Listening to the future

Published October 1, 2009

OH JOY! At Messy Church, children learn about the Bible while behaving like children. Parents are part of the experience, too.

HOW MESSY IS your church?

I hope it’s gloriously disheveled. The messier the better.

I’m talking about Messy Church, of course. You know, the kind where young families feel welcome and anything can happen and usually does. Where children don’t have to act like little adults, on borrowed time before the serious business of adult worship begins. Where Bible study is a lot of fun and young ones can talk to God about exactly what they want to talk to God about. Your nana’s sick and you’re feeling worried? Okay, let’s talk to God about that.

Scratch the surface of Anglican life in Canada, and you’ll find Messy Church and other inventive adaptations of how we do church cropping up. Shepherded by clergy passionate about their mission, the new kinds of church are manifestations of the Fresh Expressions movement that originated in the Church of England before migrating across The Pond.

Some cathedrals are welcoming people of all ages, regardless of their religion, and making the experience user-friendly so that newcomers can shape the experience, not the other way around. Take the Parish of St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, Nfld. for instance. Originally a working class mission planted in the late 1800s by the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, attendance at this 900-seat church has dropped to about 125 regular parishioners at Sunday services. Most drive in from the suburbs.

Almost three years ago, Rev. Sam Rose was charged with planting a congregation-within-a-congregation at this inner city parish with deep Anglo-Catholic roots.”We wanted to introduce something where parents, particularly of young children, could feel welcome, where they could feel a full part of this community, not like second-class Christians,” the 32-year-old “mission priest” told me. Mr. Rose started from scratch, bringing in the only family he could count on to show up: his own.

Looking for more warm bodies, he cast his gaze beyond the empty pews to the busy parish hall where a daycare group and a church-sponsored youth group were meeting several times each week. “We were connecting to all these people but they weren’t connecting to the worship life of the church,” says Mr. Rose. “We needed to create a family-friendly style similar to what was already going on in the parish hall.”

And now, how the times they are a-changin’. What St. Michael’s offers, in addition to its regular hours of Sunday worship, is a Saturday Church every week at 4 p.m., and Messy Church, every 5 to 6 weeks, at 2 p.m.

The new Saturday congregation is 45 people strong and they aren’t necessarily Anglican. Everyone is free to express what they believe, whether they’re Roman Catholic, connected to the Reform church or have no formal religion at all. Everyone, says Mr. Rose, is looking for the same thing: an opportunity to build relationships with one another. “We allow the people who come to shape who we are in a natural way,” explains Mr. Rose. “We’re not so informal that it means nothing,” he adds. “But we’re open to the spirit of God and allow diversity within the community. We’re not one size fits all.”

When Mr. Rose gives a Saturday sermon, the congregation doesn’t just sit passively, or worse, fall asleep. They discuss their thoughts and feelings about the gospel text with the rest of the group. “I open it up,” says Mr. Rose. And while people who come to Saturday Church aren’t necessarily looking for God, in the process of building a connection with each other, “they end up finding God,” he points out.

IN LONDON, ONT., REV. David Giffen, the 28-year-old vicar at St. Paul’s Cathedral, is planning a second U2charist service featuring the music of the Irish rock band U2. Last year’s event was a huge hit, packing 700 people into the cathedral on a Friday night. Many were regulars but about 100 complete strangers wandered in off the street, drawn by the music and the energy that poured out of the open doors. And just in case you think this kind of event is just for youth, think again. “Uncle Ron,” a 96-year-old congregation regular was seen boogeying down in the eleventh row, and Amanda Parker, a 20-something teacher dancing in the aisles, confirmed that yes, the 10 and 12-year-olds were having a blast too.

“I call it a trans-generational service,” says Mr. Giffen. To sweeten the fund-raising deal (the event brought in $7,500 for the diocese of Huron’s companion diocese in South Africa) he told his local youth group that if they could raise $500 at their bake sale, they could shave his head. The last time we looked, his hair had grown back quite nicely, thank you. You can read all about this dynamic ministry on page 8.

In Victoria, B.C., where 93 per cent of people have never attended a religious service of any kind, Canon Harold Munn, rector of The Church of St. John the Divine, got an unexpected lesson in the ways of the secular world from a six-year-old boy. Brought in by his mother who wanted him baptized, the boy had never set foot inside a church before. When Mr. Munn asked the child if he had any questions, the boy responded, “Yeah. What are all the plus signs for?”

It’s a whole new generation that hasn’t been to church. Or as Mr. Munn says on page 9, in the “vast sea of secularism…it’s the new normal.” Engaging with people for whom church is an alien world is one of “the biggest challenges the church has faced, perhaps since Roman times,” says Mr. Munn. His advice? Listen and learn.

CAN YOU HEAR IT TOO? It’s the sound of children giggling while they march animal crackers into Noah’s Ark (a banana covered in chocolate…er, tar). It’s the sound of conversation between bleary-eyed working parents sharing a cup of coffee before church on a Saturday afternoon. It’s the sound of live rock music blasting out of a huge cathedral on a Friday night. It’s the sound of hairclippers buzzing and the excited yells of youth. It’s the sound of a little boy asking what all the plus signs are for. It’s the sound of children sitting at the altar in an empty cathedral talking to God. It’s the sound of Anglicans doing what they’ve always done best: creating a place where all are welcome. It’s the sound of the future.


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