Some say cleanliness is next to godliness, but others are finding the opposite approach might do an even better job of connecting people with God.
Messy Church is a relatively new international network that seeks to create intergenerational worship experiences with a focus on involving people outside current congregations.
Messy Church USA executive director Roberta Jantzi Egli grew up in a Mennonite congregation and has begun presenting about the concept in Anabaptist settings.
“It’s not a denomination, it’s a movement,” she said of the organization founded in 2004 in an Anglican church in the United Kingdom, when pastor Lucy Moore experimented with some activities after noticing few children were attending worship. “Some people call it a fresh expression of church — church not as you know it.
“It doesn’t belong to one denomination or stream of understanding, but it’s a way of being church that can be contextualized to each denomination.”
With a focus on hospitality, using all five senses and being centered in Christ, Messy Church is based on worship experiences that take place once a month. Children are active participants.
Celebrating the messiness in individuals’ lives, Messy Church focuses on building intergenerational relationships through shared activities, concluding by gathering around a table and sharing a meal.
“Messy Church speaks to me in being able to worship in not just sitting and seeing but being engaged physically in creative crafts and games that explore the story,” said Egli, of Eugene, Ore. “I think that’s important.”
Activities tying into a lesson can include building a structure out of cardboard boxes, hunting Easter eggs or crushing grapes by hand to make communion juice.
These days, more than half a million worshipers gather at more than 4,000 registered churches in 30 countries.
“Think of it as a new worship experience or starting a new church in a church,” Egli said. “It’s about building community, which is a big Anabaptist value, and building relationships particularly with people on the edges of traditional church who are interested in exploring their faith life and haven’t found a place to belong.”
Although now ordained in the United Methodist Church, Egli grew up attending Western Mennonite School in Salem, Ore., before meeting her husband at Hesston (Kan.) College and graduating with a nursing degree from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
She said she was attracted to Messy Church’s priority of intergenerational participation, which she connects to the Anabaptist concepts of a priest-hood of believers and focus on Christ.
“How we introduce following Christ in ways relevant to today, and the whole hospitality thing, it’s important to all of Christianity, but I think the Anabaptists understand that,” Egli said.
The creative component to Messy Church also tied into her experience when she attended Portland Mennonite Church.
“I was involved in worship leading and worship arts, and I think the creativity of Messy Church has drawn me into that,” she said. “. . . A rural church can do it, a suburban church can do it, an urban church can do it. You can take the material and contextualize it to your setting.”
Egli recalled how a family renting the parsonage on her church’s property was drawn in not by formal church events but by Messy Church.
“Dad started to bring his two daughters to Messy Church — they had been invited through a personal invitation from me and also the preschool teacher,” she said. “Mom also came occasionally, but usually it was dad and the two daughters.
“In a few short months, dad had invited other neighborhood dads and their children to our monthly Messy Church. Messy Church provided space for them to hang out with their children and participate in their activities and also learn about the life of Jesus through the activities, scriptures, prayers and songs. The hospitality they were given and the hospitality that they gave to each other created connections and community.”
Although no Mennonite churches have joined Messy Church USA yet, Egli has led an informational session at Corvallis (Ore.) Mennonite Church and thinks the concept can be a good fit. Most recently, she was a workshop presenter at Pastors and Leaders week March 2-5 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.
“If you think you will start a Messy Church in your church and expect that will revitalize your church, that’s not a good reason,” Egli said. “If you are starting a Messy Church and want to reach your neighbors in your community and you want to invite them to walk with you and share in that leadership, then that’s a great way to start it.”