Episode 49: “What is Messy Church?” featuring Johannah Myers

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 49: “What is Messy Church?” featuring Johannah Myers

Looking for a creative, new way to bring people of all ages into a space where they can meet Jesus? In this episode we speak with Johannah Myers about Messy Church, a global movement born of the desire to reach individuals and families not attracted to traditional Sunday morning services.

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Looking for a creative, new way to bring people of all ages into a space where they can meet Jesus? In this episode we speak with Johannah Myers about Messy Church, a global movement born of the desire to reach individuals and families not attracted to traditional Sunday morning services.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Johannah Myers, the director of Christian Formation at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Johanna is a pioneer in adapting the Messy Church movement to the United States context. And our focus for this conversation is alternative forms of Christian formation. How are you today?

Johannah Myers: Hi, I’m great! How are you? Thank you for having me!

Doug Powe: Well, it is wonderful to have you and I’m looking forward to this conversation. And I want to begin with just, can you give us the short version of what is the Messy Church and how you became interested in exploring this movement?

Johannah Myers: Sure, so Messy Church started in England, in a little village outside of Portsmith, England, back in 2004. Lucy Moore and some others in that church were getting frustrated because they felt all of their resources, beautiful buildings and facilities. But people from their community, particularly families, weren’t interested in coming to church on Sunday mornings. So, like many of us, we get caught in that same kind of pattern. We keep doing the same thing over and over on Sunday morning and expecting new people to show up. And it doesn’t necessarily work that way. And so, Messy Church was born out of this desire to reach families in the community in a way that the church wasn’t reaching, just on a church service Sunday morning. I’m pretty sure that if you asked Lucy now, if she could have imagined what Messy Church would have looked like 15 years after they got started, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have imagined that Messy Church would grow into something that is now — world-wide. So, almost 30 different countries, almost 4,000 Messy Churches planted around the world. We’re growing here in the United States, monthly we add new Messy Churches to our list. And so, the latest number suggests that, in the 15 years that Messy Church has been going on, they’ve gone from a small village church in a very particular location in England, to a global movement that, on any given month, maybe half a million people are attending around the world.

Doug Powe: And, the Messy Church really works to be intergenerational, to focus on formation, and is something that you have been involved with for a period of time, but some of our listeners may not be familiar with it.

Johannah Myers: Messy Church is church, but not like you would typically think of church. It meets at a time other than Sunday morning, and, in different communities, go at different times. We at Aldersgate meet on Sunday afternoons. There are others who meet, say on Sunday morning, or a Friday evening, or another weekday, afternoon or evening. And Messy Church includes four key components: some kind of welcome; a long, extended period of time where we engage in a Bible story or a bible theme creatively and in hands-on ways; it includes a celebration time which may include a song or a prayer, some creative storytelling, so what we would think of as worship, but in a very creative way; and then it always ends with a sit-down meal together. So those are the four key components and it’s built around five core values: hospitality; creativity; all ages together; celebration; and everything that we do is centered around Jesus and making space for people to meet Jesus. So that’s a little bit of our core of who we are and what we do at Messy Church. I stumbled on Messy Church back in 2013. I had friends who were living in the UK and I had heard about it through them. And I just was really looking for something for our church. I didn’t quite know what. I had a few things I was thinking of. And I knew it had to be not just for kids or not just for youth, but it needed to be families. It needed to be for everyone. And so, the more I looked into what was happening with Messy Church, the more I just felt like that was the right thing for our church.

Doug Powe: So, just to pick up on a couple of the things you’ve talked about, the first is Messy Church is not, sort of, starting your own congregation, but Messy Church really is a movement that can take place within a current faith community. Am I correct, in that?

