Messy Church

Fresh ideas for building a Christ-centred community

Reimagining Sunday all-age worship

Posted by Martyn Payne on 01 Jun 2017 (0 comments)

There is no doubt that Messy Church has helped many of us reimagine how we best run a gathered service so that everyone can come close to God. By stepping outside of Sunday morning, it neatly by-passes those inevitable tensions that arise when traditional shapes of Sunday church try and accommodate the presence of children and young people. Many people probably feel that Sunday morning all-age or family service can leave both young and old feeling short-changed, patronised and spiritually undernourished. Old wine is good, but mixing it with new wine in the original wineskins can lead to disaster. So how can we, as Messy Church teams, best influence Sunday morning worship that has families and children present? And what can we learn from Messy Church that might be helpful?

On my travels to visit Messy Churches across the country, I often come across those who are attempting to reformulate Sunday morning’s all-age service in a more messy style, by drawing on the format and values of Messy Church. I rejoice to see this and, although it isn’t always easy, it does represent a positive desire to reconnect with where children, young people and families are today. On the whole, this generation is much more at home with worship that includes an opportunity to create community together, through conversation, shared activities and food, as well as enjoy communal prayers, singing and learning together that help everyone draw close to God.

Most recently, I was involved with planning and leading such an all-age Messy Church-style morning worship. It went well, but I have to confess that we did struggle to make sure everything was properly included, namely: a balance of songs to suit different generations; notices; liturgical elements of confession and absolution; as well as the need to have the Bible read properly rather than just told as a story as part of the celebration. Many of you, I am sure, have trod that particular tightrope in your time, trying to tick all the boxes. I came away realising how much freer and easier it was by comparison to put together a Messy Church service, even though that does of course involve a lot of preparation too, particularly for the activity tables and the meal.

I expect many you will have been involved in such all-age Sunday morning negotiations at your own church, especially if you are already running a successful Messy Church and have seen how well creative learning, table conversation, food and a relatively short gathered time of celebration work, and you want to transplant some of that into a Sunday morning. Different traditions of course will find their own way forward with regard to this Sunday morning challenge and, indeed, will need to more and more, if families from your Messy Church begin to want to be part of the Sunday morning congregation. So whether you go for the sort of all-age service which is partly gathered and partly in learning zones such as the Explore Together model from Scripture Union, or whether you work hard at making every part of a traditional liturgy much more all-age friendly without losing its dignity and depth, such as in Worship Together from Church House Publishing, it is a recognition that, as in every age, we need to move forward and discover new patterns of worship for our time.

Messy Church is being used by God to do many things. As a church planting model that grows a new worshipping community from within, it has so much to recommend it. It has a proven track record already, even after such a short time, of welcoming many on to a journey of faith from backgrounds with no connection with church. And, because it was established as something outside of Sunday morning, it always has that particular evangelistic dimension to offer the church which is so timely for our post-Christian, though not post-spiritual, western world. 

But Messy Church does have this another dimension too - that of influencing how we reshape our traditional all-age services. It’s worth noting in this context that those new families who do come on Sunday morning to more Messy-like services are largely those who are to some degree already warm towards the gospel. And so I suppose, in that sense, Messy Church has also helped to create a sort of family discipleship service for them. This is a good thing and is to be encouraged. However, in all this, let’s not forget the Great Commission of which we were reminded in the readings at the beginning of this month. A ‘standard Messy Church’ outside Sunday morning particularly picks up the challenge to ‘go into all the world and make disciples’; to go where people are and not simply to wait for them to turn up on Sunday morning, however messy-friendly those places may be.