Brief Reviews, VOLUME 5

Heather Zempel – Community is Messy [Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0830837884″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”” width=”222″ alt= “Heather Zempel – Community is Messy”] A Messy Community for A Select Few

A review of

Community is Messy: The Perils and Promise of Small Group Ministry

Heather Zempel

Paperback: IVP Books, 2012
Buy Now: [ [easyazon-link asin=”0830837884″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ] [ [easyazon-link asin=”B008PDL5FI” locale=”us”]Kindle[/easyazon-link] ]

Review by Sam Edgin


Books are written for niches. They often draw a certain audience who happen to be interested in a particular subject, whatever those respective audiences and subjects may happen to be. It may be that the very best books – those which will inevitably be reprinted cheaply and sold in Barnes and Noble with the word “classic” splashed boldly on their covers – transcend subject matter through the twin powers of prose and story and appeal to a broader readership. However, it is none too hard to find proof that books written for a specific audience draw the most revenue. Case in point: at the writing of this article, the three top-selling books on Amazon are the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid – written for media-saturated elementary students; Killing Kennedy – a dance around political history and conspiracy by conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly for those who like the scintillating host and historical controversy; and America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t – another foray into the satirical goofiness of Stephen Colbert for admirers of his “truthiness” and skeptics of American exceptionalism.


Heather Zempel’s Community is Messy is one these. Not, that is, a book by a hyper-popular TV pundit, but a book written for a specific audience. Zempel is the Discipleship Pastor at a large, multi-site church in Washington, DC called National Community Church (NCC). They draw the gamut of young-to-middle-aged DC residents, from Capitol Hill interns and professional 20 to 30-somethings, to students and the homeless. They dwell in that holy grail of ministry worlds that is the successful business as mission. A coffee shop that they founded doubles as the meeting place for one of their congregations. Within this atmosphere Zempel’s main job is to develop small groups in a way that makes these people coming from all corners of the city feel a connection to the huge NCC community.


Amazon Bestseller List – Christian Theology

Community is Messy finds Zempel unwrapping layer by dirty-but-still-joyous layer of the small group culture at NCC that her job throws her right in the midst of. She packages friendly, simple strategies for small group ministry into chapters punctuated by quick anecdotes and comments by co-workers loaded with dynamic church-speak. This book is for people in ministry, prepared with the resources and time on hand to grow a meaningful small group culture.  She is quick and conversational. A single example or idea is not dwelt on long, and she does not hesitate to toss in a new story to segue to the next strategy. As you read you feel like she wants to be sitting next to you, laughing uncomfortably and nudging your elbow with hers as she makes another concise recommendation for how to set up your small group.



This may be exactly what you need to jump-start your ministry. Zempel lays out solid ideas for creating a small group culture that is thriving and prepared to deal with the most uncomfortable messes Christians can conjure up. She thrives here: in fearlessly confronting what so many like to ignore – that its probably more difficult to live the right way with a bunch of other Christians than it is to do just about anything else. As the Church is corporately beginning to dance with a Christian life that acknowledges its problems and flaunts its failures, perhaps Zempel is just the voice needed to help construct realistic discipleship.


Community is Messy falls heavily into its niche. If you happen to run small groups at an urban mega-church, Heather Zempel jokes her way through many things you probably need. Otherwise, this book offers a little more that a few good thoughts with an alluring title.



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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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