Messy church

I know this is the name of a thing already. This post really isn’t about that thing. If it wasn’t already a thing, I think this would be an excellent title of a book that buys into the current fashion of ‘[insert adjective] church’ titles that we all seem to want now.

No, this post is really about why your church should be messy. I was reading Tim Challies’ article from his archives on how healthy churches are not necessarily the ones that appear to have it all together, but may well be those we would characterise as messy. It would be worth your while reading that article before you read this one.

The reason I was interested in what he wrote there is that this has been an ongoing issue for us. Those who follow this blog will know that we minister in a deprived mill town in the North of England. You can read the ‘about this blog’ page to find out more if you don’t know about this already. But the issue for us is not so much that the church is messy – whilst we don’t rejoice in the mess itself, we rejoice that mess is coming into a messy church to a saviour who loves messy people – it is more with the people who come and cannot cope with messiness. Jesus came into the mess of our world in order to save it and, whilst many claim they want to be Christlike, are often unwilling to do the very thing that our Lord did himself. Funnily enough, such people are often very messy themselves, it just shows in different ways to some of the other people they would point at and label ‘messy’.

But I thought it might be helpful to lay out some of the specific ways that messiness might be a cause for rejoicing. Here are some ways messiness is not a sign of a spiritually unhealthy church, but one seeking after the Lord as they ought.

Bad singing

I am often wary of churches whose singing is pitch perfect, sung with gusto. Not that it’s wrong to sing well, of course. That’s great and it surely expresses that the people there love the Lord and want to encourage one another with all they’ve got. So, I’m not knocking that at all. But if everyone is able to smash out the tunes, possibly even without referring to their hymn books, it suggests that there aren’t many outsiders coming into the church.

By contrast, some may come into churches where the singing just doesn’t seem all that great. It might be quiet, mumbled, some may not even sing much at all. But that may well be a result of the church effectively reaching outsiders. In our church, for example, large sections of the congregation have been saved all of five minutes. Not only that, many have come in from different countries and cultures where English is not their first language and Christianity is not their dominant culture. The mumbled singing and inability to get their heads around the songs isn’t a sign of spiritual unhealthiness, it is testament to the fact that we are reaching new people, often unbelievers, who have no church background and who are drawn from different nations.

Simple preaching

I use the word ‘simple’ not to mean ‘simplistic’. I use it to mean straightforward and easily understandable. Often, I have been at churches where the preaching is understandable to me, I am conscious I only understand it because I have three and a half decades of church-going behind me and a couple of degree in theology and religion. I am painfully aware that, if I didn’t have at least one of those things, I could well hear the words being spoken but I’d be confident I wouldn’t have much chance of understanding what they mean. But I have frequently heard people call such peaching, ‘excellent’ and ‘wonderful’ and that sort of thing. And I’m sure the people aren’t lying when they say so. I’ve sat under those sermons and been encouraged by them and enjoyed them sometimes too. But if everybody in the room is able to engage with that sort of thing, it speaks to the kind of people you are reaching; namely, a lot of Christian people.

By contrast, churches with simple, straightforward preaching tend to work hard at being understood by the average person who might never have set foot in church before. Of course, everybody says that’s what they’re aiming to do, but all too often it isn’t what they actually do. Those whose weekly sermons and Bible studies aren’t basic and lightweight, but are straightforward and simple, are minimally making clear that they want to be reaching those who have not been churched over decades already and might well speak to the fact that they are speaking to people who are entirely new to church.

Proper church discipline

You may look at a church that very rarely engages any meaningful church discipline and think they must be healthy. There is obviously very little sin in their ranks that requires addressing. That may be so, but it seems unlikely in a church made up of sinners.

By contrast, you may see a church engaging in church discipline and think it is full of heinous sin. Which, of course, it is because every church is. We just tend to think that the only sins worthy of discipline are those that we deem unrespectable. But the church engaging in discipline is seeking to bring that sin into the light in order to restore their wandering brother or sister to repentance. Whilst the sin itself is not to be a cause of rejoicing, the proper application of church discipline speaks to a spiritually healthy church that is seeking to grow their believers up to maturity in Christ.

What is more, I’ve sat in more than a few meetings where people pass over 1 Corinthians and blithely say things like, ‘of course, Paul had to tell these folks not to visit prostitutes, which isn’t something we’re likely to have to do in our churches.’ But, of course, that depends on the kind of church you’re in. If you are in a community like ours, where not only those who visit prostitutes but those who are prostitutes might come in, that’s still a live question! Whilst the sin that leads to church discipline (and, how we do that is another post for another day – but we don’t eject people from the church at the first sign of trouble) isn’t a cause for celebration, the fact that it has to be used again speaks to the fact that we are, typically, reaching and seeing converted people who do not know how Christians ought to behave. Which means such a church is reaching unbelievers, seeing them converted and then seeking to help them imitate Christ as they walk through the mess in which they find themselves.

Duff sermons

This is a slightly different point to the one above regarding sermons. There, I was speaking about sermons that might in many respects be good, but were not aimed at ordinary people. Here, I am talking about downright bad sermons. I don’t necessarily mean heretical, I just mean a sub-par. Potentially even a bit rubbish.

Now, you might well wonder how on earth that can be a cause for rejoicing and a sign of spiritual health? Like with all these things, of itself, it’s not a good thing. But if behind it the reason for the not excellent sermon is that the guy preaching it is having his first go ever in a pulpit, that is a sign of spiritual health. The church is seeking to train up others who will grow into word-ministry and leadership roles. But for anyone to become competent in the Word, you have to put up with a few duffers along the way.

The training programme I was given when I was first asked to preach was having a passage given to me and then I was expected to just get on with it. And, if I could string some words together cogently in the pulpit when I did that, I might be asked to have another go. That was about it! That’s not an excellent training programme, but I don’t think anybody expected that George Whitefield-esque oratory was likely to happen on that first go. There was a willingness to accept a sub-optimal sermon so that a young lad of 17 could cut his teeth on teaching the word. Sometimes, having a duffer in the pulpit isn’t a sign of poor preparation or disinterest in the importance of the Word, it is a sign that this church cares about training its people and helping them to develop their gifts. That is a healthy thing to do.

These are just four things that might, on the face of it, look messy but in actual fact may speak to a greater degree of health than we realise. By contrast, those who come into such places, take one look at the mess and cannot cope exhibit a messiness of their own that is easily covered over if they quickly make their way to a church that is far more comfortable for them.

In many ways, all of our churches should be messy. We should expect nothing else when a group of sinners in need of God’s grace get together. But if our concern is always the mess ‘out there’ – those groups in the church who seem too messy for me – we may just miss the messiness of our own hearts that seem less concerned about walking with messy people and emulating Jesus’ example and more bothered about making sure my needs are met, my sins aren’t scrutinised and my comfort is served. Whilst the mess in my church, for example, may well be lived out in the open, our inability to cope with such things might well mean there is a messiness of our own that we are all too willing to hide away and leave to fester.