Please!” Nine-year-old Thomas* stood just inside the church door, tears streaming down his face. “I’ve tried everything I know to get my parents to come to Messy Church, but they won’t come. Please—may I come without them?”
The woman at the registration desk gave Thomas a hug. “Of course you can come,” she said, drying his tears. She motioned for a church member standing nearby to come and introduced Thomas to her. Thomas smiled gratefully and led the woman to the craft room, where Messy Church was about to begin.
A 9-year-old begs to attend church? You bet—if it’s Messy Church. Messy Church is an outreach program that began in 2004 in an Anglican church in England. Its purpose then and now is to provide a family-friendly worship experience for children and their parents who wouldn’t normally attend church.
In 2009 some energetic Adventist women in Stanborough Park Adventist Church outside London adapted the Messy Church program for their community. And it works! When the program first began, most children were from Adventist homes. Today these children are asked—nicely—to stay home so that non-Adventist children can attend Messy Church and learn to love Jesus.
What is Messy Church? Think Vacation Bible School on steroids. Children from infants to 13 meet in age-appropriate groups to hear a Bible story and do a craft that will help cement the lesson in their minds. When the theme was the parable of the sower and the seeds, one group of children created grass caterpillars by stuffing soil and grass seeds into a nylon stocking, tying knots every few inches, and then adding pipe-cleaner antenna and googly eyes. They took their grass caterpillars home, watered them, and watched them grow. “Mine is still growing,” 7-year-old Eleanor says proudly. And she remembers the story of the sower who scattered seeds, some on rocky soil, some on dry soil, and some on good soil. She knows that Jesus wants her to scatter seeds of His love just as the sower scattered seeds of grain.
After a craft that can be truly messy, the children and their parents clean up and join other age groups in rousing and energetic songs of praise. Then they gather in the fellowship hall for a healthful dinner prepared by more volunteers.
“Children love Messy Church,” coleader Judy says. “We’ve seen plenty of children drag their parents through the door so they won’t be late for Messy Church. And some parents have found that their children or grandchildren have turned down an afternoon at the park, choosing Messy Church instead.”
What started as a rather small under-taking now numbers upward of 200 to 250 people in attendance at the once-a-month service. But children must bring a parent, a grandparent, or a guardian. After all the main purpose of Messy Church is to create a family-friendly worship experience. But parents aren’t the only ones who bring their children.
Mary is the mother of four and a foster parent to five children. She brings all the children to Messy Church. The foster children had been abused and largely ignored at home, and Mary wasn’t sure how they would respond to Messy Church. But they loved it! Later Mary wrote a letter of thanks to the leaders of Messy Church. “We are not Adventists, but we love coming here. You provide a lovely service and a healthful meal. We’re not vegetarians, but we enjoy it very much. You have inspired us to eat more healthfully at home. Thank you so much for inviting the community to this event.”
When a friend invited Matt and his two children to Messy Church, he wasn’t sure whether they would enjoy the program. But when 5-year-old Abby called the program “epic,” Matt decided to return the following month. A struggling dad, Matt appreciated a good-sized bag of leftover food from the dinner. And the friend who had invited him was so thrilled with the family’s enjoyment of the program that she asked if she could help with the craft program.
The Stanborough Park Messy Church is a pilot program that has become a smashing success. The Trans-European Division wants to introduce the program throughout the division and help each region adapt it to their needs. Part of the Thirteenth Sabbath Offering this quarter will help fund the adaptation of Messy Church in each of the regions of the Trans-European Division. Soon families across Europe will have an opportunity to get acquainted with Jesus and His family of faith in their own countries thanks to Messy Church, the fun way to worship God.
*Names have been changed.