An hospitable church
Reflections from a recent Messy Church visit
No doubt it was because I was deep into Lucy's Messy Hospitality as I travelled to a Messy Church recently that I couldn't help experiencing the visit through the lens of how welcoming everything and everybody was. I was pleased to say this Messy Church scored highly!
I was greeted warmly at the door, even though I was early, and introduced to the team, who were getting ready for the day's Messy exploration of the widow and her two small coins. The Messy Church team leader here was busy putting the finishing touches to today's session when I met her in the activity space. She is looking forward to reading Messy Hospitality. I think they already have a lot of its wisdom in place at this church. The welcome to families at the door was warm and personal; the welcome to the session was fulsome and inviting; the welcome at the tables was enthusiastic and organised; the welcome in the celebration was patient and accommodating; and the welcome at the meal table thoughtful and generous.
All this has really got me thinking. Superficially, this Messy Church was not the sort of ecclesial gathering favoured or promoted by some church traditions. There was no 'deep theology' or 'beautiful liturgy' anywhere; the story was only very lightly unpacked (probably more so at the tables than in the celebration!); the gospel wasn't proclaimed in so many words; and the singing and prayers were rushed at times and even slightly uncomfortable, particularly because the sound system chose that moment to cut out (doesn't that just always happen!). Despite all these observations, I really felt church was happening that day - church that far outshone some of our so-called models of church with choral singing or worship songs led by a band, with opportunities for prayer ministry and with inspired preaching. Good as these things may be in their place, I do wonder whether the sort of church defined by these elements is really how a gathering of the people of God ought to look.
The golden thread of hospitality that ran through today's Messy Church created a safe place of welcome, love and faith-sharing that was arguably more powerful than anything that the best of our traditional models can offer. People talked; adults and children met with each other in safety and laughed together; it was easy to chat about Jesus in an earthed and honest way; most of all, there was serving and loving one another, something that is most definitely the mark of discipleship.
Today I was able to meet a childminder from eastern Europe who was quite lonely in this country. She and her two charges became good friends. Today I was able to talk with a mum from France with her daughter, who was impressed by English churches, comparing them to the formality she had experienced in her Catholic upbringing, and this conversation drew in another mum, who was deeply impressed by the way this Messy Church welcomed families. Today I talked with a 10-year-old who understandably wanted to question the line of the Doug Horley song, which said 'God can move mountains', and this led to a really fruitful friendship. He was with his school friend, and they had come attached to a kindly 'mother hen' carer because both their parents are home late from their jobs. We had such good faith conversations together! Today I met with a granny who served the drinks as people arrived, along with her friend from a Greek Orthodox background. Today I worked with many other children and parents as we explored some optical illusions and created our own at the table where we talked about how some things are not always what they seem - just as the widow's mite was worth far more in Jesus' eyes than the gold coins rattling into the collection trumpets from the hands of the rich on their way into the temple. This doesn't happen in most 'normal' church services, whatever normal is, and it led us all close to God. This is why this imperfect but real Messy Church was so good and was church.
There were over 60 of us today, including regular families and, as ever, new ones. This faithful Messy Church team is stretched like every other in the country but they are hospitable and believe in what they're doing: and that, to my mind, is worth a thousand sermons or worship songs or discipleship courses - but then again, I'm biased! They are pursuing their Messy Church calling and God is blessing them.
Hospitality is an important key to all this. Lucy's book Messy Hospitality is a treat. My particular favourite passages so far are her description of God's hospitality on page 35; the beautiful insight into the high calling of those asked to staff the welcome desk, starting on page 45; and her masterful exposition of the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, which begins on page 70 - such a beautiful argument for inclusive communion! They will love this book at this Messy Church and it will help this church grow even more beautiful and display the ageless kingdom of God the way it should be.