Johannah Myers: It’s a “both-and” I would say. For us at Aldersgate, it was something that start within an existing congregation. And still operates in a way that’s very anchored to our traditional congregation, although our Messy Church family is a mix of, a wide mix, of the people who maybe don’t have anything else to do with Aldersgate, except Messy Church. So that is their congregation. Messy Church is also very much a Fresh Expression of church. And more and more, we are seeing Messy Churches being planted alongside, maybe a traditional congregation, or alongside maybe a traditional non-profit or organization. But these Messy Churches are being planted as a Fresh Expression — so, like a dinner church, or another type of Fresh Expression. So, the Messy Church movement grew up alongside, kind of parallel to the Fresh Expressions Movement in the UK. And we’ve really worked well together. So, I did a training in Western North Carolina, a couple of months ago. And the training was sponsored by the Fresh Expressions organization within the Western North Carolina Annual Conference for the United Methodist Church. For some churches it may very well be a ministry, an outreach ministry that is connected to their local church. But for others, it may very well be like planting a new church — like planting a separate worship service, or a separate kind of congregation. So, it’s both. And it depends on the context. This is true for a lot of things related to Messy Church. Messy Church is going to look very different in each community because it’s very adaptable.

Doug Powe: And, sticking with that theme, how do you prevent those characteristics from just simply repeating what someone would try to do in their current worship? You follow me? Because, often times, we hear about different things and then people just say, “Okay, we’ll just fold that into our worship. And we’ll call it Messy Church.” So, how do you make sure that those core characteristics really are moving us towards something different than what already takes place in many of our worship experiences?

Johannah Myers: Right. So, I don’t know too many worship services that you can go to where there is going to be scissors, shaving cream, paint, pipe cleaners, paper, some kind of building material, You know, kind of by nature, the activities, the crafts, the hands-on aspect of Messy Church, is very, very different from what we would see — and I would say most worship services. There may be some out there that I haven’t heard of. I would love to hear about them connecting. That would be fabulous. But on the whole, the bulk of our time in Messy Church is spent, in very hands-on ways. So, we do science experiments. We do crafts. We might build something together. We might, I don’t know, play a game, or something like that. And in that sense, you’re not necessarily going to walk into a Messy Church and think “wow, this looks just like our Sunday morning service.” That being said, we do ask that every Messy Church who uses the name and the logo, ideally is registered at the trademark logo and name, but we simply ask for a Messy Church, they honor these five core values. And again, they are hospitality, which for us means welcome and it also means sitting down together, around a meal. That’s a huge component of Messy Church. It’s really the place where relationships are built. Creativity. We get our hands dirty. We get messy. We do creative things. We think about Bible stories and Bible things creatively. And so, that activity is essential to who we are. We worship a very creative God. And so, we try to tie that sense of God’s creativity into what we are doing at Messy Church. We are celebratory. We like to celebrate life together and worship takes on a really celebratory feel. And there are Messy Churches that do communion together, or baptism together, on a regular basis. But it takes on a very different feel, I think, when celebration becomes a core component and a core value. We are intentionally all ages. You may walk in and feel like Messy Church is geared towards children, but if you look around, you’re going to see four or five generations, in the mix, working on a project together, getting their hands working together to do something, or to build something, or to create something. And so, I think, for maybe a traditional worship service, we might see four or five generations sitting together, but we don’t always see them interacting together. And what Messy Church does is kind of breaks down, so we’re not just sitting alongside each other, but we’re actually interacting with each other. We’re creating a community that is intentionally intergenerational. And then, through that, we offer a space for people to meet Jesus. And that is true for every worship service, I would hope, regardless of whether it’s traditional, or messy or otherwise. But we, maybe approach, our creating space for people to meet God in a different way. I don’t know whether that answered your question or not.

Doug Powe: No, that was perfect. And I’m going to pick up on the Jesus piece in a second, but I want to come to the creativity piece, because, again, I can imagine individuals, like me who are thinking “what if I’m not really creative?” So how do I do Messy Church? Do I have to go out and find someone with a creative spirit so it can really be something different? So that’s one of the core characteristics. How can individuals who are not as creative be engaged with Messy Church?

Johannah Myers: Are you talking about in terms of starting in Messy Church?

Doug Powe: I’m thinking in terms of starting one.

