Is it Church? Is it a means of grace?

by George Bailey.

“Is it really Church?” As one of the leaders of a Messy Church, I hear this question now and again. It often leads into important reflection for the enquirer as they describe what it is they find helpful about other particular ways for relating as a community to faith in Jesus.

This question is more though than just casual conversation in car parks by Messy Church banners. It is also ever present in the current ecclesial and theological conversations about “fresh expressions.” I am increasingly concerned that for many Messy Church leaders it is an unhelpful question. Why do we need to decide in a binary way whether an event or group is formally church or not? There are some important positive responses to that question – ensuring responsible pastoral oversight, providing appropriate legal frameworks, taking open decisions about the use of resources – but there is also a strange division being created between groups and events which are given a formal ecclesial badge of “church” and others which are not. Even if something is not considered to be a church in itself, all these responsible positive factors do need to be in place. I am not denying that Messy Church gatherings can develop into churches – they clearly can – but that is not the only healthy way forward for Messy Church. Are confusions at play here between fresh ways that we gather and express Christian faith, and what constitutes church ecclesiologically? “Messy Church” has a particularly unhelpful name. For the purpose of simple communication, I do love it, but it can obscure the fact that whilst the group of people who do “Messy Church” might in time form a church, they could continue being the same church even if they collectively decided to change their meeting style to, say, “cafe church” or to a hymn sandwich.

Most research into fresh expressions goes through some stage of establishing what counts as a “fresh expression of church,” so leaving in its wake a string of events, groups and leaders who have been told that what they are doing is “not church.” The excellent Church Army research published in 2016 was a study of 1109 fresh expressions of church across 21 Church of England dioceses, but along the way 1678 church groups/events/projects were rejected for a variety of reasons.[1] Whilst the report does state it values the creative contribution represented by these developments, it is still a process whereby they are valued differently from independent ecclesial entities. I have not seen figures specific to Messy Church exclusions for this research project, though Claire Dalpra, one of the research team, has described how over two of the dioceses only 25 out of 51 Messy churches in were adjudged to be fresh expressions of church.[2] My feeling, also based on anecdotal experience of numerous Messy Churches, is that more are not seeing themselves as separate churches than are. I await with interest the results of the similar Methodist research into fresh expressions of church which is currently underway. When asked by a Methodist researcher if the Messy Church I am involved with met the criteria for inclusion in the research, I looked at the list, simply answered “no,” and so excused us from being excluded.

Is there an alternative? How do Messy Churches which are not intending to become churches in their own right see themselves in relation to the church or churches which they are somehow part of? The experience of the eighteenth century Wesleyan revival can help here. This was a situation with new groups, events and gatherings in the life of the Church of England. Those leading these developments did not desire new churches, but instead talked about ways that the new forms could act as “means of grace” alongside other existing expressions of Christian faith.[3] The societies, small groups within them and various new or renewed gatherings, e.g. love feasts, watchnights and covenant services, were described as “prudential means of grace.” They were prudential because temporary, and suited to the age and context for helping people to meet Christ and experience salvation. They were not the whole of Christian worship and discipleship, but pointed people to other “instituted means of grace” (e.g. Eucharist) and those “general means of grace” (e.g. exercising the presence of God) which are to be accessed by all Christians of all times.[4] I am increasingly thinking of Messy Church as a prudential means of grace which is inherently limited, not seeking to be all the means of grace necessary for Christian life – indeed, if it did aspire to that, it would soon cease to be a creative worship event ideal for young families. Either Messy Church which is becoming a separate church develops a number of other means of grace at other times, or Messy Church which sits within another church’s ministry programme encourages people to engage with the whole range of means of grace available.

For Messy Church, the question, “How is it a means of grace?” opens a more useful conversation that the question, “Is it church?” and avoids some of the negative connotations for numerous Messy Church groups who do not aspire to be entirely self contained churches. I think there might be potential for wider use of this question for other kinds of fresh expression, but also for the whole Church to look at our ecclesiology and practice in a different way.

[1] Lings, George (2016), The Day of Small Things: An analysis of fresh expressions of Church in 21 dioceses of the Church of England, Church Army Research Unit, pp. 72-74 and pp.202-205

[2] Dalpra, Claire, “When is Messy Church ‘church’?” in George Lings (ed.), Messy Church Theology: Exploring the Significance of Messy Church for the Wider Church, (Abingdon: Bible Reading Fellowship; 2013), p.28

[3] For a good summary of John Wesley’s thought on this, see his sermon, “The Means of Grace” (1746), in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, Volume I,( Nashville: Abingdon Press; 1984), pp.376-397.

[4] For the fullest description of this aspect of John Wesley’s theology see Knight, Henry, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Metuchen N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press; 1992)

2 thoughts on “Is it Church? Is it a means of grace?”

  1. Thank you George, for your thought-provoking piece. It has challenged me to ask the question about being a means of grace in relation to other things in the life of the church.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you George. As a member of an ‘alternative worship’ group which we preferred to call ‘complimentary worship’ this was a common question in the late 1990s/ early noughties. Sometimes the question then was ‘is this a church within a church’?
    I had not come across the question ‘is it a means of grace’? I found this very helpful


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