Community is Messy: The perils and promise of small group ministry, by Heather Zempel

Community is Messy  (Heather Zempel)The potential for small groups to facilitate spiritual growth has long been recognised. We find references to the early church meeting in the homes of believers and small groups known as ‘class meetings’ were a key in the Methodist movement promoted by John Wesley. In many congregations small groups supplement the work and witness of the gathered church.

For Heather Zempel, small groups are essential for promoting Christian community. Readers should not expect, however, to find guidance in this book on how to do it. Rather, the writer uses her experience to draw attention to the challenges and problems of small groups.

In regard to the title, Heather says that community is messy because it involves people, and people cannot be organised or controlled exactly as we might wish. In any group there will be a variety of people with their own personalities and agendas. The leader’s role is to create an environment where people learn to trust each other and be open to the Holy Spirit.

Whatever the intention, goal or focus of a small group, Heather is convinced that this should not dominate in such a way that personal exploration is inhibited. Spiritual life in the church should be directed towards helping people grow in faith. Discipleship, she says, is a journey, not a destination and it is a whole of life journey, not an eight-week class.

Heather acknowledges that there is no universal template for group life in the church. We must be willing to experiment and to recognise that what worked yesterday may not work today. She is in favour of time-limited groups rather than groups that require never-ending commitment and encourages sensitivity towards leaders who wish to finish or have a break. Such leaders should not be pressured to continue.

The author works in a large church in Washington DC. Much of what she says may have little direct relevance in a different setting and form of church life. For all this, she has some thoughtful observations on creating and maintaining Christian community.

John Meredith

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