Church gets ‘messy’—even in pandemic

By Laura Camby McCaskill

GREENVILLE—One United Methodist Church is getting “messy.” And even though the pandemic is forcing most of that mess online and within homes right now, it’s still doing what it can to make disciples in nontraditional ways.

For the past seven years, Aldersgate UMC, Greenville, has been working with Messy Church, a worldwide ministry that seeks to reach people in Christ who do not traditionally attend church, whether non-churched, de-churched or apart from the church for other reasons.

Founded in England in 2004, Messy Church was born out of the desire to reach families in the community that regular church wasn’t reaching on Sunday. Messy Church started in a little village outside of Portsmith by Lucy Moore and others who were becoming frustrated at the lack of interest people in their community had for attending church.

Today around half a million people attend Messy Church around the world. At least one other church in South Carolina is also participating in Messy Church—Augusta Road UMC, Pelzer.

Dr. Johannah Myers, director of Christian formation at Aldersgate UMC, as well as assistant director for Messy Church USA, said Messy Church has been an amazing opportunity for her church to reach out to families in their community in a way that they could not have been reached.

“Messy Church is church, but not like you would typically think of church.” Myers said.

Messy Church meets at different times other than Sunday morning. Depending on the church, it could meet on a Sunday afternoon (such as at Aldersgate), a Friday evening or some other time during the week. Messy Church includes four key components: a welcome, an extended time of engagement in a Bible story or creative theme, a celebration time and a sit-down meal at the end. Those four key components are built around five core values: hospitality, creativity, all ages together, celebration and everything that is done is centered around Jesus—making space for people to meet Jesus.

“We worship a very creative God. And so, we try to tie that sense to God’s creativity, into what we are doing at Messy Church.” Myers said.

Myers stumbled upon Messy Church in 2013 while searching for something to help her own church in outreach. She learned about it through friends who lived in the United Kingdom.

For some churches, Messy Church is an outreach ministry that is connected to their local church. But for others, it is a new church, a separate worship service or congregation. It all depends on the church context. Messy Church is also adaptable to both small and large congregations and is a church for all ages. Myers said Messy Church looks different in each community because of its adaptability.

In some cases, for some churches, the time is spent in a hands-on fashion with science experiments, arts and crafts or games. It is a place where relationships are built.

“I find Messy Church is intriguing and exciting,” said Aldersgate pastor the Rev. Michael Bingham. “It’s been amazing to me how people really enjoy it. To see this … broad spectrum of folks, all right there in one place, it’s amazing to me. In my experience it’s not always that easy to get.”

Messy Church is intentionally designed and meant for those who are not already a part of a congregation. Latest research indicates that 60% of those who attend a Messy Church around the world, are either non-churched or de-churched people.

“That doesn’t mean that it can’t enhance the worship, discipleship, and faith of those who area already involved in the local congregation.” Myers said.

Each Messy Church that uses the name and logo are asked to honor the five core values. Some Messy Churches do communion together and baptism.

“I think, for maybe a traditional worship service, we might see four or five generations sitting together, but we don’t always see them interacting together. And what Messy Church does is, (it) kind of breaks down, so we are not just sitting alongside each other, but we’re actually interacting with each other.” Myers said.

Aldersgate UMC, in existence for about 60 years, is known for being a very active church. A lot of members have gone into ministry to become deacons, elders and missionaries. Not only is it active, it’s growing. Children who started with Messy Church in 2013 are now youth, stepping up into leadership roles.

“One of the great things that I love seeing is that how those kids that started as little ones in Messy Church are now continuing with Messy Church as volunteers,” Myers said. “They are super excited about getting to help; they still love it so much that they want to keep coming. They want to step into leadership roles, and so what we’re are seeing is opportunities for children to work alongside the adults and older adults and build relationships as volunteers working together.”

Bingham said Messy Church has helped Aldersgate grow.

“We’re learning that for some people this really is their church,” Bingham said. “Aldergate is learning that the Christian witness, of just being a good neighbor, of being neighborly, of being accepting of people who are different, that that’s the win. It’s helping Aldergate rethink what it means to be church to people.”

Messy Church not only changed Aldersgate’s way of thinking, but also their approach, Myers said.

“It changed our approach, I think, to how we understood our place as a church within our larger community. I see how churches are rethinking the way they interact with families, but also how they’re understanding all ages coming together. That we actually need each other across the generations. We really need to find ways to come together across the generations,” Myers said.

Because of the social distancing required by the pandemic, Myers said, Messy Church has had to adapt and be flexible—something it is quite used to doing.

“Like all churches, Messy Church is having to adapt and re-imagine,” she said. “Many Messy Churches around the world have moved to some kind of online format. At Aldersgate we (hosted) a virtual Messy Church on May 20 to celebrate Pentecost together. We’ll do a few activities together and have a celebrating time together. Other Messy Churches have offered opportunities for families to do Messy Church at home. During Holy Week, Messy Church USA provided an at-home plan for each day of the week.

“The global nature of Messy Church is a wonderful reminder that we are not the only ones sheltering in place or adapting to new conditions; our sisters and brothers around the world are going through this pandemic as well.”

Myers said she hopes that, after the pandemic is over and beyond, over the next five years and more, Aldersgate is able to continue using Messy Church values and practices to develop a relationship with more and more families in their community, offering them space for all ages to explore what it means to follow Jesus in creative, fun, hands-on ways.

“My hope is that, through the relationships and through the fun and the joy that we experience through Messy Church that, we draw people to Jesus,” Myers said.

For more on Messy Church, visit

To talk with Myers about starting Messy Church at your church, contact her at [email protected].

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