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Making a mess of church in Morwell

The Church. Two words and one big meaning. For many Christians in society, walking into the hallowed doorways of churches across our nation on a Sunday is common practice. But for those who wouldn’t dare dream of walking into the four walls of a church in Melbourne’s Latrobe Valley district, there is hope – thanks to the Messy Church. And as Salvos Online writer LERISSE SMITH found out, there’s a whole lot of beauty to be found in the messiness of this alternative to the traditional church.


 It’s a late Sunday afternoon in the heart of Regional Victoria, and the excitement is rising.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a group of passionate people from Latrobe Valley Salvos, who love their community and love God, unite to embark upon another wonderful and crazy adventure held each month in Morwell – Messy Church. Yes, that’s right, Messy Church.

But let not the name conjure up any preconceived ideas. There is much splendour to be found within its four walls.

“The beauty of Messy Church is being able to provide God’s message to people who would not otherwise hear it,” said Kate Charalambous, who helps lead Messy Church.

“We will have people come in and say, “Oh my ... it’s a church!” And I will say yeah, it is, and the walls haven’t fallen down, we haven’t been struck by lightning. It’s okay. Come in. And then they will say, “No one told me it was in a church,” and I will say to them it’s okay; I’m not quite sure what you’re expecting but welcome. And by the end of it, once that anxiety has come down, they will remark it wasn’t so bad after all, this is good – and that’s why we do what we do.

“We have got a team of people who are passionate about young people and growing the church from that perspective, and also looking at church from a different perspective, not just the traditional Sunday morning meeting.”

The beauty of Messy Church is providing God’s message to people who would not otherwise hear it, says Kate Charalambous, who helps lead Messy Church.

This alternative to a regular service draws in local families who would usually never dare to enter the hallways of a church with its non-threatening and creative approaches to helping people connect with each other – and to God.

Based on an American model, Messy Church encompasses three key elements: hands-on, creative arts experiences, a church celebration, and a meal. The craft activities run for about 45 minutes, church for about 15 minutes, including some Bible verses and singing, and dinner for an hour with grace sung by all.

Since its inception about 10 years ago, the church has provided a much-needed informal place of fun, friendship and fellowship for the local community after many families left in the late 1990s when the main source of employment for the township, the SEC, shut down. It was a significant transition for the Latrobe Valley community. The COVID-19 pandemic also resulted in many people no longer attending church, especially young people.

The significantly low socio-economic status of the township has also been impactful. Kate said the statistics for the area include the highest rate of domestic violence, and substantiated claims for child abuse were phenomenal.

However, seeing families that generally would come to The Salvation Army for support, attend Messy Church, and interact with their children was hugely rewarding for the team.

“It’s probably family time that they would not otherwise have every other day of the week,” Kate said.

“And here they are in this supportive environment where everybody else is having family time too, supporting their children to do an activity that is reflective of God.”

About 10 church members from Latrobe Valley Salvos form the Messy Church core team, and they also multi-task. Kate is also the Songsters leader at the church, while the other Messy Church leader, Donna Bosdorf, is the Young People’s leader. Peter Roberts, who takes photos on the night so everyone can view what has happened, is the bandmaster, and Sue Pilgrim works in the kitchen. While the corps officers participate whenever possible, they fully support the team and their mission.

The Latrobe Valley Salvation Army encompasses the Moe, Traralgon and Morwell regions, and Myla Bennett, who undertakes community work for the church, has been key in making connections with the local community, inviting them to Messy Church plus those who have accessed the Doorways program services.

Connection is key to growing healthy relationships within the families that attend once a month or more with the Salvos team.

“It’s seeing families and bringing them together,” Kate said.

“We have one family who never went to church and have pretty much been with Messy Church since its conception. They also come to café church too. They would not have come had we not established that relationship at Messy Church. We try to make it so that if we are going to sit down and have a conversation with people about the stuff that we’ve talked about, we do it at dinner time and process what’s happened throughout the night.

“There is a bit of a toing and froing process of trying to get to the right amount of time spent doing craft and messy stuff versus church versus dinner.”

Some of the creative projects that came out of a recent Messy Church afternoon at Latrobe Valley Salvos.

The team can have anywhere between five and 50 people attend church – they just never know the exact number who will turn up from one month to the next. So, the idea is to try to instil God’s message through small snippets of information that they can learn.

“It’s about saving one soul at a time because people have not experienced church before,” Kate said.

“It has been a really balancing act – how much is too much for people who aren’t familiar with God?”

Catering for the community meal has changed dramatically during the past few years and has proven to be a balancing act. Prior to COVID, the local pizza and fish and chips shops provided free food but closed after the pandemic.

So, now the catering rests on the team’s shoulders, and it has been a challenge, especially as they never know the exact number of people who will attend each month. The local Doorways program has contributed with food donations, such as bread, which has then been made into pizzas.

“It’s about saving one soul at a time because people have not experienced church before”

“There are days when you think, oh my goodness, we’ve got food for 30 people because that’s what it’s been for the last three months, then all of a sudden, you’ve got 10 families rock up, and we just can’t just drive down the supermarket to get extra food,” Kate reflected.

“So yes, that it’s been fun. It does take some creativity!”

While a donation is welcomed each month, it’s not compulsory, and often, Messy Church team members dig into their own pockets and purchase whatever needs to be bought. Church members are generous, too, including providing the much-loved ice cream every month.

The older generation may be unable to provide financial support but will get on their knees and start praying for the team.

The local Jumble Shed has come to the rescue, too, with arts and crafts supplies and containers of paint. The children get excited with regular themes featured at Messy Church. For example, tucking into hot dogs and footy Frankfurts at grand final time. Craft activities have a theme, too. For example, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world.’ The team always tries to do something for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, too, because the children might not have access to funds to buy a present for their parents/caregivers/significant other.

The children are also encouraged to remember the Bible verses and are rewarded with a prize at the following church meeting if they can recite their Bible verse learned a month before to help reinforce the message.

A rewarding component for the Messy Church team is seeing families go from being quite timid and unsure about themselves to developing relationships with church members and a relationship with God they get to watch grow over time. The children also grow through the message about God.

Kate is passionate about her leadership role and says seeing the joy of children’s faces continually motivates her to keep serving the community.

“It’s not until you stop and look at it or do something like this and you kind of go, yeah, we have really made an impact on these kids,” Kate said.

‘Bible bashing’ is always strictly off the agenda. On the table is a listening and attentive ear with a non-judgemental attitude.

“It’s about just accepting people and welcoming them,” Kate said. “And showing God’s love through our actions more so than necessarily what we say.”




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