By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Something extraordinary is happening at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H. (pop. 6,500). Once a month like clockwork, since early this year, worship attendance jumps from 20 to nearly 40. Swelling the crowd are people who have no church background. They sidle up next to folks who quit going to church long ago. Approximately half of these once-a-month worshippers are children.

What draws them is Messy Church, a format that’s as casual and disarming as its name suggests. Begun 15 years ago in the United Kingdom, it’s now helping mainline Protestant congregations in the United States reach demographic groups they haven’t seen in years, sometimes decades.

Messy Christmas cookies at St. Peter’s in the Woods, Fairfax Station, Va.

The Newport gathering happens at this mission church’s regular worship time, Saturdays at 5 p.m., which lets families have all day Saturday and Sunday for other things. It begins with 45 minutes of playful creativity, including games and art projects for all to try, and ends with a community meal. In between comes a 20-minute eucharistic liturgy that ties prior activities to a biblical story and encourages chatter on the path to deeper understanding.

“Communion is noisy,” said Aaron Jenkyn, lay missioner at Epiphany. “People are talking during Communion. They’re talking during the eucharistic prayer, asking each other questions. These kids have just this really beautiful way of sharing what they understand it to be with remarkable accuracy with each other. And it’s just this really beautiful experience.”

Emerging in this setting is a new church community unto itself, one where regular churchgoers and neophytes bond informally around the teachings and spirit of Jesus. It builds on the congregation’s deep relationships in the community through outreach programs, which have enhanced trust over time. Now the gathering format feels right, not awkward or anxiety-provoking, for many who want connections with God for themselves and their kids but had not found them in traditional church settings.

It’s a familiar dynamic in Messy Church settings popping up around the country. Lindsey Goodyear had grown up attending church but had drifted away when she and her husband moved to Huntington Beach, Calif., with their sons, now aged four and seven. At first, she didn’t respond to invitations offered through her sons’ church-based preschool at Community United Methodist Church in Huntington Beach.

“I was hesitant because I thought we’d be shamed for not having a church,” Goodyear said in an email. “Messy Church is giving those of us who don’t have a church a place we can call home.  It’s a great reminder that God knows we’re messy, and that’s OK.”

Messy Church began in the Church of England in 2004 at the initiative of a clergy spouse named Lucy Moore, who wondered why so many were walking by her Plymouth congregation on Sunday mornings but not coming in.

After querying the wider community and taking responses to heart, Moore pioneered the Messy Church tradition of convening at more convenient times, sometimes on a weeknight when not having to cook dinner is a big help, or late afternoon on Saturday. The movement has now grown to include 2,800 Messy Church congregations in England. On Aug. 30, the Church of England announced a grant of 100,000 pounds to study the deepening of discipleship in Messy Church congregations. It’s been expanding as far away as Croatia and China and in settings as diverse as prisons and nursing homes.

In the U.S., Messy Church is growing fastest among United Methodists, followed by Episcopalians and then other mainline Protestants. According to the national network Messy Church USA, 23 Episcopal congregations are registered as official Messy Church hosts, though some might be doing Messy without having registered.

“A lot of the Episcopal churches that I talk to have a priest who traveled to England, found out about Messy Church and then went on to do it here,” said Roberta Egli, executive director of Messy Church USA.

Nationwide, 142 congregations are registered as Messy Church sites, up from 97 at the end of 2018. One-day regional training events are up too, from four last year to 11 this year, as prospective leaders flock to learn the art of hosting Messy Church. In trainings, leaders learn best practices for welcoming those who have little or no church experience.

“If they haven’t been to church in several generations, they are coming from a place of learning to know that they are loved,” Egli said. “To learn that they belong to a God of love, and to find a place to belong there, is a big step for them.”

Expressions of Messy Church can vary to a degree, but five core values give it a recognizable coherence in every setting. Each Messy Church environment emphasizes creativity, hospitality, and celebration while making sure all ages can participate and everything is Christ-centered. Hands-on activities typically revolve around a biblical theme for the day. Science demonstrations, which might illustrate a theme or shed light on God’s creation, tend to be as popular as the arts and crafts.

