Messy Church

A few years back, I discovered to my disappointment that the label I wanted to apply to our experience of church life had already been taken.  If you hear the term “Messy Church” you are likely to associate it with an all age event, aimed at children but including their parents  with craft, Bible stories, games and food. Actually most “Messy Church events” end up being very tidy, ordered and middle class if we are honest.

If it hadn’t already been taken, I would have used it to describe the experience many of us have when we get involved in inner city and estate outreach. Now, often the reality is that our buildings end up chaotic and messy. Sometimes too our church services.  If you like things ordered, structured and on time then you might find urban church a challenge.  You might have to engage with different cultural approaches to time.  For example, whilst British Middle Class types are not brilliant at time keeping, they see it as important. So, if you don’t make it for the start of the service, you are likely to sneak in quietly so as not to disturb everyone. Preaching to a Latino congregation on the other hand and you may be interrupted a few times by people not only coming in but taking their time to enthusiastically greet and be greeted by everyone else.

However, I’m talking here more about messy faith.  We need to be ready for people to turn up with all of the complicated, troublesome, unfinished stuff that’s going on in their lives. If, as I’ve argued previously, we are modelling the hope we have of a future, better city, then living in the now and the not yet means living with that tension.

First of all, it means that we need to start from the perspective that it is God who decides who comes in and how they come in.  We look for his verdict on people’s lives.  I remember a lady coming along to our chapel. She’d started coming with a friend through perhaps one of the most unorthodox evangelistic methods. Her friend had made an appointment to see me very early in my pastoral ministry and had brought her unbelieving friend along as her chaperone. Her friend sat in and listened as the person unburdened themselves about all the challenges and problems in the church. On the way out she told me that she’d felt at peace all the time she’d been in the building.  This was important as she struggled badly with anxiety and depression.

So, she started coming along.  Then one day after the service, she came to speak to me. She wanted to know what the church thought of her and her situation. There was a lot going on behind that because her life was a mess but at that stage her main concern was that she had lived with her partner for many years without worrying about marriage. My response was that far more important than what the church thought of her was what God thought of her. The church would have to get in line with his verdict.  I left her with a booklet called Two Ways to Live and off she went. A week later, she came back and said “I prayed the prayer at the end of the book”. She was so happy.

Now, that’s not to say that the mess in her life didn’t need sorting out and that there weren’t major issues to work through. However, what it meant was that she was welcomed on the basis of grace.  Romans 8 is clear that in Christ we are forgiven, not condemned and that therefore Jesus does not condemn us. If he does not condemn you then no-one has the right to.  It meant that she was a work in progress. We needed to allow God to work in his time. That meant we needed to learn to see and trust what God was doing.

Mez McConnell in his book, Church In Hard Places tells the following story from his days as a missionary in Brazil.

We must do a lot of hard work in explaining true, biblical repentance when working with the poor (or anybody for that matter). Being sorry and repenting for sins are two completely different acts that produce two very different long-term fruits in people’s lives. Sin is grievous to God, separating us from him. Repentance is a turning away from that sin. The difficulty pastorally comes in the fact that repentance can look very different when dealing with broken and chaotic lives.

Take Innocencia, a thirteen-year-old street girl from northern Brazil. She had lived on the streets for most of her short life. Her parents abandoned her at five years old, and from the age of six onward she sold her body for sex to pay for food and to feed her glue habit. When we found her, she was in a mess. One of her arms had been crippled from a beating she took on the streets from a john, all of her teeth were missing, and she had been raped countless times. One day, when she heard the life-transforming truth about God, her sinful position before him, and the good news of what Jesus had done, she wanted to repent on the spot. We prayed with her and trusted that she had made a genuine profession of faith.

Several days later we found Innocencia barely conscious in the streets, a bag of industrial-strength glue at her feet (incidentally, this glue is a far deadlier poison than heroin). My Brazilian team was devastated and angry; her repentance had seemed so genuine!

We got her to her feet, cleaned her up at our center, and spoke to her about the commitment she had made to Christ. “Oh, Pastor Mez,” she said, “I do love Jesus. I have turned from my sin. Last night I turned a client down, and I am now only doing six bags a day instead of ten.” She beamed at me with pride, and I felt chastened. Was I really expecting that she’d be a finished product on day one of conversion?[1]

See here a firm commitment to the power of the Gospel and clarity about sin and repentance but that clarity also includes a willingness to trust God’s work happening at his pace and in his way.  Mez is now involved in church planting on Scottish council estates (schemes). He goes on to observe:

Repentance in the schemes of Scotland is not dissimilar, although not often as extreme. How about the man who comes to Christ, has three children by two different women, and wants to turn from his sinful, abusive past and be a proper father to his children? What does repentance look like for him? Well, one way or the other, it’s not going to be simple and clean. For people in messy situations, repentance is going to involve making hard decisions and dealing with the consequences of a selfish and sinful lifestyle. [2]

Are we ready to show that kind of patience?  If so, it will mean that we will be alert and realistic to what is going on with discipleship.  This means that whenever people meet me I’m cautious about hearing their stories. I don’t expect to hear the whole truth at the start. In fact, I’m often convinced that they don’t know what is truth and what is fiction. My approach is that I’d rather start out assuming the worst and stick with a person than start out optimistic and then give up on them when the truth comes out. Now, we have to be careful that this does not become or look like cynicism because it can easily do that but cynicism and faith driven realism are two different things.  Let me give you another example.

We had a young man started attending church. At the time we had an OM team with us and I’m not sure how much the presence of several young ladies in their twenties had in encouraging his desire to come to church but he came along regularly.  People began to look out for him and he was invited to home groups and things. He got some practical help too.

Then one day I got an angry and distressed call. A member of the church had lent him a large sum of money which he said he needed. However, as soon as he was given it, even within their earshot, he was on the phone to his dealer to buy a large amount of drugs.  The member was angry. “He has broken our trust.” They told me. However, I argued that he had not broken our trust. He had done exactly what we could reasonably trust him to do if put in that situation.  It’s that kind of perspective that allows us to persevere knowing that it is only God that can change a sinner’s heart and therefore, we have to trust God’s timing.

This means that church will be messy, chaotic even and urban church planting and pastoring will not be an easy ride.  It means being ready for joy and disappointment, ups and downs, twists and turns in the many life stories you get to have a walk on part in.

This kind of messiness isn’t for everyone. Some will be at a stage in life where everything going on and everything that has happened means that they need much more structure, order and tidiness. They need that safety within the church. That’s okay as long as they don’t insist that any and every church must provide it for them.

We live with the mess because when we were called to this mission, we were called to step into the very mess we are discovering.  That’s what urban subversive fulfilment is all about. It’s possible because we have a saviour who stepped down into the mess of our world at Calvary and there was a point when he stepped down into the mess of mine and your life too.

[1] McConnell, Mez; McKinley, Mike. Church in Hard Places (9Marks) . Crossway. Kindle Edition. Location 552 -565.

[2] McConnell, Mez; McKinley, Mike. Church in Hard Places (9Marks) . Crossway. Kindle Edition. Location 565.

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