Messy Church – an example of a a milieu-sensitive church in a postmodern world

You can find the whole article with more details in „Being Messy, Being Church

Messy Church, as a local contextual church and a worldwide movement at the same time, appeals to thousands and thousands of people who might not otherwise attend `traditional church’. Why? What are the cultural differences? Is it because of lower expectation of prior knowledge? Does Messy Church function better within certain cultures? And how important are the formation of relationships, the possibility of participation and the aspect of fun? As already shown in previous books, Messy Church is not ‘church lite’; it is grounded in Christian tradition, centred on God and it aims to be church.[1] And still it is a place where (certain) postmodern, unchurched and de-churched people want to be and want to learn, celebrate and experience Christian spirituality[2].

[1] Cf. George Lings, (ed)., Messy Church Theology. Exploring the significance of Messy Church for the wider Church (Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2013).

[2] As the report from the Church Army’s research Unit suggests: 80% of the people involved in a fresh expression wouldn’t be in an other church.  http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Reports/churchgrowthresearch_freshexpressions.pdf

Messy Church, postmodernity and Sinus-Milieu – an Analysis

Anyone who visits a Messy Church knows that it is a loud, colourful and messy place. Kids are running around, parents, volunteers and elderly people are talking and lots of creative possibilities for adults and children are there to be discovered. People of all-age (except teenagers) sit together around tables, eating, painting, experiencing Christian stories in creativity, crafts and discussing life. If a steeple or pews are a symbol for inherited church and icons for the Orthodox Church, a table is the object that best symbolizes Messy Church. Messy Church is about people sharing life (and Christ) around a table. A happy and harmonious atmosphere is what people often experience, and this is what the Modern Mainstream milieu of the Sinus-Milieus-Theory is looking for. Sinus-Milieus are descriptions of segments of existing cultures in a common society. Because priorities of values, social situations, heritage and lifestyles are taken into account, Sinus-Milieus are not as fast changing as for example lifestyle typologies. Strikingly, many fresh expressions of church can be correlated with a specific milieu[1]—including Messy Church. Many people found in Messy Church belong to the Modern Mainstream, but it is important to know that there is always an overlap between the milieus there is no absolute delineation.

a. Time and Security

If the relational and child-focused environment that Messy Church creates is compared with the needs and wants of the Modern Mainstream milieu of the Sinus-Milieu theory, they very much fit and correlate. This milieu is called Quiet Peaceful Britain in the UK analysis; this group are looking for harmony and private happiness, strong relationships with family, relatives and friends, and comfort and pleasure. They are striving for social integration and material security and they are often defensive towards changes in society.[2] The setting of Messy Church addresses these needs and creates an environment where spirituality can be discovered playfully. In contemporary life, there are not many opportunities for families to actually do things together, to have time for a meal and to experience and talk about the meaningful things in life. In a fast and hectic world full of work, appointments and ‘to do’ lists, these times of being together already have a sacred feel to them.

Messy Church offers not only time together as a family, but it opens up a safe and sacred space by giving people a visible structure. Even tough people are surprised by the creative ideas, Christian experiences and messy possibilities that are going on in Messy Church, all within an apparently ordered and safe setting. Messy Church is structured and it has a time frame to it. If you visit different Messy Churches, you will immediately notice that the time frame (and sometimes the meal) differs from one context to another. But for the families involved in one local Messy Church, it offers a fairly fix structure (creativity, celebration, meal). The milieu of the Modern Mainstream is in need of this safe, predictable structure. If that is not provided, then those attending wouldn’t to feel comfortable to explore spirituality and build up the relational surrounding that works so well in Messy Church. A postmodern and pluralistic world offers fewer of those safe and secure places, values and behaviours. The need for reliable environments is especially high for this milieu, and Messy Church provides this, making it very attractive for the Modern Mainstream to visit, participate and become involved.

