MORE than 60 per cent of families attending a “Messy Church” are new to church, an in-depth study of the impact that messy churches are having on individuals and families and the wider Church suggests.
The report Playfully Serious is the result of two years of research by the Church Army, using interviews and focus groups with church leaders, volunteers, and participants.
It found that 40 per cent of participants came from families that had little or no contact with church, and 20 per cent from families who were “de-churched”, having previously stopped all contact with church.
Messy Church was first begun 15 years ago by Lucy Moore, who works for the Bible Reading Fellowship. There are currently more than 2800 messy churches registered in England.
The lead researcher of the report, Claire Dalpra, said: “Leaders estimated that 60 per cent of their attenders wouldn’t normally come on a Sunday morning to more traditional services. These messy churches also reported some baptisms, some confirmations — even a few adult confirmations — signs that these families are beginning to grow in faith.”
Almost all the children who had participated in the research said that Messy Church had begun “their journey of following Jesus”.
The director of research for the Church Army, Dr Tim Ling, said: “The stereotype of Messy Church as ‘just a bit of family fun’ clearly doesn’t do justice to its scale and its impact on individuals’ lives and the Church’s engagement with those it struggles to reach with the good news.
“Messy Church engages with people on a wide range of journeys in their relationship with church. These include adult attenders who told us it had helped them reconnect with their childhood beliefs; children encountering Jesus for the first time; and others for whom it released them into ministry.”
The research identified two types of messy church: one that saw itself as an outreach activity, helping to provide a bridge to bring families into church; and one that defined itself as a fresh expression of Church — new church congregations that were designed to reach new people.
The fresh-expressions model of Messy Church resulted in more engagement with the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and holy communion, researchers found.
The report recommended that parishes choose the fresh expressions of church model “if they wish to promote discipleship”.
The study found that messy churches were also modelling new forms of leadership, which is largely female and lay, although there were concerns that these leaders were overstretched and often not well supported in the parish. Some leaders reported feeling that Messy Church for their parish was just a “way of ticking its boxes for children’s and families work”.
Of the 174 messy churches studied for the report, 49 had ended, and researchers looked for any legacy of the initiative in the parish or area. They were encouraged by the number of new initiatives that had sprung up as a direct result, including an intergenerational holiday club, continued connections with Messy Church families through other church activities, and new Messy Church start-ups.
Dr Ling said that the research was not intended to be the “final word” on what could be achieved by Messy Church, but that it should act as a prompt to celebrate and treasure its achievements so far.