'Messy Church': Fresh Expressions in East Tennessee

March 12th, 2020

On Saturday, February 1, 2020, over 250 people gathered for a Fresh Expressions Vision Day in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was an exciting time, as we faced honestly the reality of decline in a post-Christendom U.S. and envisioned new ways to be the church with people who don’t go to church. Among many highlights, including a “dance break” led by Bishop Mary Virginia “Dindy” Taylor and her husband Rusty, was the sharing of a local pioneer, Rev. Will Conner.

Will has served as Pastor at Decatur UMC in Decatur, Tennessee for four years. This is a small congregation in a rural context. It had been in decline for quite some time. Rev. Conner cultivated a “Messy Church” there at Decatur that is now attracting children and young families. Messy Churches are a particular form of Fresh Expression that emerged from the U.K. and are now found across the world. This is a way of being church for families involving fun, crafts and often a meal. It is not just a craft club, but a Christ-centered community for all ages, where participants can express creativity, hospitality and celebration as they “encounter Jesus as Lord and Savior together.” [1]


As Rev. Conner shared his story at the Vison Day, he said, “I saw a gap between our mercy ministries and people coming into the life of the church.” He described how folks from the community would come to receive food and clothing but were not connected to the worshipping congregation. Will demonstrates what Leonard Sweet and I have found common in pioneering, entrepreneurial types: contextual intelligence (the ability to accurately read a context and make correct decisions regarding what to do). In the contextual intelligence framework, we call what Will is doing “minding the gaps,” a visual warning phrase issued to subway riders to be careful crossing the spatial gap between the train door and the station platform. [2]

There is tendency among congregations (particularly those in mainline denominations) to be largely unaware of the “institutional voids” between local congregations and their communities. Harvard researcher Tarun Khanna describes these voids as the absence of intermediaries like market research firms and credit card systems to connect buyers and sellers in emerging markets. Often, local churches try to franchise one version of church, with no contextual sensitivity. The “voids” describe the lack of awareness, the absence of scaffolding that can connect churches with their communities, and a viable framework to do so.

This is about seeing the sore spots, the fragmentation, the disconnects in our community, the “institutional voids” where we need to sacrificially build relational bridges.

Pioneers like Rev. Conner see the “gaps,” as opportunities for social innovation. They are able to bridge those gaps, and create new things between what is and what could be. In this case, he leveraged the relational capital his church already enjoyed, to create a new form of Christian community. Messy Church is church for the people of Decatur, Tennessee. This fresh expression is also revitalizing the traditional congregation.

[1] According to Messy Church U.K. website

[2] Beck, Michael Adam, "Contextual Intelligence: One Intelligence to Serve Them All" (2019). Doctor of Ministry. 359.

comments powered by Disqus