b. Relationship and community

Messy Church opens up the possibility of meeting people with children of a similar age, to build up friendships and to talk about the schools in the area, about the sorrows and joys they experience as a family. Messy Church enables families to belong to a wider ‘clan’ and be integrated into a bigger community. It even can be thought of as a replacement of clan structures, with grandparents and the wider family, that were give until the 19th and 20th centuries. In Messy Church children have the possibility of interacting with proxy grandparents. This is often very appreciated by the Modern Mainstream, because the value of family can still be passed on, even if the natural family lives far away. Often volunteers in Messy Church are also from the Modern Mainstream, though the older volunteers might be from the Traditional milieu. The Traditional milieu represents values such as security and orientation to the status-quo, rather rigidly sticking to traditional values (such as sacrifice, duty and order). They are modest and honest, down to earth, refer to themselves as ’the little people’, and are often concerned with health-care.[3] The volunteers from the Traditional milieu help to provide security and family values.

c. Participation

Modern Mainstream appreciate traditional values and a good domestic setting, including good housing, a little garden, a car, getting good marks at school, perhaps owning a dog. They value respect, good behaviour, love for each other, a good upbringing and some spirituality of some form. But these do not necessarily lead to ‘going to traditional church’ since, alongside these values, Modern Mainstream people are still postmodern people. If there isn’t an opportunity for participation, if there is no option to correlate the Christian content with the daily experience of life, then these people are not interested in church. There is not much time in the week after the demands of work, so if the place doesn’t fit for the whole family they will use their time differently. The participative nature of Messy Church, with its opportunities to explore an experience-based spirituality, opens the door for church in the life of a postmodern-modern-mainstream-minded person. This setting actually offers a space to get involved in a relevant way. This wouldn’t be the case for a person from (for example) the Digital Avantgarde, since this group are looking for non-conformist, no-fixed-dogma, creative and individualistic environments, where self-realization, freedom and independence is given.[4]

Because Messy Church is experience based, easy accessible and a place to have fun, it attracts not only people from the milieu of the Modern Mainstream but also from the Consumer-Materialists. This milieu is marked by materialistic and consumer hedonistic values. People in this group are striving to keep up, but often remain socially disadvantaged and uprooted, sometimes even precarious.[5] It seems more difficult for church to build up relationships with this milieu, because this group are looking for even more possibilities of experience and fun. But the simplicity of communication in Messy Church makes it highly accessible for this milieu. Most Messy Churches will probably have more Modern Mainstreamers and a few Consumer-Materialists, unless they develop next to or within socially deprived areas.

d. Experience

The life-style and mind-set of many postmodern people is very much experience-based. They construct faith, truth and identity out of experience; only what is experienced and lived through turns into a meaningful reality in life. People increasingly need to know that God is involved in the details of their lives. Messy Church is about giving people room to realize and experience that. It is an accessible spirituality which is very ‘can do’: ‘you can experience God’. The represented Sinus-Milieus in Messy Church are drawn to an everyday description of spirituality; God is attractive when presented as friend, companion, listener and ever-present reality. In contrast, there is much resistance to images of God as king, leader and judge, because this presentation of God is seen as a temptation to shirk personal responsibility for justice on earth. Messy Church creates a specific space for experiences—individually, as family and as extended Messy Church family. The individual religious experience turns, mainly through creativity, into a shared one. Furthermore, the experiences are often relational ones and that is what postmodern people are missing. So through individual experiences in a relational setting church happens contextually. Shared religious values and a sense of belonging emerges. It is not just spirituality has to be experienced, but also theology, church and Christian community.[6] It is then that it gains relevance in the life of a postmodern Modern Mainstream person. In this way, Messy Church fits very much into the general goal of fresh expressions of church as described by Rowan Williams:

