During my most recent Messy visits, I have found my attention drawn to something that can often be pivotal to the success or failure of running a good Messy Church. It may sound trivial when I tell you what that is, but in my experience it holds the key to solving some of the challenges we face in the activities, at the celebration or over the meal. The truth is that so many of those problems boil down to a question of... the furniture! Yes, furniture! Let me try and explain…
The truth is, as I am sure you will agree from backbreaking experience, most of us in Messy Churches are furniture movers! Chairs and tables need to be rearranged for this new shape of church and then, of course, put back neatly for more tidy versions of church at other times. This can be a huge part of the preparation each time and needs as much attention to detail as the collection of the craft materials or the buying of the ingredients for the meal.
Thankfully, with time we can get this down to a fine art, especially if, as was true on my most recent visit, a huge tarpaulin is also laid out across the whole hall before tables and chairs are put in place. Thankfully, there were many to help, including some of the messy guests who now stay on afterwards to help put everything back in place. However, it isn’t the furniture removal or replacement that I mean, but rather which furniture we choose.
I have visited many Messy Churches who will put out little chairs for the children and adult chairs for the grown-ups, when it comes to the celebration. Immediately you are separating your congregation and, although it seems perhaps counter-instinctual to many of us who have led children’s work for many years, Messy Church works best if we try and avoid too many of these physical signs of separation. Gathering chairs of the same size into a semi-circle and inviting adults and children to make use of them, sitting as family groups, with the very youngest on parents’ laps, works much better. Now, I recognise that those of you with pews may not be able to create the same sort of cosy storytelling space, but I would suggest that children scattered amongst the adults still works better for the celebration and for a sense of family at your Messy Church.
These same principles apply to the activity tables. If everything is low down on tiny chairs and small tables, it isn’t naturally inviting for adults to join in. Even standing at the tables may sound to be a solution and can work well for some children, but surely being invited to sit down is much more hospitable and an invitation to talk and make friends, not just to do the craft. At the meal, too, the same tensions exist. Of course very young children won’t sit easily at a table that is adult-sized, but just having the children at small tables and the adults elsewhere isn’t ideal either. Several Messy Churches have invested in high-chairs, which is an excellent idea, and maybe some cushions would help others who are smaller join their family at the adult table. Alternatively, if you do have big and small tables, then do make sure that some adults are brave enough to join the children rather than allow a children’s party table to develop. This can so easily get out of hand!
I know this sounds strange and probably obvious, but often after my visits, when we chat through all that is good and all that could be even better, it often comes down to a matter of the furniture and how we arrange it. The truth is, most of our churches are designed in a way to suit a particular style of worship and learning, usually with everyone facing forward and in lines. Messy Church needs a new wine skin, not just in its content but also its furniture! I wonder what you think. Do be in touch with what ingenious solutions you have adopted to help your Messy Church function well and, of course, I would love to visit sometime and try out your chairs and tables for myself!