In praise of Messy Church

Christ-centered, intentionally intergenerational, creative, hospitable and celebratory, this church isn’t easy, but it’s magnificent, writes Jenny McDevitt.

The boy draws lines and letters in the sand-filled pie tin. Then he says, louder than I expect, “I’m sorry, God!” as he shakes the pie tin, returning the sand to its smooth, undisturbed state. I offer him another pie tin filled with glitter, and he gleefully sticks both hands in and swirls them around. “Grace is like glitter!” he says. “No matter how hard we try, we can’t get rid of it!” And then, before I even realize what is happening, he jumps up the steps to the baptismal font and swirls his hands around in the water. “There’s grace here, too,” he says. “So they can go together.” We leaders hadn’t connected the two at all; the stations weren’t even adjacent to one another. He connected them on his own. That’s what happens at Messy Church. And that’s why all of our baptisms have at least a few sparkles of glitter floating around in the water. You really can’t get rid of glitter. Or grace.

Church can be messy. (Maybe you’ve heard.) But church can also be Messy — in the most magnificent way possible. Eight times a year at Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, our sanctuary is filled with Legos and Play-Doh, sand and glitter, candles and water, ribbon and yarn, markers and mirrors, pillows and anything else we dream up. More importantly, it’s also filled with children and their families, adults who come on their own, and friends of all ages. When this happens, it’s time for Messy Church.

Messy Church at Shandon is an outgrowth of Messy Church, a global movement.

Messy Church at Shandon is an outgrowth of Messy Church, a global movement. Starting in the United Kingdom, Messy Church understands itself to be “church, but not as you know it.” It began in 2004 when a group of members at St. Wilfrid’s Anglican church in Portsmouth wanted to reach more children with God’s story — but do so in a way that brought generations closer together, rather than keeping them apart. The Messy Church name, trade mark and resources are available for use by any church that embraces the Messy Church values: being Christ-centered, intentionally intergenerational, creative, hospitable and celebratory. Messy Church desires that everyone encounter the mystery of faith — that people encounter Christ in the interaction of the gathered moment, not just hear about him. And encountering Christ does not go unnoticed. The Messy Church UK website notes: “The joy it causes means that Messy Church is occasionally written off as nothing but fluffy fun, but the reality is that we are human beings, created to be creative as we worship a creator God with our hearts, minds, and bodies: our whole person.”

A child holds a mirror up in front of my face. “You are made in the image of God,” she says, “and I am, too.” A younger child walks up and stretches for the mirror he can’t quite reach. “Here you go,” she says, handing it to him, and says, “Did you know you’re made in the image of God?”

Photo contributed.

At Shandon, Messy Church meets on Wednesday evenings. The service runs about 45 minutes long, but the children beg to stay longer and their grown-ups usually agree. This points to something important: Messy Church is simple in concept, but it is not easy. It takes hours of preparation and set-up, and clean-up is no small task, either. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

We begin with liturgy and end with liturgy, all of it repetitive and responsive, so that readers and non-readers alike can participate fully. We sing. Someone reads scripture. Instead of a sermon, I ask a few open-ended questions. Answers are called out. Often, someone will say something worthy of repeating, so I repeat it, and then ask them to do the same. This takes 10 minutes at most because the kids are so eager for what follows, they can barely contain themselves. It is not unusual for a child or two to come stand alongside me during the liturgical portion, sometimes to be near me, other times just to get a better look at the stations.

We begin with liturgy and end with liturgy, all of it repetitive and responsive, so that readers and non-readers alike can participate fully.

We dedicate about 25 minutes to messy stations, a variety of activities spread throughout the sanctuary and surrounding hallways. The stations themselves are organized, but moving from one to another is a
free-for-all — a bit of chaos is expected, but we don’t want to lose control. At the same time, we also want participants to have the ability to explore and experience everything on their own time.