Simply, I think, to provide a framework for people to discover faith and discipleship.[7]

e. Contextuality

The contextual framework of Messy Church allows people to discover faith and, in the long term, discipleship. Within pluralism there is no one-size-fits-all model anymore (if there was ever one). A diverse, pluralistic and postmodern world needs to work very locally and to be grounded in its immediate context. On the one hand, Messy Church does offer exactly that; it works super-locally. On the other hand, Messy Church is nearly a global movement; it combines the super-local and the globalized, networked world at the same time. Because of this, it is possible to be part of a contextual ‘little’ church and still be part of something bigger. This mind-set fits postmodern people and raises the motivation for involvement. And it is especially important for volunteers to be part of something bigger than the local. It opens up ‘kingdom thinking’ which at the same time is very local; as Dave Male put it:

So I think it is very much saying: this isn’t just a community that gathers for its own sake, but it gathers for the sake of the world.[8]

In my whole research on the Fresh Expressions movement (and Messy Church as part of it) the underlying topic of the furtherance of the ‘Kingdom of God’ emerged as important. That’s why church ought to be contextual, in order to be able to share life with postmodern, and in the case of Messy Church, Modern Mainstream people.

Conclusion

A good relationship between church and postmodernity can be described as one of facilitation. The church facilitates relational space for community between God and the world. This event is described by Rowan Williams:

Somehow the church as a priestly people bringing the need of the world to God, bringing the promise of God to the world, standing in the middle, that’s important.[9]

According to this mind-set church primarily happens through an encounter of people with each other and God.[10] Through that a dialogical-relational ecclesiology emerges, in which church is not defined according to a practice, institution or building, but rather according to a dialogical relational-event between the Trinity, Christian community, society and the worldwide body of Christ. Church development becomes a contextual offer of dialogue between different sides with its goal to contribute to the kingdom of God.[11]

Messy Churches around the world do facilitate this interaction by actually creating the space to discover spirituality for postmodern people. This is its strength. In this process theology happens very much hands-on and in this manner is brought into everyday life. Messy Church thereby combines social and Christian values, community in the neighbourhood and doing things with being church. By that a church emerges which is suitable for Modern Mainstream and partly Consumer-Materialists milieus. The set up of Messy Church guarantees Christian and ecclesial experiences in a safe environment. As such Messy Church has to pay attention to stay contextual in every new setting it emerges. It would not have done justice to Messy Church and its potential if it had been degraded to a program. The temptation to generalize the whole Messy Church movement to a model is ever present. This is partly because the Modern Mainstream milieu is widespread globally. But in the long run Messy Church is successful because of its very contextual nature; postmodern people, including children, and their way of relating to God are taken seriously. Such a respect for individual journeys of faith is essential.

Messy Church did not start with concepts but with people—people who just wanted to be and do church with their neighbours. This relational experience-based approach is the key with segments of a pluralistic and postmodern society and it is perhaps also the key to changes in the wider church. At the very least, Messy Church provides a helpful innovative field of learning for many long-standing churches. In the Church of England the relational and experience-based approach of fresh expressions of church has influenced and still influences its ecclesiology and therefore in the end its relationship to a postmodern society.

 

[1] Cf. SINUS: Informationen zu den SinusMilieus (Heidelberg, 2011).

[2] «Sinus-Meta Milieus», 8, accessed 6th January 2016, http://www.sinus-institut.de/veroeffentlichungen/downloads/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The concept of theology in Messy Church fits very much into the discussion on contextual theology. Cf. for example Laurie Green, Let’s Do Theology: Resources for Contextual Theology, 2. Aufl. (London ; New York: Mowbray, 2009), 4ff.

[7] Müller, Fresh Expressions of Church – Beobachtungen und Interpretationen einer neuen kirchlichen Bewegung Chapter 7.6.4 .

[8] Ibid. Chapter 7.3.4 .

[9] Ibid. Chapter 7.4.3.

[10] Cray et. al., Mission-Shaped Church, vii.

[11] Sabrina Müller, «Fresh Expressions of Church», in Handbuch für Kirchen- und Gemeindeentwicklung, hg. von Ralph Kunz und Thomas Schlag, 1. Aufl. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Theologie, 2014), 453.

 

 

 

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