Messy Church Theology: Exploring the significance of
Messy Church for the wider church
George Lings, editor
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT127
FIRST, what this book is not. The Messy Church website claims
that Messy Church Theology encapsulates "the academic
theology of Messy Church". No, it doesn't. Academic theology, like
any other academic discipline, must comply with the things that
Academe requires - a clearly articulated methodology, meticulous
referencing, engagement with "the literature", and the rest. None
of the contributions to this compendium would make it to the pages
of a peer-reviewed academic journal.
But Messy Church Theology is none the worse - indeed,
it is all the more refreshing - for not being what the website
claims. What we have is not academic theology - it's much too soon
for that - but a series of preliminary reflections by members of
the Messy Church community on the bewildering event that has bowled
them over. This "messy selection of writers", as Lucy Moore,
creator of Messy Church, calls them, is trying to make sense of a
movement, just ten years old, that clearly requires some kind of
Christian explanation. So, yes, their thinking is theological. But
for academic studies of Messy Church we must await the many Ph.D.s
no doubt already in the making.
Messy Church, with its weird offspring such as "Sweaty Church"
and "Trashy Church", is a success story. George Lings describes
"the DNA" of the movement as a "double helix" of hospitality,
all-age involvement, creativity, and celebration, in which all the
The formula works, as is made clear by the illuminating
case-studies of Messy Church in action which punctuate the book. A
new Messy Church is registered every day. Bob Jackson, crunching
the numbers, contends that, thanks to Messy Church, the drift of
children from the Church is at last being arrested. Tim Waghorn,
getting very excited, asserts that "the world is becoming a better
place because of Messy Church."
Huge questions remain. Some - but not all - are discussed in
these pages. The biggest problem, addressed but not resolved, is
the relationship of a messy church, meeting just once a month -
lay-led, and light on sacrament and liturgy - to the mainstream
Then there is the issue of protecting the brand. What is to be
done about groups that call themselves messy churches but that are
nothing of the sort? (There is an interesting parallel here, though
it goes unremarked, in the misgivings of the "Godly Play"
custodians about its counterfeits.)
It will occur to some readers that preoccupation with the
question when a church is not a church is a dangerous distraction.
Jesus of Nazareth was much less interested in the Church than are
most contributors to Messy Church Theology. His concern
was the Kingdom of God, and what we must do to build it. The
honourable exception to the prioritising of Church over Kingdom is
Lings's own contributions to the book he edits. His closing
chapter, discussing "mess in the 'now and not yet' kingdom", is a
thrilling, if belated, reassertion of priorities.
Other readers, at least the more miserable ones, may be uneasy
with the relentless emphasis on fun in the Messy Church programme.
It has been well said that it was not for our entertainment that
the Word became flesh.
Only one contributor deals directly with the topic announced by
the book's title. Bishop Paul Bayes writes a sparkling chapter
headed "Messy Theology". The Bishop notices what Jesus says about
children. We must hope that by now he has had a quiet word with
Steve Hollinghurst, one of his fellow-contributors. The latter is
anxious to reassure us that children participating in worship are
not necessarily Christians.
Here is a fascinating book about one of the most exciting
developments in the contemporary Church. Do not be deterred, dear
reader, by the incidence of the unlovely and unhelpful phrase
"Fresh Expressions of Church" 32 times in the first six pages.
The Revd Dr Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east