Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

How to See the Possibilities in the Mess of Community

  • Whitney Hopler Contributing Writer
  • Updated Oct 16, 2012
How to See the Possibilities in the Mess of Community

Church small groups are messy because they involve relationships with broken people in this fallen world. It’s never simple or stress-free to be in community with other imperfect people, but it’s always worthwhile, because God will use community to transform your life.

The only way to truly grow into the person God wants you to become is to participate in community, which teaches you how to fulfill the greatest commandments: loving God and other people. So don’t be afraid to plunge into the mess by leading a small group at your church. Here’s how you can discover and fulfill the potential for growth that’s there:

Acknowledge and identify the mess. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re encountering a messy situation in your church’s community. Then identify what type of mess it is, which will help you figure out what to do about it. Sin messes (situations in which people are rebelling against how God wants them to live) need to be cleaned up by encouraging people to confess their sins and helping them through the healing process. Relational messes (conflicts between individuals) need to be navigated by following the Bible’s principles for relationships, such as loving, serving, honoring, forgiving, encouraging, and confessing to one another. Life messes (crises such as a serious illness, a divorce, or a job loss) need to be cared for by others in the community providing support throughout the crisis.

Ask God to give you His perspective on the mess. God often uses messes to reveal issues that had previously been hidden but need to be dealt with now for community to be healthy. Invite God to teach everyone involved what He wants them to learn from the mess, and to help you see His redemptive purposes for it.

Discover the roots of the mess. Ask good questions about the situation that can help you understand why it became messy and how you can best approach it to work for healing.

Create a plan for walking through the mess together. Figure out which people can provide support, guidance, and assistance in the messy situation. Ask yourself two key questions: “How do we all grow from this?” and “How might God want to get glory from this?”. Then commit to a process for walking through the mess.

Experiment with different ways of making disciples for JesusRealize that you haven’t yet imagined all of the different approaches to discipleship that may work for the people in your small group. Consider your gifts, interests, and current sphere of influence, and then ask God to show you how He wants you to leverage those to create community and make disciples. When planning new approaches to your small group’s ministry, consider changes to how you all meet together to talk, pray, and study the Bible; how you serve people in need together, how you enjoy fun activities together, and how you participate in different worship services together.

Lead yourself well. As a small group leader, you’re acting as a role model for the people in your group, telling them to follow you as you follow Jesus. So become a person who other people believe is worth following by relying on God’s strength working through you every day and making it a priority to live with integrity and love. Surround yourself with the right friends: people who will encourage you and support you in your ministry work, people who will hold you accountable to confess and repent of your sins, and people who will recognize your potential and inspire to fulfill it. Ask God to help you develop a tough skin and a soft heart. Find a mentor and learn from him or her. Regularly check your motives for engaging in ministry and keep in mind that the only valid motive is to honor and glorify God.

Aim to grow people rather than programs. Measure your success as a church leader not by how well your programs are performing, but by how the lives of the people you’re ministering to are changing. Be intentional about engaging with the people in your group through meaningful conversations, shared experiences, and celebrating what’s happening in their lives.

Commit yourself for the long haul. Be patient, since discipleship is not a linear process, and real and lasting change occurs gradually over time. Keep in mind that discipleship has four dimensions: seeking, learning, influencing, and investing. Remember, too, that there’s no one-size-fits all approach to discipleship, since people with different personalities respond best to different types of discipleship experiences (from mentoring relationships to service projects or mission trips).

Make sure that your group resonates with real life.Establish a rhythm that reflects the culture of your church and surrounding community, as well as the demographics of the people in your group. Feel free to create a group that’s different from any other that has ever existed at your church.

Regularly evaluate and change the structures, systems, and processes you use for your small group. Don’t let your small group become stagnant; keep it fresh by constantly considering how you make it better and making changes to it often, as God leads you.

Practice hospitality. It’s crucial for you to practice hospitality if you’re trying to disciple people, because hospitality is about creating safe environments where people can hear the dangerous message of the Gospel and encounter God in their midst. Open your home to the people in your group, inviting them to come over for meals, fun activities (like games or karaoke), or simply to talk. If you can, invite people who temporarily need a place to stay to stay in a guest bedroom or sofa bed in your home.

Deal with the messes you make yourself. When, as a leader, you make mistakes that create messes in your group, take responsibility, humbly learn from the experience, and do your best to repair any damage that may have been done to relationships in your group.

Adapted from Community is Messy: The Perils and Promise of Small Group Ministry, copyright 2012 by Heather Zempel. Published by IVP Books, a division of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill.,  

Heather Zempel is the discipleship pastor at National Community Church in Washington, D.C., and the author of Sacred Roads: Exploring the Historic Paths of Discipleship.Visit her website at:

Whitney Hopler is a freelance writer and editor who serves as both a contributing writer and the editor of’s site on angels and miracles, at: Contact Whitney at: send in a true story of an angelic encounter or a miraculous experience like an answered prayer