Messier than Expected

Messier than Expected

What happens when a small group takes ownership of missional living

Note: This article is excerpted from our resource Missional Small Groups.

When my husband and I started attending a new church in 2011, we knew we wanted to be in a small group. But we don't just like our small group; we've fallen in love. Our church is highly missional, and the mission is lived out through small groups. The group members always have their eyes open for opportunities to bless others.

It's been a growing experience for us. We've been stretched out of our comfort zones, and we're compelled to look for opportunities to care and serve. If there's one thing I've learned about being missional, though, it's that it's messy. It doesn't fall into neat boxes. It doesn't stick to normal lines. It doesn't even have a clear cause and effect. Regardless, though, there's a definite sense that you're doing what God calls his followers to do: show the love of Jesus to others.

Warming Up to Missional Living

A few months after we started attending, our group decided to throw a housewarming party for a woman who had been homeless. Now in an apartment with a young son, she had nothing—no silverware, no plates, no pans. She didn't even know how to cook. We showed up at her apartment on a rainy night. More than 15 of us stood in her small living room, giving her our gifts, helping her put things away. One couple brought a slow cooker with several recipes, offering to show her how to prepare them. The young mom was overwhelmed and quietly put the items away. We didn't know the right things to do or say, yet we stayed for over an hour just loving on her, laughing at jokes, sharing stories, and listening to music. We didn't know what our gifts would mean to her, but we tried to be Jesus' hands and feet … and that's all we could do.

Later that year, the young mom we helped desired to help others in the way she'd been helped. She let our small group know about an under-resourced mom and her two girls—and she wanted to work alongside us to bless her. This small family was on the cusp of homelessness. They had a home, but there wasn't much money left over for anything else—including food. When we talked to the mother and found out how badly they needed food, we set to work. We brought tons of groceries over to their home, filling their cupboards and refrigerator. The mom was overwhelmed by the bags of groceries brought by the eight relative strangers invading her home.

The biggest blessing, though, had nothing to do with food. Instead, it was the love we gave her daughters—a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old. Her younger daughter was born with a condition that has left her severely deformed. Her body remains the size of a 1-year-old, and she must be carried around like a baby, unable to walk or sit on her own. She also can't speak. Because people aren't sure how to act toward this young girl, many just look away.

I, too, was nervous to interact with this young girl, a million questions running through my mind. Despite those questions, two of us sat holding her while the rest of the group helped the mom put away the groceries. When I said "hello," she smiled so wide. A grin snuck onto my face. We held her, brushing through her hair with our fingers, telling her how beautiful she is. The woman with me had brought her own daughter who promptly asked what was wrong with this little girl. My friend quickly responded, "That's how God made her. Isn't she beautiful?"

By the time we left, the young girl was fist bumping us and laughing. I left feeling that I'd made a new friend, very different from how I thought I might feel afterward. I'll admit this was a tough experience for me. I was nervous about what it would be like, and I had questions that made me want to stand back. But God used this situation to stretch me, to remind me that each and every person is made in the image of God.

When Things Aren't Warm and Fuzzy

Just a few months later, one of our group members learned about a family of six living in a small pay-by-the-week motel room. We'd learned that our first step in missional living should always be to listen to people—to get to know them, and hear what their actual needs are, not just what we think they need. So we set up an evening to hang out at the motel with the family and walk with them to a nearby ice cream shop. Unlike our other experiences that left us feeling warm and excited about missional living, this experience left us with more questions than we could answer. The parents, in third-generation homelessness, simply don't know a lot of the things we take for granted: basic skills in cooking, cleaning, and parenting.

For many of our group members, it was more than disturbing. We wondered aloud at our next meeting whether we could help them at all. We asked and tried to answer hard questions: Can we help if they don't want help? Can the Department of Child Services do something? Do they need more than what we're able or willing to give? Are we putting our health and lives at risk by spending time in their motel room? What if we feel we know what they need more than they do?

As we've continued to build a relationship with this family over several months, the situation has only gotten more difficult. And it's taught us a valuable lesson: missional living requires getting into the mess with others—and it's probably messier than you anticipate.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't get involved. Through the struggles of missional living, our group has been forever changed for the better. We've become more generous, our eyes opened to our abundance. We've had to wrestle with real questions, which has deepened our relationships and caused us to lean into God's Word. Some of our group members, who had never read the Bible, have been compelled to see what it has to say about serving others. We've used our spiritual gifts more, some of us realizing for the first time how important they really are. We've become more missional individuals, always searching for people whom we can get to know and bless. My husband and I even invited an elderly man from that same motel over to our home for Christmas Day.

We've also learned that we can't depend on the church to program opportunities like this. Instead, we've taken ownership of the mission, and we're living it out daily.

It's made me realize why so few small-group ministries are engaged in true missional living: it's just too messy. How do you plan and program something like this? How do you keep group members from getting frustrated when things are uncomfortable? How do you teach group members the value in simply being present with others? How do you help people understand that we should obey Jesus regardless of the outcome?

I'm reminded, though, of how often Jesus was willing to step into the mess, including when he ate with Matthew's friends in Matthew 9. Why does ministry have to be neat and tidy? Life isn't. When we're on mission for God, we live our lives in a way that makes the kingdom present, that makes Jesus present. We live by God's values instead of society's values. We bring the love of God to each person we interact with. (And we experience the love of God in others.)

And all that can get pretty messy.

But that's the way we grow. God meets us in the tension we feel, offering to fill the gap with his strength, grace, and love. And we find that as we seek to bless others, we are blessed beyond our imagination.

—Amy Jackson is Managing Editor of; copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.


  1. When has your small group participated in something that required them to lean into God?
  2. What questions in this article resonated with you? What questions do you think your group members will have as you embark on missional living?
  3. What can be gained when a small group is on mission together?

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