Why is Church So Messy?

Margaret —  November 17, 2012 — 85 Comments

Community is Messy

My friend, Heather Zempel, is a stellar communicator, a gifted leader, and the discipleship pastor at National Community Church in D.C., where she serves on the teaching team and regularly preaches at weekend services. She's also author of Community is Messy: The Perils and Promise of Small Group MinistryI recently had the opportunity to ask Heather about what it takes to navigate the messiness of community
Q. Why did you write Community is Messy?

A. Anyone who has led a small group for more than two weeks has discovered that mess happens. For those who serve as small group directors, discipleship pastors, and volunteers who champion group life in their churches, navigating mess is often the unlisted but most demanding part of their portfolio. I wrote Community is Messy to encourage those group leaders and group ministry leaders that mess may not be a hindrance to community but a catalyst to the cultivation of deeper community. My prayer is that leaders can embrace the mess and the promise that God can write his story of redemption through the mess. 

Q. You had an unorthodox path going from engineering to ministry. How does your background inform your understanding of community?

A. I have two degrees in environmental engineering—not a very traditional path into ministry. But small group leaders and environmental engineers have a lot in common. Both strive to engineer environments where growth happens. When I think about community, I picture treatment lagoons and pig farms. When I think about spiritual growth, I consider the differences between static friction and kinetic friction and remember the diversity of strengths in physical properties reflected in the modulus of elasticity. That’s all in the book.

Q. You talk in the book about valuing people over programs. Why is this important?

A. In the church, we tend to invest lots of time, energy, and resources into developing and maintain programs. I think we do that because programs are easy to measure. The problem is that people aren’t discipled by programs. They are discipled by relationship. I would much rather pastor people than manage programs, but that takes focus and regular examination of priorities

Q. What’s a story of mess from your own life that reveals God’s redemptive work?

A. There’s always mess in my life, and I think it gets especially messy when we wear multiple hats with people—pastor, mentor, leader, boss, friend, etc. Here’s one that happened just a couple months ago. I was talking to a young leader about her calling, and I sincerely thought I was building her up with encouragement. When I came to the end of everything I knew to affirm her, I said, “I don’t know what else to say.” She responded with a look that seemed to be a mix of anger and hurt and said, “You’ve said enough.” At that moment, I didn’t know whether to jump across the table to strangle her or to hug her. Everything in me wanted to strangle her, but the little pastoral instinct I possess informed me that the words I had intended for good had been received negatively. That situation led to a number of productive conversations about how I lead, how she grows, how I grow, and where God is at work polishing off the rough spots in both of us. Many times, messes that are navigated with prayer, honesty, and a commitment to honoring the other lead to growth on all sides.

Be sure to follow her on twitter, @HeatherZempel, here.


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85 responses to Why is Church So Messy?

  1. Wow. This sounds really interesting. I’d love to get a chance to read a copy!

  2. Absolutely love Heather. Have heard her speak via podcast. Would love to read her book. Perfect for me as I am currently leading small groups for moms at our church.

  3. Great post. I would love to read Heather’s book.

  4. I have never read any of Heather’s books. I am looking forward to checking this book out.

  5. Create small groups at my church would like to learn more….

    • Hey Mitch. Thanks for creating small groups at your church. It’s a big adventure and a big responsibility and sometimes just a big mess! Thanks for having the courage to pioneer it.

  6. Yes – every single small group that I have been involved with in my church has been messy. However, not all have been healthy and productive. I think it does take trial and error, grace, spiritual maturity on the leaders part and commitment from all members to do life together and be real. Of course, non of this is possible without the power of the Holy Spirit and people seeking God’s glory above all else.

    • Amen, Yvette. I think it’s important for leaders to remember that our job is not to change people. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit. Our job is to engineer environments that make it easy for people to encounter His presence.

  7. I don’t do community at all well. I wish I did, but really I don’t know how. I have a demanding, stressful job and at the end of the day I have pretty much given everything I have. And i’m an only child who was raised by a nonsocial mother. How does someone like me do this?

    • Elisa, you are being very brave to ask how. One thing i wonder is are you pouring yourself into work to avoid community? Reaching a balance in work and personal time is important on many levels. Next, find a safe community, meaning – loving people who will come along side you. You will find it worth the risk becoming vulnerable. There will be a richness added to your life. Take it slow, small steps out of your comfort zone. One thing I love about God is He is a relational being, and He is into the process. All the best to you on your exciting, dangerous adventure! ( :

    • Hey Elisa- I echo Kim’s affirmation of your courage. I’m not sure ANY of us do community super well. I think one of the biggest strategies of the enemy is to isolate us and then to tell us we can’t be well related to others. I’m praying that God would guide you into the right relationships at the right time.

  8. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention! I will begin pastoring a new church next month that does not have a small groups ministry. This will hopefully be a great resource as we plan and develop this important ministry of relationships and discipling! Thank you!

