“Real Community is messy” – Messy Church: anecdote to evidence, reviewing the Church Army evaluation

“Trust and Verify” my Headteacher used to say when I was an Assistant Head. “Of course I trust you. Now show me the proof.”!

In education we are used to producing evidence of impact. What difference has this made? How do you know?

Messy Church (MC) has been around for a while now – Lucy Moore began this work 14 years ago. Anecdotally it has been a huge success. It is really good therefore to see the publication of research on Messy Church that helpfully identifies what is happening, what is going well and what is not going so well. This report is particularly significant because Messy Church as an organisation were not involved in the research which was conducted by Church Army.

The main report is here  There are supporting papers.

The Messy Church website is here.

I have written about Messy Church before in a number of posts:

“It’s like church, but for everyone.”: Schools, Messy Hospitality and the Eglise Naissant

Messy is the Mass: my experience of Messy Church

Welsh Sodality Talk: Mary, Messy Church and Mission

Being Messy, Being Church (editor Ian Paul): a resource for schools


The report begins by describing how the research was conducted over a two year period. It helpfully highlights right from the start the two possible understandings of MC as either a Fresh Expression of Church or an outreach activity. The quality of presentation of the report is exemplary. Here is the chart showing the numbers of people involved for each method of research:

The report then lists those things to celebrate:

  • reaching families who are new to Church
  • growing disciples
  • modelling new patterns of leadership
  • developing and maturing the church

and the ongoing Challenges:

  • leaders are over-stretched and under-suported
  • the demanding nature of creating a culture of discipleship
  • the vulnerability and under-resourced character of MC
  • living with ambiguity over what it means to be Church

I have to say that I was rather heartened by this list. It has occasionally felt to me as if MC is a nice smug, middle-class phenomenon. On the contrary this list feels like a place that Jesus would be very happy to be.

The report then lists what it believes are its key findings:

  • being intentional about discipleship is important
  • meeting more frequently is not necessarily ‘the’ answer
  • real community is messy

Yes! Again what a fantastic list of Jesus-like attitudes. The second point here is particularly significant. In Liverpool we are developing new worshipping communities in our schools (we label this ‘Belong‘ although each community may call itself something different). One of the criteria we have been using is of meeting weekly. I wonder if this is too restrictive? We will certainly be talking about this in our ongoing discussions and practice.

A common myth aound many aspects of new activity in the church is that new people are not brought in and that it is just the same people doing different things. The research quashes that myth pretty substantively . 40% of those involved are non-churched families and 21% are de-churched. In the associated paper What Goes on Inside (headed ‘What did the attenders tell us? on the CA website) there is a strong stream of evidence from attenders that MC has begun their journey of discipleship with Jesus.

A key finding, contra to my own prejudice, is the evidence that post-codes make very little difference to the success of MC or even the proportion of non- or de- churched families who become involved.

The word ‘discipleship’ is, oddly, a controversial one. I don’t know of anything better and am glad that the report uses it. Another of the accompanying helpful papers digs deeper into the meaning of discipleship but the working definition used for the report is simple and straightforward: “a journey of following Jesus throughout the whole of your life“. That’s good enough for me.

The statistical report (Painting With Numbers) lists the impact in terms of clear indicators of growth in discipleship 21% of MC hold baptism and 13% child or adult confirmations. These are really phenomenally good numbers.

As we seek, as a Church, to understand what Setting All God’s People Free means it is also encouraging to see the proportion of MC that is lay led. Two thirds of MC have lay leadership almost half of these are not licensed lay leaders. A massive 76% of MC leaders are women. This is, of course, an interesting statistic and one that needs unpacking, in too many situations working with very young children is limited to women, children need to see men doing these roles, especially in contexts where there are few men at home and families have broken down.

The debate between being a Fresh Expression of church or an outreach activity is addressed head on and encouragement is given for those who see themselves as outreach to consider re-thinking themselves as Fresh Expressions “if they wish to promote discipleship”. The report talks of MC as “maturing as church” and this is an important point.