New data corroborate anecdotes about Messy Church making inroads with hard-to-reach populations. A February report from the evangelistic group Church Army found that in England, 60 percent of Messy Church attendees say they haven’t recently engaged in any form of church. What’s more, Messy Church congregations are now, on average, larger than traditional Church of England congregations.

In the Episcopal Church, Messy Church can vary a lot from one cultural context to the next. Whether the atmosphere is Bible Belt or the largely secular Northeast, for instance, can make a big difference.

In Fairfax Station, Va., at St. Peter’s in the Woods, Messy Church offers a change of pace for families that normally attend youth programming on Sundays. Once a month, about 50 people turn out instead for Messy Church on a Saturday evening, and Sunday youth programs aren’t offered that weekend. Kids ask why they can’t have Messy Church every week, said the Rev. Susan Hartzell, rector.

“The kids who maybe would not robe up on a Sunday morning and be an acolyte were excited to carry the candles and carry the cross down our little Messy Church center aisle on Saturday night,” Hartzell said. “It’s a chance for younger ones to experience it.”

At Epiphany in New Hampshire, Messy Church is also a big hit with children, though for different reasons.

“They love the activities, the stories, the Eucharist, and the friendships and relationships (across generations) that are formed during their time together,” Jenkyn said in a follow-up email. “In my experience, it is the kids who can’t wait to come back, who are asking for Messy Church more often, who are dragging their parents along.”

Messy Church also helps newcomers at Epiphany understand terminology, symbols and other elements that seldom if ever get explained in traditional settings. Hands-on activities might deliver an introduction to the meanings of liturgical colors, for instance.

And the experimenting continues, even in regions where churchgoing is still common. At St. David’s Church in Ashburn, Va., piloting Messy Church convinced organizers to have it in the narthex in order to be as inviting and nonthreatening as possible. Normally about 30 turn out, but that number dropped to eight in July, which told them that summer might not be conducive to Messy Church, at least in Ashburn. Another discovery: with little ones on hand, worship time is best kept to 15 minutes or less.

“It’s doing exactly what Messy Church is intended to do: it’s bringing people who haven’t been churched,” said Maureen Carey, lay pastoral assistant at St. David’s and a board member at Messy Church USA. “We’ve had people from the community, and we’ve had people who come to our preschool and then they come back for Messy Church.”

As Messy Church proves magnetic for hard-to-reach populations, leaders are reflecting on why it’s gaining traction and what it will take to scale it up.

“Parents want their kids to have a moral framework,” Jenkyn said. “They are drawn to a Christian value system.”

For congregations eager to explore what Messy Church could mean for their outreach, veterans have a few suggestions:

  • Don’t consider it a stepping stone to “real” church on Sunday mornings. Affirm that it’s a legitimate gathering of its own, a place where the Word is preached, sacraments are administered, relationships take on a Kingdom quality and disciples of Jesus Christ are made.
  • Visit a congregation that’s already doing Messy Church and witness the event in action. That’s how Hartzell came to appreciate the importance of making sure parents of young children know they don’t have to plan and execute Messy Church themselves. By simply showing up to enjoy what others have designed for them to experience, it remains spiritually refreshing for them and their children.
  • Teams and planning are crucial. Egli suggests six months of lead time before putting on a Messy Church event. Two or more volunteers might prepare dinner. Another small group plans activities, and a priest organizes worship. That way volunteers keep it fun and nobody gets burned out.

Putting on Messy Church might be a hefty undertaking, but practitioners are heartened by the results. According to Church Army’s “Playfully Serious” report from February, more than 80 percent of Messy Church leaders say they’ve seen at least a few people’s lives have been changed as a result of attending Messy Church. If that’s a central reason why congregations gather in the first place, then these newer, messier ones are already delivering on the promise.

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