Community Is Still Messy

In the Beginning, God created. And with the sound of his voice, galaxies were hurled into orbit, light beamed from the heavens and waters covered the earth. Valleys dug deep and mountains sprung high. Birds flew in the air and fish swam in the seas. Insects filled the ground and dinosaurs thundered across the land. The man and the woman, made in the image of their Author and Creator, were placed in the Garden, enjoyed perfect community, and were surrounded by the presence of God. And God declared it all good.

Two chapters later we messed it all up. And that wasn’t the end.

Then Cain and Abel came along. Murder, jealousy, mess.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph take center stage in multiple family meltowns. Which resulted in mess.

There there’s Moses. I like to think of Moses as the first small group leader with a group of people who didn’t follow instructions, complained, and who forgot miracles within hours. They were completely ADD. It was a mess.

Fast forward to David, the second small group leader in the Bible. He was running for his life and hid in the cave of Adullam where he was joined by men who were in trouble, in debt, or just discontented. Great. Mess.

Okay let’s skip over to the New Testament where we like to think Jesus came to clean it all up. But he was born in a stone feeding tough for animals. He called 12 men to follow him- fisherman, tax collectors, political revolutionaries—who bickered over who was going to be greatest in the Kingdom. And then one of them betrayed him and the rest scattered.

The majority of the writings in the New Testament are there because the early church was messy. Consider the church in Corinth. Incestuous affairs, lawsuits, divorce and separation, idol worship, big egos, doctrinal fighting, sexual promiscuity, people getting drunk while celebrating communion. Now you know you have a problem in your church when people are getting drunk on communion. And it must have been before they invented those little plastic shot glasses…

And yet as we read these stories, we see the hand of God writing his own story in them and through them. Emerging from the mess is the fingerprint of God writing the hope of the Gospel and his story of redemption.

Here’s the scary news. Community is messy. Messy community is not the exception to the rule; it is the rule. It always has been and on this side of eternity it always will be.

We often try to hide or downplay our mess and the mess of others. But what if mess is not something to be avoided or hidden away or swept under the rug. What if mess could be the environment that brings the community and transformation we most want to see?

Small groups are great. Then the people show up. And they drag their hurts, habits, hangups, and brokenness and dump them in our living rooms.

The moment we understand that community is messy becomes the defining moment of our leadership.

Small groups make our houses messy, our calendars messy, and they load up our inboxes with messy emails. We find ourselves navigating sin messes—gossip, anger, pornography. We encounter life messes—divorced parents, broken relationships, bad reports from the doctor, downsizing at the office, children who despite our best efforts to raise them in the ways of God choose to detour along another path. We face the tension of relational messes. Like the talkers—the long talkers, off-topic talkers, narcissistic talkers, super spiritual talkers, theologically divisive talkers, weird talkers and trash talkers. It’s the kind of mess that happens when thinkers and feelers unpack Romans together. It’s the mess of agreeing to agree on major doctrine and agree to disagree over minor doctrine only to learn that you disagree over what’s major doctrine and what’s minor doctrine.

I live in a world where mess abounds. The church I have the privilege of serving in Washington, DC is about 60% single and under the age of 35. One of the places I live and lead in the tension every day is in navigating tricky political issues with people whose passions and jobs are fueled by them. When Paul instructs us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn, I have the opportunity to practice that every 2 years.

Let me tell you about one tribe that has dared to embrace the mess in order to grow more like Jesus. It’s a group for young adults who work on Capitol Hill. On both sides of the aisle. I thought it was a great idea for a group and when the election season rolled around this past fall, I just assumed that group would be happy to multiply into two groups- elephants on the right and donkeys on the left. But they stuck together. They made a decision to watch all three presidential debates together. They prayed for one another—recognizing that the answers to those prayers could be detrimental to their own political strategies. They discovered community that transcended roles, responsibilities, and labels. They connected to a tribe that transcended all other tribal loyalties.

But they didn’t leave it there. They spent a group meeting studying James 5:16 and discussing the spiritual discipline of confession. Towards the end of the group, one of the group members spoke up and challenged, “Are we just going to talk about this or are we actually going to do it?” Now, that group meets twice a week. Not just for their regularly scheduled group but also for early morning confession.

Those brave twenty-somethings have learned that mess is not something to be avoided as a detriment to community. But something to be embraced. They’ve found that sometimes mess is a byproduct of growth. You make a decision to become more like Christ…and you find yourself rethinking what you believe and why you believe it. It gets messy. Sometimes mess is a catalyst to growth. You get thrown in with messy relational and political dynamics and you find yourself praying for and loving the one who was once your enemy.

Small groups are great. And then the people show up. And mess happens. Mess which can become the catalyst for, the byproduct of, the environment in which discipleship happens. We move from a program to the Body of Christ—a body broken and poured out to a world in need. The Body of Christ where hope and redemption are found.  

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Heather Zempel
After working as an environmental engineer for a few years and a policy advisor on Capitol Hill for a few years, Heather finally landed as the Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church in Washington, DC.