  9. Ministry is messy… Community is messy… My pastor husband says regularly, “I’m a mess. You’re a mess, yet God doesn’t want to stay in the mess.” Grateful for God’s abounding, faithful grace…

    • Melody- as a pastor’s wife, you certainly know about mess! And like your husband, I have a to claim my own messiness. I’ve discovered that the more I try to engage and minister to those in mess, the more I discover how much of a mess I am. Definitely thankful for God’s grace!

  10. Who would not want to read this book? Relationships are messy – so how can a community of unique individuals NOT be messy. The question is what to do about it. Even in the early church we see writers – James being one – who has to talk to the church and the people and get them back on the right track. As Ann Voskamp says: All is grace…
    Awesome opportunity.
    Thanks for this.

    • Hey Janis! You are so right! We wouldn’t have most of the New Testament if the church hadn’t been messy! Most of the apostolic writings were written to churches and individuals to sort out messes. Whether it was bad teaching in Colosse or people getting drunk off communion in Corinth or Paul reconciling runaway slaves to their masters…lots of mess.

  11. I would love to win this! Small group within a church setting makes me feel all itchy inside, so I’d love to learn more about why it’s necessary and beautiful, because that has not typically been my experience.

    • Hey Erin- I’ve had my fair share of bad church small group experiences, as well. I think the church has often over-promised and under-delivered what can happen in a small group environment. What I DO know is that every major step forward in my spiritual growth has happened within the context of relationship. Discipleship is inherently relational…and that means it’s inherently messy. Hope you find ways to scratch that inside itch that are full of hope, fruitfulness, and fun.

  12. Small group ministry tends to be one of the messiest ministries, fraught with pitfalls. Would love to read Heather’s insights and so respect her church and her boss.

  13. I would love to read this book! I facilitate the Women’s bible study group at our church and my husband and I are on the leadership team for our small group Sunday school class so we spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing relationships, community and discipleship. We are learning as we go! I’m sure your book would be very insightful.

    • Hey Karlee- Wow. With the experience that you and your husband have, it sounds like y’all could write your own book on this topic! Thank you so much for creating environments where people can grow closer to God and closer to one another. I think the best kind of learning happens “on the go.” Would love to hear more about what you are learning right now.

  14. Heather, you are very brave not to run away (maybe you really had no choice), but to stick it out and work through that terrible moment with the church member you inadvertently offended. Small groups are the only way to really connect with other members, but when you are new to a church, it is VERY scary. I remember arriving at my church (with my messy life) one Sunday evening, early in my time there. I thought we had Sunday evening service, and I could be invisible. But NO! There was a small group with my PASTOR. I was NOT READY for that level of involvement, excused myself to the restroom, and hustled out the front door. I smile to remember this, since I really value sharing in small groups now, but the question remains – how to welcome the stranger or new person, in a gentle, non-threatening way.

    • Hey Robyn! Wow, thanks so much for sharing your story! I’m sure it’s very helpful for others to hear your experience. We are constantly looking for ways to create environments where people can engage at their own pace. It’s hard to jump from a worship gathering of 200 to a small group living room of 8! For what reason, we’ve found that having some “mid-sized” groups can be a helpful next-step. Larger groups (around 50 people) that come together for a lesson or a meal and then break into smaller groups for discussion. It eases people into deeper levels of community.

      And for whatever its worth, I wasn’t the brave one. 🙂 It was that young leader who decided to stick with me, had the courage to keep her ear open to my voice, and who is one of our best leaders at NCC who was really the brave one.

  15. I would love a copy of this book! As part of a small group ministry, I know that we have to find a way to foster community on all levels with God’s people.

  16. My husband’s really struggling with having to serve and stay in a ‘messy church’.I would love for him to read this book and be enlightened and encouraged. Thank you

  17. Looks like it could be a good read, would love the chance to check it out!

  18. Life as an individual is messy, so life with others will certainly be messy. Sounds like a great book!

  19. I’ve never read her stuff, but the book sounds great! I hope I get a chance to read it!

  20. Wow. It’s so encouraging to read those words. Self condemnation turns to understanding patience as I read those words. Thank you

    • Hey Robin. Glad to hear you are encouraged. I’ve stopped praying for patience, personally. I find that God only answers those prayers by bringing me more messes to exercise patience in. 🙂 Nonetheless, keep walking in patient hope that God will write his story of redemption against the messes we find ourselves in.

  21. Love Heather and her passion for community. Can’t wait to read the book.

  22. I would love a chance to read this! I am a youth director and am trying to build community within the youth!

    • Hey Kat. I LOVE youth directors. Sometimes I think I should quit what I’m doing to do what you do. Then I realize I’m probably not gifted enough. 🙂 So grateful that you are investing in teenagers.

