Clearing the Way for Small Groups

Clearing the Way for Small Groups

How small groups became the central ministry at Zion Church

Zion Church is a large African-American multi-site church located in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Over 3,000 attend their 3 locations, and thousands more watch their services online. Small groups have been part of Zion Church since Pastor Keith Battle started it in 2000. In the beginning, though, they competed with men’s, women’s, and other affinity-based ministries. In 2009, Battle shifted the church to focus primarily on small groups. Inspired by Willow Creek and Saddleback, he knew they needed to zero in on their mission to meet, grow, and serve through small groups.

As Terri Parker, Director of Small Groups, puts it, Pastor Keith “cleared a runway and made small groups a priority. At that point we got rid of the ministries and really pushed people to small groups. Once we did that, we saw momentum build for moving people into small-group community.”

Though there were some bumps in the transition, the church members got on board because Pastor Battle championed the change. Today their small-group ministry is thriving. I was honored to interview the three women who make up their small group team to learn more: Terri Parker, Nadine Morrison who serves as Administrative Assistant and the lead for their Fort Washington and Online campuses, and Claire Lee who works on leader training and development.

Will Johnston: What role do groups play in the overall vision of Zion?

Terri Parker: Small groups are part of our mission statement. We want people to meet God, grow closer to him, and serve him. Small groups are our key ministry designed to help people grow closer to God. They provide the greatest setting for spiritual formation in a person’s life: building community, building relationships, and growing spiritually through biblical studies. They’re a major part of the discipleship process.

In my experience, most African American churches either don’t have small-group ministry, or if they do it’s not a major focus. Why do you think small groups have been so successful at Zion?

Nadine Morrison: We actually asked Pastor Keith that yesterday. It started with him. He championed small groups, which is really what made it foundational at Zion. He shared that when he looked over his life, one of the places where he saw the most spiritual growth was when he was in community with other Christians who were a little further along, and he was able to ask them questions about life and faith. His examination of his life led to us clearing the runway, as Terri puts it, to give groups the best chance to grow and succeed at the church.

My observation from watching the other pastors that were around Pastor Keith was that the churches they wanted to emulate were the Saddlebacks and the Willow Creeks—churches that had large, significant group cultures. I think that really played a part in it. We took it and made it our own, but they were influential. If you ever listen to Pastor Battle’s sermons, he will joke that we used to be called “Saddleblack.”

Claire Lee: Pastor Keith has said that often in African American churches you have serving and community, but they're separate from spiritual formation. You might serve and have community on the usher ministry or another ministry, and then formation would happen in Sunday school or some type of Christian education setting.

His desire was to have something where both of those would occur. So I’m getting my questions answered. I’m learning. I’m growing, I’m in community, and I'm serving with those same people.

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