Close to 200 residents gathered at Greenwood United Methodist Church for a different kind of worship service.
They wore jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes. They were encouraged to get paint, glue and glitter on them. Shouting and laughing were not cause for reprimand but part of the celebration.
At the same time, they learned about the concept of giving of themselves to help others in need, as well as parts of the Christmas story they might not have had heard before.
The service was Messy Church. To reach those who don’t feel comfortable in a traditional religious setting, Greenwood United Methodist Church has started group meetings once per month.
Parents and their children gather on a Saturday afternoon, compete in games, complete crafts and share a meal. Biblical principles and stories are woven into the activities so that both adults and children learn about the foundation of Christian religion in an engaging way.
“It’s not the crafts that are messy. It’s the delivery system,” said Jane Stilley, who leads the group at Greenwood. “This isn’t a way to grow the congregation that’s in there on Sunday morning. This is it’s own totally unique way to bring people to church.”
Messy Church is an emerging type of worship service that is aimed at people who have drifted away from religion. Much of the time, the members are young parents who want to instill in their children religious values outside the traditional church.
The foundation of Messy Church is hospitality, creativity and celebration, said Andrew Scanlan-Holmes, coordinator for the movement in the U.S. People of all kinds are welcomed to the services, regardless of their appearance, age or past religious involvement.
A series of arts and crafts are built around a Bible story or Christian concept.
“You really have to give them something that they can understand,” Stilley said.
A short celebration service helps distill the biblical lesson before the entire group meets for dinner.
Messy Church doesn’t have a hard-set list of rules. The format is malleable and free-flowing, allowing individual churches and groups to define what is best for them, Scanlan-Holmes said.
“It’s not a dictative program. It’s a topic of ideas and way of being a church that groups can take on themselves and adapt to their own communities,” he said.
Scanlan-Holmes has been involved with Messy Church for more than 10 years. He moved to central Indiana with his wife, Carolyn, who is the minister at Avon Christian Church.
They implemented their own Messy Church program in Avon and have seen an excitement building that didn’t exist before.
“Many of them are people who do not regularly go to what we’d consider ‘church’ on a Sunday morning,” Scanlan-Holmes said.
Messy Church has its roots in the United Kingdom, where religious leaders tried to counter young people and parents moving away from the church.
Movement began in England
In countries such as England and Scotland, a generation of children have grown up without church, Scanlan-Holmes said. Now young adults, they couldn’t relate the stories of the Bible to their own kids.
About 10 years ago, a group of Anglican Church leaders looked at ways to reverse that. They decided to create a worship time unlike any kind of existing church. The first Messy Church started in 2004. Now, more than 1,400 registered congregations participate in Messy Church.
That trend is beginning to be seen in the U.S. Messy Churches have been founded throughout the country, including a handful in Indiana.
“What it seeks to do is reach out to families and keep the family unit whole through the experience of being in church,” Scanlan-Holmes said. “The families are working together.”
The idea to bring Messy Church to Greenwood took form during the summer.
Stilley and her family took a trip to England, where she visited distant cousins and other relatives. While there, she was able to take part in a Messy Church service.
“Here was this little village doing this really cool worship. I never once thought that it was a larger movement,” she said.
Stilley came back to Indiana and started talk to groups at Greenwood United Methodist Church about the concept.
She got commitments from people to help fund the supplies, food and other items for the meetings, which is about $50 each month.
To help drive the project, she formed a core team to help. Almost all were young men and women who had grown away from the church but were interested in doing worship differently.
Organizers understand the Messy Church concept might take months to really take hold in Greenwood. But they are confident that the process already has started and will see an entire new group of people coming to church.
“Mom and Dad might never set foot in the sanctuary. But if we can create a place where they feel comfortable, they’ll bring their children. And as their children get older, I believe they’ll be back into a mainstream church,” Stilley said.
Reaching out to dads
One of the greatest successes of Messy Church has been the involvement of young men and fathers in the worship experience, Scanlan-Holmes said. Traditionally, that group had been one of the least engaged in religion.
Having time when they can build something with their children or play a game on their level is much more appealing than sitting through an hourlong sermon.
For example, when discussing the Bible story of Jericho, they created a cut-out cart with cardboard and toothpicks. They used cereal boxes to make the carts more stable and fancier.
“Afterward, those guys thought that was great fun. So we introduced a theme each time for that group, something the dads can get involved with. As a result, it’s brought whole family units into the church,” Scanlan-Holmes said.
At Greenwood United Methodist Church, that meant a beanbag game. Participants chose canned food, toothbrushes, soap and other household items to be donated to the poor.
If they got a beanbag through a hole in a board, they could pick an item off the table to give to the needy in their name.
Leaders tied it into the idea of giving gifts for Christmas and doing good deeds for others, Stilley said.
“I wanted to have something that would appeal to the men and boys we would have here. Throwing stuff appeals to them,” she said.
Scanlan-Holmes stressed that the point is not to bring more people to the traditional congregation. Most of the people who come to Messy Church never will become regular Sunday churchgoers.
Rather, the idea is to form a new community of faith in a unique way. Room exists in a church setting for both types of worship, he said.
Even bringing people to hear about the Bible for a few hours every month is a success, Scanlan-Holmes said.
“Messy Church is about saying you can be a church in this way and discover something of the Christian story in this particular way of being together,” he said.