  23. WOW. Sounds like a great book. Relationship in the church is exactly what we need!!

  24. Even if I don’t win a copy, I’ll be buying it. The title itself is intriguing, not to mention we have been in some messy small group situations. Some I ran from and some I attempted to face.

    • Deanna- I think my first reaction is ALWAYS to run. Seems like the messes run faster than I do. 🙂 Praying for clarity and direction int he small group messes you are facing right now. Have a blessed week!

  25. This is definitely on my reading list. This is so needed in the church today!

  26. If people ignore their mess in groups, it’s a social gathering. If people bring their mess and allow people to work with them in their mess, it’s community. As the volunteer Discipleship/Small Groups Team leader at my church’s young adults ministry, I know I’m in a messy business. I’ve seen testimonies of people receiving freedom from allowing fellow Christ followers to walk together on their journey. It may be messy, but it’s so worth it!
    Looking forward to reading your book, Heather.

    • So true, Uriah! Thank you for volunteering in your young adults ministry– that might be one of the messiest places in the church. Blessings on you as you dare to engage in the raw places of life with people for the purpose of seeing transformations. And you are right, it IS so worth it!

  27. I have been a part of a small group for years. Just starting out to lead, teach, & disciple girls young than me.

    • Kristen! Thank you so much for leading girls! It took me a while to grow comfortable with the idea that younger girls might actually want to hang out with me and that I had anything worth offering them. Thanks for having the courage to step out and do that!

  28. Have been involved in small groups for years. Very involved in a rural church of 300. When done “giving” with youth ministry it is hard to “give” to a small group. Your book sounds like a great read. HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

  29. Great interview and sounds like a great book, would love to read. =)
    Nicole @ Three 31
    nicole.m.hutchison (at) gmail.com

  30. Awesome! In addition to being passionate about relational ministry especially with moms and young families…we are living in some of the messiest seasons of life with kids under age 7 and it’s SO refreshing to find God in the mess via REAL community. Would LOVE to share your book with my MOPS (mothers of preschooler leaders). Blessings for sharing your heart…especially during these “seasons” that can be messy for family.

    • Janine- I love MOPS! What a great community for women. And one that knows much better than I do how mess can lead to beautiful things! Thanks for walking through the mess and giving to others through the mess.

  31. Sounds really interesting

  32. I’ve experienced first hand how small groups can be messy, but I’ve also found hope and healing within them. Can’t wait to read this book, hope I win!

  33. Sounds like an awesome book with much needed encouragement!!!

  34. I am defintely intrigued by this book….thankful that I am surfing FaceBook a bit and procrastinating starting to bake Thanksgiving pies 🙂 Small groups are essential! Happy Thanksgiving!

  35. I downloaded a copy to my kindle and am half-way through it. I plan to get one for each of my life group leaders!

  36. Very interested in this book as I believe strongly in the title as a Life Group leader

  37. I would love to read this book! I grew up as a pastor’s kid and have been church planting with my husband for almost 8 years now. I have seen my share of messy community and relationships but I’ve been given glimpses of true community. I really relate to the idea that the “success” or progress of programs are easier to measure than actual relationships with people. Right now I’m at a point where I am very weary and would love to be re-energized and renewed.

    • Hey Amy- as a PK and a pastor’s wife, you must know better than most the reality of mess in the Church. Praying that you would see more and more of the beauty that can come out of those messes and experience real community with people. For people in your role, it’s hard to find others who you can be yourself with and real with. I pray you would find good friends and see God’s hand of hope and redemption in the midst of the messy work God has called you to.

  38. This book sounds like a fascinating read. I always appreciate honesty, especially when approaching the relationships and God in the midst of our “messes”.

    • Hey Craig- Honesty was definitely one of my goals with this book. In fact, as an extra measure, I had a couple of the people on my team write commentary in the margins to make sure I was being honest about what we are doing. Some of it is quite funny.

  39. The title has me hooked. I direct a small group (life group) ministry and am a ministry leader for our church’s Celebrate Recovery – so it sounds like this is a book for me!

    • Penny. Wow. Celebrate Recovery! You are one of my heroes. You see first-hand massive mess. And at the same time, massive hope and healing! So cool. Thanks for jumping into the lives of people to see them grow.

  40. My husband and I are new small group leaders and are in the “mess” of it. I’d love to read more!

    • Christi- Welcome to the world of small group leadership!! Thanks for having the courage to jump in. You will probably hit a point before the first year is up when you will want to quit. 🙂 Hang in there! It will be messy, but you will also get to see God do amazing things in your community.

  41. Messy has a way of helping us see Jesus with new eyes!

  42. Love the title and the premise. Lot’s of books out there with the perfect ideal set out before us that we will never reach. To be able to examine community as most churches experience it will be a nice change of pace. Looking forward to reading this.

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