Johannah Myers: Starting a Messy Church? So, one of the great things about Messy Church as it has grown, especially as we have grown globally, is the amount of resources that are available for churches that are getting started. We have a magazine that is published three times a year, each one of those magazines has four full Messy Church sessions in it. That has ten different activities that you can potentially use. There’s a wealth of resources across social media and Pinterest. And we’re forever kind of sharing with one another, “hey, this worked.” Or “hey, this didn’t work.” So in terms of finding the activities, or finding the creative outlet, I think you’re going to have — whether you, yourself, starting a Messy Church, consider yourself to be a creative person or not — I think you’re going to find the resources to help get started. You’re certainly going to find a group of people around the world who are excited about helping. And that’s been really great to see how we support one another in whatever context we’re involved in. So, the resources are there. I think the other thing is that we have so many creative people in our congregation that don’t necessarily have outlets for their creativity within our current structure. So, we have people who paint, and we have people who build, and who are amazing scientists, and engineers, and craftspeople. And we don’t always find outlets for them to say “here’s how to use your engineering skills, or your architectural skills, or your painting, or your photography, or whatever it may be. Here’s how to use that to grow in your faith, but often to help other people grow in theirs.” I don’t know that we do a good job, all the time, of providing outlets for the most creative folks in our congregation. And so, Messy Church kind of can help build some bridges, I think most churches have more creative people than they realize. We just haven’t given these people a chance to let their gifts shine in disciple formation. So, I would encourage anyone who’s getting started with Messy Church to not let a fear of being creative be a reason for not getting started with Messy Church. That’s going to come and it’s probably going to come more easily than you would ever imagine.

Doug Powe: That’s helpful, thank you. I want to pick back up on, you’ve mentioned a couple of times the intentionality of helping people build a relationship with Jesus. And you even mention, at Aldersgate, where you have individuals who have connected with Messy Church who don’t connect with the congregation in other ways. So, it really has been a way of reaching out to individuals who would not normally think about entering a faith community. Why do you think Messy Church is able to reach some individuals and help to build that relationship with Jesus that our regular congregations or faith experiences are not able to do?

Johannah Myers: Right. So Messy Church is primarily built around reaching those who would not traditionally attend church on Sunday morning. It’s intentionally designed and meant for those who are not already a part of a local congregation. That doesn’t mean that it can’t enhance the worship, discipleship, and faith of those who are already involved in the local congregation. It certainly can be a both/and. But I think the most recent research for Messy Church suggests that even as many as, even as much as maybe 60% of those who are attending Messy Churches around the world are either non-churched, or de-churched people. Those who have never grown up in church, or who have, for whatever reason have left church. And that, to me, is one of the most exciting things about being a part of Messy Church is that I feel like we are reaching people that we wouldn’t normally reach on Sunday morning. And why that is? I don’t know. Whether it’s because somebody has left church because they’ve been hurt by the traditional structure or something that happened? I don’t know. Or maybe they just aren’t sure of church. But I think there’s something about walking into a building and not being sure of what’s going on, or not understanding the liturgy or not understanding some of the words that we use. And it maybe is a little bit frightening. When you walk into Messy Church, you’re not necessarily going to find a very structured liturgy where everybody seems to know the words and you’re the only person who doesn’t. Or there’s not necessarily a thing that everybody knows what’s going on but you. Messy Church is a lot more free. Oh, I don’t know the right word for it, but it’s a little bit more chaotic in a way that you can walk in and not necessarily be sure what’s going on, but often find a place, find a place around the table and get started with an activity, or find a place around a story that somebody is telling. And it’s designed in a way, because it does reach children, it also is a way that is attractive for those who didn’t grow up in church, or who aren’t used to the story or who are hearing some of these Bible stories for the first time in years or ever. So, Messy Church isn’t something for a church to start because they want to “fix” their Sunday morning service. It’s an outreach. Or it’s a Fresh Expression. It’s a separate entity of reaching people that aren’t necessarily interested at all in what you’re doing Sunday morning. Not that they’re not interested in God, but they’re just maybe not interested in the traditional form of religion that they think that they know.

Doug Powe: And I think, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but from what I’ve read and perceived, it has the ability of helping someone who has been a Christian all of their life, or someone who has never stepped into their church to feel comfortable in the same space because it’s able to, at the same time, help someone enter into the story, but also deeply convey the story for those who have been Christian for a while. So that, the ability to do both of those things is, I think, a pretty amazing

Johannah Myers: That key of hospitality, it’s not just about eating together, it’s also about learning how to welcome. Both those who have been around for a while and those who are new. And that sense of welcome is critical, it’s critical for any congregation, but I think that we’re doing it well at Messy Church. And that’s something I think we’re all a little bit proud of. That we’re finding ways to welcome in both the old and the new.

