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Research into Messy Churches on urban estates

Posted by Eleanor Bloxham on 07 Aug 2019

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Over the last year I’ve had a research project focused on Messy Churches on urban estates. I’ve been aiming to learn more about these Messy Churches, how they can be better supported and what advice would be given by Messy Churches on urban estates to anyone else planning a Messy Church in this context. 

Part-way through my research, the Church Army research unit’s Playfully Serious report on discipleship in Messy Church came out (if you’ve not read it yet, I'd definitely recommend). The conclusion of their report is that Messy Church works, and it works everywhere - 'The proportion of Messy Churches in our sample that are fresh expressions of church is not statistically significantly different between urban and rural areas, or across IMD (Index of Multiple Deprivation) quintiles.'

It was quite encouraging to find that my statistics were supported by those in Playfully Serious - the frequency of meetings of urban estates Messy Churches closely matched the national picture, with monthly being by far the most common (67%), followed by 4-6 times a year (29%), then more often (4%). When Messy Churches meet is where I found more of a difference, as Saturdays were preferred by just over half of Messy Churches on urban estates, compared to 31% of Messy churches nationally.

Everyone who took part in my research had some families that attended Messy Church regularly and just under half said that most of their families are regulars. I find this very encouraging as most Messy Churches said that they saw discipleship happening through relationships.

I asked my sample if there are any special considerations they felt were unique to their context. The response was quite a lot of challenges, including food poverty, no knowledge of the Chrisitian faith, an unwillingness to read, no church building on the estate and a mistrust of church and authority. Many of the churches said that they try to respond to the mistrust of church by trying to make their Messy Church a warm, loving and welcoming environment.

The most common adaptations in urban estates Messy Churches are the welcome time, which is often completely removed to allow for a more flexible start, and the activities which are adapted to make them cheaper and easier to prepare, or to make them more suitable for the Messy congregation.

I also asked Messy Churches on urban estates about the joys and challenges of Messy Church. These answers I think are less specific to estates, as I recognise many of both the joys and the challenges from various Messy Churches that I have been to and been involved in in many different situations.

The question of what people found joyful or encouraging about their Messy Church got a great response.The most common answers were: being able to reach new families, having families that keep coming and learning about God and getting more involved, people recognising it as their church and the relationships that are built. If you’d like to read all the responses to this question, you can find them at the bottom of this blog.

The most common challenges of Messy Church was given as the messy lives and finances, followed by recruiting team and the perception of it as children's church. I’m sure these are familiar, as Messy Churches worldwide encounter similar challenges. Countering the perception of Messy Church as ‘children's church’ can take some time. The one way to start is checking the language you use when talking to people about it and on the promotional material for example, checking ‘all-age’ and ‘family’ feature prominently.

From people currently running Messy Churches on urban estates to people who are thinking of starting a Messy Church:

'Well worth the effort.'

'It has been a great success!'

'Go for it!'

If you’re thinking of starting a Messy Church, or are already running one, and would like some advice check out our Messy Advice page or contact your regional coordinator.

What do you find joyful/encouraging about your Messy Church?

'We’re reaching people who have never been to Sunday church.'

'Seeing families participating in worship songs during celebration. A wonderful picnic at the end of the academic year.'

'It’s beautiful. So many amazing people enjoying each other and somehow meeting God in the messiness!'

'That we have had the same families coming now for four years - some are getting more involved, they feel it's their church, it feels like home…'

'The encouragement I had from the families when I was recovering recently from major surgery.'

'Folk keep coming back! There is much laughter during the afternoon.'

'We way the wee ones love it and look forward to hearing stories and doing crafts etc . We have been doing it now for eight years.'

'How much the adults enjoy the welcome. Seeing the children joining in songs and crafts.'

'It's a family! Our church set out to become more a part of the community, and described what we want to see as "community kitchen tables" where everyone can come together. We have grandparents, parents, children, friends, neighbours all coming together. The families know each other well, the children see each other at school, and Messy Church is always a happy, relaxed, and sometimes chaotic, gathering! I love the fun, but "kitchen tables" are sometimes where you share the hard things too, and the adults have also built good friendships, with each other and the Messy Church team, and we've had many opportunities to have quieter conversations, to pray and to comfort.'

'There are always new families coming, and some of them become regulars.'

'People inviting their friends. Messy churchgoers attending other church events. Being part of a team sharing Jesus through creativity.'

'Loads of people enjoy coming. Two people have become Christians by attending it.'

'People have quite low expectations of what we can offer, so they are rarely disappointed!'

'Some new families are starting to come, and people who come think it is really good.'

'The majority of families at our Messy Church have no other church background. We get huge numbers at Christmas and Good Friday. Messy families definitely outnumber helpers. There is real enthusiasm, a real buzz. And sometimes there are moments in the celebration when you sense this is true worship.'

'The way church members work together from those in late teens to those in their 80s. Families who see this as a place to belong.'

'The relationships we have built with some of our regular families.'

'The fact they come back every month.'

'We supply feedback forms which are always very positive. We also just see first-hand how much the families enjoy their time with us and stop us on the street to ask when the next one is!'

'Growth and relationships, and some have chosen to come in Sunday too.'

'Growing together and releasing gifts.'

'The energy of the Messy Church team. We have one lady who is on the team who has some learning difficulties and struggles to find a place of service in church. At Messy Church we have seen her flourish as she has great crafting skills and is able to produce some fantastic ideas to portray the story of the session. Her dad (nearly 80) also has started to help recently after poor health stopped him doing the more physical roles in church.'

'The children are making relationships with adults.'

'The relationships we have developed with our regular attenders. The number of our Sunday congregation who support, value and encourage Messy Church and who seem committed for the long term. This year we are celebrating our ten-year anniversary and a number of our leaders and helpers have been with us throughout that time. What faithful service!'

'People on the estate are generous. If they have it, they'll share it.'

'Working with volunteers that achieved something they never expected.'

'Works as cross-generational outreach.'

'It's hard work but very rewarding!'

'Well worth the effort. Messy Church is a separate congregation and people are starting to feel a sense of belonging.'

'It has been a great success! We've had the same families coming regularly since we started.'

'Opportunity for grandmas to share faith with their grandchildren.'

'A few years ago there was a tendency for parents to sit at the back of the church and chat/go on their phones throughout the activities and the celebration - quite hard to be heard over their noise, not the noise of the children. The parents seemed to expect us to entertain their kids. Gradually the attitude has changed and parents are joining in just as much as their children, and to our delight this attitude has spread to the celebration. Almost all our families live locally. One or two have children with special needs. Most come because they know someone else who comes. But I have to mention one regular member of our congregation - a partially disabled lady of 63 who lives several miles away and comes by dial-a-ride. So I think we can claim to be all age and inclusive.'