This week, K, M & I were asked to talk to the Local Ministry teams from some neighbouring parishes about what was happening at Messy Church. I'm always willing to talk about things I love (on the whole, the challenge is to stop me) so this seemed a thoroughly good idea...until OFSTED announced their arrival at Valley Church School. Within minutes, time allocated to collect my thoughts and prepare Messy material transformed itself into time to re-read SEFFs, SIPs and all the acronymn-ridden paperwork beloved of government departments. It seemed important that those turning out to listen to us should have time to play, so the wonderful K planned two craft activities, the Dufflepud, God bless him, produced a screensaver slide-show of Messy Church highlights, and we were off.
Having failed to produce even bullet-points, I was encouraged by how much there was to say, as we thought aloud about all we've learned together.
I told the story of the children's church that was never recognised - the "Thursday Club" that met after school for 10 years in the Cotswold village where my children grew up...the frustrations that we felt as we tried to turn it into a bridge to Sunday church...the realisation, just a few months after I'd left that village and moved into my curacy, that for those children Thursday Club was church. It's fascinating how just one publication can change the climate for everyone...and sad that we wasted so much energy lamenting the "failure" of Thursday Club to feed Sunday attendance figures when every week we had up to 30 children hearing the Story, exploring the Story, living the Story. Mission Shaped Church came too late for us! When I moved on from the village the decision was made to take a break from Thursday Club...I wonder if it would have been so easy to abandon ship if it had been seen as a congregation in its own right.
Certainly, when I arrived in my training parish it was Mission Shaped church that gave me the confidence to say firmly that "Little Fishes" was far more than "just a mother & toddler group", to launch "OpenHouse" with no expectation that the families who attended would filter gradually into Sunday church. One report, with such alot of power! Of course, it would be very easy to leap to the conclusion that every church activity beyond traditional worship could now be labelled a "Fresh Expression", - but though that's far from the case, the new climate has given us permission to celebrate refreshed expressions...traditional congregations recognising that they can't be all things to all people, and setting out to find new ways to help their communities to engage with God.
So, when I came to these parishes, I was pretty clear that whatever God wanted us to do to engage with the all-too-absent families, it would from the beginning be seen as church in its own right. Maybe I thought that clarity would make the process of formation easier...but as we thought aloud about the Messy Church journey of the past 18 months, it became clear that we are constantly evolving, changing our nature from month to month, as relationships form and reform, as people come and go. K helped me to see that what we're about is reflected in every aspect of Messy Church. So many of our helpers arrive concerned that they "Aren't good at crafts...Aren't very creative" and at the outset parents rarely joined in with the craft activities, unless they were confident that they could produce something "good enough". But Messy Church is all about the process, not the product...The important things happen as we chat over the activities "What IS Pentecost, anyway?" "Don't you think prayer is a bit of a waste of time?"
They happen as we deal together with the pleasures and tensions of trying to include toddlers and teenagers, to find ways to help them meet God and build community.
The meal is vital! Often as children work their way round the activities, it seems that this month there really IS nobody here - but when we sit down to eat together, guests and helpers together, I'm never in any doubt that this IS church.
By any standard index it's incredibly messy.
We never know whether we'll have 14 or 40...The teaching slot relies too much on my gift of the gab and often falls short on the "awe and wonder" scale...Sometimes a vital helper gets her weeks in a twist, and there's nobody in the kitchen to serve the food.
But set against that the way that parents have moved from collecting together to talk while their children explored the crafts, to sharing the crafts and conversations themselves; the way that those who used to stand at chat at the back of the church as we gathered for worship are now sitting just behind their children, in the front pews together; the readiness of guests to become helpers, so that we're working to build church together.
Through all the mess and muddle community is emerging, and it's a community where God is tangibly present, time after time after time.
We hold our Messy Church on a Sunday afternoon - so I'll always arrive having presided at 3 Eucharists. I'm often tired, usually stressed, horribly conscious of the things I have left undone, uncertain if this month's theme will work, if I actually have a creative way of sharing the story. Sometimes I think to myself "Oh NO...NOT Messy Church AGAIN"
And always, always, I come home encouraged, befriended, refreshed.
We tried to share this on Wednesday. The teams seemed happy to engage. They did some finger painting, made Pentecost pinwheels, explored the wild unpredictability of wobble pens...and talked as they did so. When we regrouped at the end of the evening, there were lots of smiley faces, and most questions had been answered.
That's how it works, really. We may not know where we're going, but the mixture of sharing stories, of doing together, of friendship and lots of laughter creates a space for God to dance.
I love it.