Doug Powe: And, I think I know the answer to this, but I will ask, can it be adapted to small congregations?

Johannah Myers: Absolutely, I think, if anything, small congregations, Messy Church is something that they can do that doesn’t take a lot of resources. I mean, if you think about it, you don’t have to invest a lot in fancy art supplies, or crazy things. I mean, give us a stack of construction paper and some scissors and some glue sticks, and none of those things are expensive. So, it’s something that a small congregation doesn’t, they don’t necessarily have to have a huge financial investment. The meals that we do are very simple, and we take turns, different groups within our larger church help support the meals. We keep it very lightweight, very simple, nothing fancy or extravagant. But also, within a smaller congregation, it’s a great way of crossing the generations and building that sense of community. And I think, sometimes small congregations maybe feel that they don’t have, they’re not sure what they have to offer, to say that the families in their church, Messy Church is a really great way of saying “we don’t have to have a highfalutin youth group, or a fancy children’s ministry. We have Messy Church and that brings everyone together.” So, I think it’s very, very adaptable, whether you’re in an urban setting, or a suburban or rural setting, small or large churches, Messy Church is going to look different in all of these settings. It should! It should be adaptable to each setting and to each context, but it’s definitely something that any church can do, if that’s where God is calling them.

Doug Powe: As we get ready to bring this to a close, I want to ask, how can those interested get involved in Messy Church? So, they’ve listened to all these wonderful things you’ve said and they’re like “well, I’m interested in possibly getting involved with Messy Church.” How would they go about doing this?

Johannah Myers: Sure. So churches that are within the United States can contact us at Messy Church USA. It’s messychurchusa.org. And, from that website, you can get information about how to register. There’s also a link for a monthly webinar on getting started with Messy Church. Our executive director, Roberta, leads those on a monthly basis, and it’s a great, free way to get started, to hear a little bit more about who we are and what we’re doing. We also try to offer training events throughout the country. And we keep getting asked for more and more training events. So that’s something that certainly on the rise within the United States. I did two back in the fall, we had here in the Southeast, we had two or three going in the North East, a bunch on the West coast happening. So these training sessions are a great way to bring a team of two to five people that you want to help get started, get a Messy Church going, to come and learn more about the core values and learn more about the four key components. And what Messy Church is like and how to publicize and all of that kind of stuff. So all of that information is available on our website as well. Messychurch.org.uk is the original group, and that can connect you with the global Messy Church organization. Messy Church USA works alongside the original group. We just became a separate nonprofit just because there’s so much territory to cover in the United States that trying to keep up, it was easier for us to create a separate, USA centered Messy Church organization where we would have volunteer regional coordinators and training events and all of those kinds of things in a way that could specifically reach us here in the US. But, certainly anyone from around the world can go to either Messy Church website and find out more and get connected to, we’ve got groups online where leaders are sharing ideas and getting started on that. So there’s a really active Facebook presence and whatnot. And within the United States, you’ve got regional coordinators. I cover North and South Carolina. We have one in Tennessee. We’re growing more and more regional coordinators and we’re volunteers who are happy to sit down and talk to anyone about Messy Church and help offer some suggestions and pointers for getting started. So there’s a great network of people excited about Messy Church who are in different stages of doing Messy Church who are actively welcoming opportunities to work with other churches that are hoping to start as well.

Doug Powe: Well thank you very much. This has been, I think, really helpful for our listeners and for many of them it will be an introduction to something that they will certainly want to go to the website and check it out.

Johannah Myers: Well thank you. Thank you again for having me and for giving us a platform to talk about Messy Church. I’m really excited about what’s happening and how it’s growing and how God is working in this movement.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Sidney Williams of Crossing Capital about how congregations can develop new sources of capital in the marketplace, engage community partners, and develop unrecognized sources of social, intellectual, and human capital within the pews.

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About Author

Johannah Myers

Johannah Myers is director of Christian Formation at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. She also serves as the Regional Coordinator for Messy Church USA for North and South Carolina.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.