Matt Stone asks for patience and prayer for a 'messy' vision.
Having written an MA thesis and Grove Booklet on fresh expressions, I felt quite a lot of pressure (mostly self-inflicted) to actually start a fresh expression when I entered ministry 15 months ago. It can be so tempting to start something new because it is fashionable, or because other churches are doing it, or because it is in my job description, or because I – as the new young minister – want it to look like I am leading the church forward.
However, I've had to remind myself that this is simply not how God works. God doesn't ask us to start Messy Church or café church or run an Alpha course or start cell church or, in fact, very much at all without a lot of praying and reflecting first. The problem is: how do we know what God is calling us to do?
I work in a team ministry of seven United Reformed Churches, with primary responsibility for three churches within the group. For about ten months, I really wasn't quite sure what to do at all. I preached on a Sunday, visited the sick, conducted funerals, attended meetings and social events, signed up for a local Fresh Expressions mission shaped ministry course, and generally got to know the people and communities I serve. I wanted to do something evangelistic – something to reach out to those not being touched by our mostly traditional Sunday services – but the sense I got in prayer was that I had to be patient. Now was not the time. When I did have a vision for a church-run café within the village I live in, there didn't seem to be a venue that was suitable.
Nonetheless, the patience (and, at times, frustration!) is beginning to pay off. Over the last few months, God's guidance has become slightly clearer for at least for one of the communities I serve.
At Wroxham & Hoveton URC, we have a worshipping community of about 40-50 adults, teenagers and children. Like many churches, we face an ageing congregation, the loss of teenagers to university and a shrinking Sunday School (known as 'JAM' – Jesus and Me). Although the church membership has remained relatively steady for 20 years, the demographic challenges are great and it has felt that we're in a 'make or break' time. If our Sunday School of 2-10 children becomes unviable, there would not be any church-run children's work in Wroxham. Families have simply not been attracted to what we offer on a normal Sunday morning, and many of the parents who send their children to JAM do not join the congregation for worship unless it is a family service. So what to do to reach our missing families and 20s to 40s for Christ?
Through conversation, prayer, reflection and a seminar over a period of months, Messy Church seemed to be what God was guiding us to. On Father's Day, we ran our first Messy Church session. All ten of our regular JAM kids attended with their families, including many dads (who are the least frequent attenders), plus we picked up one family from outside of the church. It's not just the families who benefited though. The church has been incredibly supportive and there were over 40 people present, including an enthusiastic group of volunteers cooking, leading and generally having fun! We ran another event for Harvest, which was equally successful, and have another planned for Advent.
I do not know exactly where God is leading us yet, but I know that it is worth waiting for. We are exploring whether we could run Messy Church on a more regular basis next year, and are seeking to reach out to those beyond our church's current periphery. Simultaneously, the idea of a regular midweek café-type event seems to keep coming back to our thinking and praying.
Developing a vision takes time and patience. It may be something radically new, or it may be a revisiting of something tried and tested. My advice for any church or pioneer is simply this: pray, pray, pray!