be - not hierarchical but with an inclusivity of team where everyone has a part to play, displaying servant leadership and the importance of every individual.

This conference was inspirational, both because of the nature of the global dimension brought by delegates from so many countries and UK regions, but also because of the shared wisdom, energy and experience in the hall and at every smaller gathering. This wasn't about Christians coming to be fed by 'those who know' but the messy body of Christ offering its individual giftedness to each other, and teaching, serving and loving the other. No one voice was more important than any other. Even George Lings, who had the longest and most direct input, was clearly learning as much as he shared!

Thanks be to God!

'Dear BRF Messy Church team, we can't say thank you and the other folks enough who worked so hard to make the conference a wonderful success! You need to imagine fanfares, bright lights and balloons too!'
From the Canadian delegates

'What a fabulous conference. Well done to the BRF team for making it happen. I have come away tired but inspired, with plenty of food for thought, having had some really great discussions.'
Aike Kennett-Brown, delegate

'Thank you all at Messy Church and in the wider BRF family for the conference - what a fabulous event… One of the most incredible things was that it was truly international and that some of them had come so far just for the conference. It felt like a real endorsement of the value and meaning of Messy Church - people would travel that far for Messy Church! It's THAT important. Maybe this is a message to get out to all those Messy Churches who are struggling just to get clergy on board, let alone the rest of the congregation, or vice versa.'
Ken Wylie, delegate