Resource Review: 'Community Is Messy'

Focus on the discipleship opportunity in small-group ministry.

Do you treat small-group ministry like a program or a discipleship opportunity? Heather Zempel, in Community Is Messy, urges readers to the latter. But she also admits the difficulty. She writes:

Discipleship is a whole life journey, not an eight-week class. It's about developing the fruit of the Spirit and spiritual gifts and looking more like Christ, not about checking off a set of boxes. It's a process of becoming, not a destination. There's no way to short-circuit discipleship. It's about turning every moment of every day into an encounter with God.

While many of us whole heartedly agree with her definition of discipleship, we realize that measuring discipleship and spiritual growth is difficult, even messy. So we resort to running our small groups—our main means of discipleship—like an eight-week class instead of a journey.

So how do we lead our ministries in a way that recognizes and honors the messy journey of discipleship? Zempel, who holds a degree in environmental engineering, suggests that small-group leaders must engineer environments that welcome true transformation and spiritual growth.

This focus on discipleship requires a lot more work and a lot more time. It requires life-on-life interactions that aren't scripted. It means intentionally investing in others and helping them see their potential. She writes that you need to be a little crazy in order to disciple others because "you have to see things in people that they don't see in themselves. And then you have to speak things into their lives or ask them to do things that they may scoff at or at least shake their heads and laugh at." It's messy, but according to Zempel, it's the way Jesus taught us: communities of believers living life together, learning about God along the way, and being drawn to him more and more.

More than anything, Zempel calls readers to value people more than programs. She calls us to be leaders who leave a legacy of relationships that we've invested in, and she gives great advice in being a strong leader: developing tough skin and a soft heart, being a life-long learner, thinking outside the box, modeling the life of Christ to others, cultivating a deep relationship with Christ, and embracing the mess of ministry.

Zempel also gives practical advice on handling "rogue" groups and finding a structure that fits your ministry. This combination of practical advice and focus on discipleship makes this one of the best books I've read on small-group ministry in a long time. It's especially helpful for coaches, directors, coordinators, and pastors who lead small-group ministries. On the other hand, small-group leaders can learn a lot from her focus on discipleship and being a strong leader that others want to follow.

Read "From Classroom to Laboratory" and "Life-on-Life Discipleship" for two excerpts from the book. You'll find a number of other articles from Zempel on our site as well. Buy the book today, which is also available in e-book form.

Heather Zempel is the pastor of discipleship at National Community Church in Washington, D.C., and has written numerous articles for


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