A caution that I have often felt about MC is the high demand on leaders and the high level of preparation needed. This is one of the reasons that the monthly or even six weekly/occasional model is often adopted. My caution here is both practical and theoretical. Practically, of course, the high demand makes it hard to recruit and retain leaders and can lead to exhaustion. Theoretically I am concerned with the pedagogy adopted by MC. Regular readers of this blog and those who follow education debates on digital media and elsewhere will know that I strongly support the shift in schools to a knowledge based curriculum together with a more didactic style of teaching. Teachers were for too long in thrall to the practice of ‘edutainment’ in which children enjoying themselves was the key criteria. MC is not school, and in any case, this practice of education is hardly universally accepted. But I am wary of activities that are designed simply to entertain or to fill the time. I think there is much more to be done in MC in examining the outcomes sought from particular activities. Even when the activity is itself well-designed I am often depressed at the quality of work that children produce in Sunday school/Childrens’ Church; work of such dismally low quality that it would-be thrown in the bin in most schools. Designing the activities well, creating banks of high quality activities should reduce the workload on MC church leaders.

At the most recent General Synod of the Church of England there was discussion of a really excellent report from the Church’s Education Office. Growing Faith, highlights the importance of church-school-home working together. Sadly the debate (despite being affirmative of the report) was not of a high quality, with most speakers missing the point that this is a significant change. It is the engagement of families, whole households, that will ensure faith is developed and continued beyond the early years into secondary education and teenage experience. We need to do far more to resource families. We have been far too tentative in this area.

This lack of confidence is also apparent in the MC research “Others commented that they wanted to disciple families but didn’t want to do the wrong thing.”, we have got a lot further to go. As the report also states “Without a confidence in sharing personal stories of faith, it will be difficult to create a culture of discipleship where this is normal and natural.”

The section of the report on living with ambiguity over what it means to be church is very significant indeed. This tension between models of inherited church and fresh expressions of the church lies at the heart of the process of change that the church is involved in. The opening statement is somewhat disheartening “we found little evidence of strategic developmental planning”. In any organisation effective change must be backed up with appropriate planning, evaluation and review. This is what guarantees that appropriate resources are provided, that change is intentional and that key outcomes are achieved. MC needs to be built into parish action planning, Deanery action planning and diocesan strategies.

A key box in this part of the report includes: “Participants in our study asked whether the questions few were asking in our research were also relevant for existing congregations”. Absolutely. As we move to new models of church we need to give up as much as begin new things. New things will only be possible if we free up resources to be available for them. The three questions in this box ought to be on the agenda of every PCC, Deanery Synod and Diocesan synod:

“Where else do we talk about congregational maturity or vulnerability in everyday church life?

If the [MC] statistics were compared with data from Sunday morning existing congregations, what would it show?

Do existing traditional congregations find it easy to invite new families to commit to regular giving?”

Sections on what happens when MC initiatives end and where people go when they stop attending MC are interesting. The clear evidence that increasing frequency is not necessarily a good thing is a corrective to some of us who have thought this was the natural evolution of MC.

“Real community is messy”. I have belonged to many communities in the course of my life. As have most of us. We know that community is messy. As much as we would like to tidy up communities, have lists of those who belong and don’t belong, what belonging means and how we demonstrate (and police!) that, actually every community has its ambiguities. Certainly traditional Sunday morning congregations are extremely messy.

The report ends with a number of recommendations. These are all helpful and sensible. Leadership and management are not popular phrases among some in the church but all the recommendations would simply be considered good practice in most organisations and examples of good leadership and management.


The report was only published last week, but it is has been a major source of reflection for me over the last few days. I hope that I have done justice to it. I highly recommend reading the report and its accompanying papers whether you are involved in MC, or have an expression of MC in your church or not.

More that that, for inherited church congregations there is much to reflect on here. Next week Lent begins. Most people will already have planned their Lent reading and courses. Too often there is a sort of dualism in our heads that divides our work and reading into ‘spiritual’ and ‘practical’. Reflecting on these papers would be a gospel task, properly spiritual. They would make excellent material for a Lent group. Quiet Day, PCC Away Day or Deanery Chapter.


In the diocese of  Liverpool we have already planned that our Education conference in October (attended by Heads, Chairs, Incumbents, RE Co-ordinators / Heads of Department) be about our Belong project for new worshipping communities in schools. Some of our schools already have Messy Church sessions. Over the next few months we will be looking more closely at ways we can encourage more of our schools to use MC. This research is really helpful, clearly presented and theologically profound. We all owe the Church Army research team a huge debt of gratitude, as, of course, we do to Lucy Moore and all involved in Messy Church.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s