Brightly colored polymer clay is set out on paper plates, cut into small pieces, each color representing a “need.” “Take what you need,” a sign reads. Blue is grace. Yellow is joy. Green is peace. Red is compassion. Purple is kindness. Orange is faith. And so on. Kids linger, turning their colors into shapes, as well. Peaceful turtles and compassionate hearts and faithful basketballs emerge. Adults linger even longer, turning their clay into round beads, rolled around in their hands at length. “I didn’t even realize I felt like I needed more compassion,” one woman said. “I didn’t realize it until it was right there for me to reach out and take.”

Each Messy Station has materials and signs with any explanation and directions needed. We avoid
too much explanation at this point, though, as the kids often find connections to their faith beyond what we anticipate. Telling them what to expect runs the risk of squashing that — but we also have adults present to explain whenever questions arise. Any Messy Station with materials that might go awry (scissors, candles, glitter) has a staff member or volunteer close at hand. We aim for most of the stations to be highly interactive and effective for attention spans of varying lengths, but we also make sure to include a few that are individualized and quieter.

Photo contributed.

Some of our most popular Messy Stations have included a wild display of mirrors of all sizes, with participants invited to look in the mirror and repeat words of gratitude for being made exactly the way God intended for them to be made; exploring confession with pie tins of sand and pie tins of glitter; lighting candles for people for whom we want to pray; writing notes to “helpers” in the community; using Legos to depict what the Kingdom of God might look like; wrapping a big, beat-up cross (used for Ash Wednesday) with brightly colored ribbon and yarn; a pile of pillows in front of the communion table for resting weary bodies; splashing in a baptismal font filled with water and blue marbles; and making shadow puppets on the walls to explore darkness and light.

While Messy Church utilizes a lot of craft supplies, at no point is there a specific “project” that participants take home. On occasion, they might contribute to a large group project that is then included in Sunday morning worship. There’s nothing wrong with crafts (we do them often ourselves, at lots of other times!), but Messy Church is about more than crafts. On occasion, a marble or a bead might go home as a visual or tactile reminder of scriptural truth, but nothing more elaborate than that. It allows us to focus on the moment, to be swept up in the experience itself.

Messy Stations time concludes with a five-minute warning, then an invitation to gather around the communion table, a spontaneous choice made during our second Messy Church gathering. After we had been so close to one another, after we had laughed and spilled and created together, it felt far too distant to return to pews set apart from the table. “Come on up here,” I said that first time. Notably, children didn’t hesitate; adults initially looked uncertain. In this, as in so many other ways, Messy Church creates opportunities for every age to learn from every other.

We gather around the table, all 60 of us, the smaller in the front, the taller in the back, the youngest cradled in arms. “What do we remember here?” I ask them. “The Last Supper,” they chime more or less in unison. “The night Jesus was betrayed,” one of the children says. “Judas betrayed Jesus,” her friend adds. Before I ask another question, one is lobbed my way. “Why didn’t Jesus stop Judas? If he knew what was happening, why didn’t he stop it?” (Messy Church is not for the faint of heart.) Step by step, with only one or two more questions, the children walk us through the story. I offer the Words of Institution, and most of them join in — they know the words almost as well as I do. My colleague and I kneel down to serve them, so we can look them in the eyes. One of them grabs an especially large piece of bread and grins at me. “This is the very best bread ever,” he says. “It fills me right up.” A brief discussion ensues about the possibilities and ethics of “communion second helpings.” We have plenty of bread. Why not?

At Shandon, Messy Church has evolved into what works best for us. But it’s something any church can replicate in its own way, so long as you are willing to let the Spirit do her thing. The congregation that gathers has fun. They express all kinds of creativity — even those who claim they aren’t creative. They learn more about faith. They internalize the words of our sacred story. They feel at home. And they can’t get enough of it.

Messy Church is exactly what it sounds like: messy. And loud. Much of the time, it feels like we’re about three inches away from sheer chaos, but then there are countless moments in which it is clear the Spirit is holding it together. It is joyful. It is holy. It is the church making faith real enough that you can reach out and touch it and see how much it sparkles.

(Learn more about Messy Church here: