Home Equipping Leaders Fresh Expressions UM Getting Messy in Augusta, Georgia: A Fresh Expressions Story

Getting Messy in Augusta, Georgia: A Fresh Expressions Story

By Brett DeHart

At Fresh Expressions United Methodist, we want to share the stories of amazing United Methodists cultivating Fresh Expressions of church across our connection. Here’s an inspiring story of hope from Brett DeHart in the North Georgia Annual Conference. If you would like Fresh Expressions training for your congregation, reach out to us at [email protected].

North Georgia’s Aldersgate United Methodist Church is located in the neighborhood that borders the world-famous Augusta National Golf Club, home of the annual Masters Tournament. As people moved out of the neighborhood and to the suburbs in the 2000s and 2010s, attendance numbers and vitality suffered at Aldersgate. Worship attendance dropped from six hundred to one hundred over the last two decades. After bursting at the seams with children and youth for years, the church had fewer than ten active kids (birth through high school) by 2020.

With a new pastor and the gift of desperation, the church explored various strategies for reaching new people in the early days of the pandemic. Following its longstanding heart for children and youth, Aldersgate was attracted to Messy Church, an intergenerational approach started in the United Kingdom in 2004.

Adaptive leadership guru Tod Bolsinger coaches, “For change to last, it must be a healthy adaptation of the DNA of the group.” Messy Church matched our church’s DNA of ministry for kids and youth. Also, our people were more comfortable with a ministry that could happen on our church campus.

The pandemic limited our ability to start Messy Church in its normal format of activities, celebration, and meal. Not wanting to wait, we held three drive-through events (Halloween, Christmas, Easter) to introduce the soon-to-be ministry safely and build an email database of potential new families.

Our first regular-format Messy Church was held in October 2021. We describe Messy Church as “a monthly interactive experience for kids and adults to explore faith together.” In adopting the model, Messy Church International asks that churches adhere to five values: Christ-Centered, All Ages Together, Creativity, Hospitality, and Celebration.

Brett De Hart Valentines
Photo credit: Brett DeHart

A normal Messy session last two hours, beginning with games as people arrive, a warm welcome, followed by activities for the whole family that connect to the day’s theme. We then head to the sanctuary for a time of celebration that includes an interactive Bible story, a song, and a prayer. Then we enjoy a meal together in the gym. Relationship building is goal one throughout the entire experience.

In the spirit of creativity, we have added unique touches to the monthly gatherings, such as a snow machine in January, green pancakes topped with Lucky Charms for St. Patrick’s Day, a waterslide in summer, truck-o-treat in October, a petting zoo in December (because Jesus was born among animals). And we tie in a biblical theme to each one.

After drawing hundreds of people to our initial drive-through events, we had only seven guests attend that first regular Messy Church session. I was feeling down, but one of our members reminded me that if we had seven new guests show up in worship one Sunday, we’d be dancing in the aisles in celebration.

Before long, we were averaging fifty people each month (not bad for a church that has one hundred in worship each Sunday). Our June pool party welcomed 130 people.

More importantly, we are seeing the same families come back time after time. We are judging our success by repeats. We see this ministry as more Crockpot than microwave. We value the opportunity to build long-term relationships over one-time encounters. We’d rather have fifty attendees that come back repeatedly than a thousand people reached briefly.

If I had to define our secret to success, I would say it is that we have created a safe place for kids and families to find community and Jesus. We talk a lot about being a place of grace and respecting the pace of grace.

A place of grace is a judgment-free zone where people feel comfortable to come as they are, no matter their social or economic status, their race, how they vote, or even what college football team they support (we are in the South). It is a safe place where they are known, accepted, and loved—even with messy, imperfect lives. It is a safe place where people can openly share their story, their hopes, and heartaches, without judgment.

We also work to respect the pace of grace (a concept I learned from Steven Barr, leader of Cast Member Church in Orlando). Different people participate with God’s prevenient grace at different paces. So, we want to walk alongside people as they encounter Jesus at their own pace. Our goal is to let God work. We want to be a place where people can come to wrestle with doubts and questions in the hope of finding authentic faith.

Stories tell us that we are achieving our hospitality aims. A teenager recently attended and commented to one of our servants, “The last church we visited was scary. This isn’t.” Yes!

Brett De Hart pool
Photo credit: Brett DeHart

In a recent meeting of our Cub Scout pack, the leader was reviewing summer events and encouraged people to attend the Messy Church pool party. A single mother made a facial expression that demonstrated she wanted nothing to do with any church offering (even though she is on our campus every week at Scouts). The leader, a non-church member who had only been to one Messy Church session six months before, vouched for us, assuring the woman, “Oh no, no. They aren’t like that. You will be comfortable there.” The leader and the woman were both at the pool party with their children!

Thanks to our participation in Messy Church, we have experienced amazing moments that we would never have had through our traditional offerings. A woman with cancer became a regular, and when her birthday fell on the day of our monthly Messy Church, she chose to spend her birthday with her Messy Church family. We bought a cake and balloons and sang “Happy Birthday.” Sadly, it turned out to be her last birthday, as she died just a couple of months later. Less than two weeks after her death, we had the opportunity to give her son a seventh birthday party at Messy Church.

Like other Fresh Expressions, we are working toward Messy Church maturing into a community of faith, church! We understand that our traditional offerings just aren’t what many of our Messy Church families want or need. So, the goal is not to move or “graduate” attendees into our traditional offerings. If that naturally happens, that’s perfectly fine, and it is starting to happen some. We met a new family at a Messy Church Fresh Expression experiment in a local park that we called “Eat, Pray, Play.” We held this experiment twice and deemed it a failure since only three new families attended. One of those families, though, started attending our on-campus Messy. After a few months, they visited our traditional Wednesday night kids’ activities. Now they are weekly attendees of our Sunday worship services.

An often-overlooked benefit to this effort is the transformation that occurs within our servants. This is one of the church’s key discipleship efforts. The truth is, many church people have far more head knowledge than they will ever need. They need opportunities to live out what they have learned, and Messy offers an excellent chance for that to happen. One of our regular attendees is a special needs child who requires one-on-one attention the whole night. One of our newer servants has stepped forward, saying that they feel God has called them to provide that care. It is a beautiful sight to see this servant inwardly becoming and outwardly living more like Jesus (discipleship); at the same time, the child is transformed by the love of Christ. This is what our faith is all about!

We consider ourselves in the early chapters of our story. The wonderful thing is that indirectly (or is it?), our traditional programs have begun to flourish again with increasing attendance and vitality in worship and kids’ and youth programs. Could it be that when God’s people get kingdom-focused that the Spirit lifts all things?

As Messy Church continues to mature, Aldersgate is now launching The Table Recovery Church applying lessons learned from Messy. The Table is a weekly experience with a meal and open sharing for those dealing with addictions, afflictions, and compulsive behaviors. We were recently awarded a grant to start a Single Parents Ministry to begin this fall. We can’t wait to see how God might work these complementary Fresh Expressions of church together.

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Brett DeHart has pastored United Methodist congregations in North Georgia for twenty years. He has a passion for reaching new people. The churches he has pastored have launched Messy Church, Recovery Church, and Dinner Church.

Brett was recognized with the Harry Denman Evangelism Award in the North Georgia Conference in 2023. While serving at Austell First United Methodist Church, his church won the city’s Business of the Year award for its service during the historic flood in 2009.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications from Florida State University and a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

Brett and his wife, Candy, were high school sweethearts and have been married for more than thirty years. They have two children.

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