By Mark Kelly
Something stirred in Gail Powell’s heart when she heard about the number of
lost people living in Cleveland, Ohio.
Her father was a Southern Baptist missionary in Cleveland when she was a
child, but she’d laid down roots at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida,
where she served as a volunteer in the missions and evangelism office. However,
when leaders at her church shared their vision of starting new congregations in
Cleveland she felt God leading her to move there and help plant a church.
“Praying for the city of Cleveland showed me that when you pray for
something God may want you to do more than just pray,” says Gail.
A few weeks later, she downsized her belongings and left her home to join a
team planting Church of the Hills, a new congregation in Nordonia Hills, a
growing suburb southeast of Cleveland. Learning to navigate the transit system,
checking out a support group for sight-impaired people, serving hamburgers and
hot dogs at a YMCA day camp—everything she does is focused on loving and
serving people who need to know the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Gail’s decision is just one way God is moving in an exciting church planting
partnership in Greater Cleveland—the North American Mission Board’s current
Strategic Focus City. Local churches and congregations from across the country
are applying the best insights of veteran church planters to launch 19
congregations in 2006 and 2007.
More than 200 volunteers from partner churches prayer walked, conducted
surveys and helped with community events this year. They unloaded and set up
displays at a Chamber of Commerce business expo in March, then helped in June
with a bicycle race and 10K run. In July, a team from Central Baptist Church in
Corbin, Kentucky, joined Gail Powell at the YMCA day camp—making snow cones,
running carnival games, and serving meals.
Partnerships between Cleveland Hope and churches like Olive Baptist Church
are yielding significant insights into how new churches are started
Greater Cleveland’s three counties are home to 1.7 million people from 117
countries—the vast majority of whom have no relationship with Jesus Christ,
says missionary Randy Chestnut, executive director of the Cleveland Hope
initiative. Previous church planting efforts in the area had met with little
“Over the 10 years prior to 2004, 11 Southern Baptist churches were planted
in this association, but only one survived,” Randy says. “We determined that
one of the factors contributing to so many misfires was the failure to develop
strong, healthy partnerships with sponsoring churches.”
In the past, starting a new church might have been at the initiative of a
single congregation that invested large sums of money for several years—and
resulted only in one new congregation. Or a few churches may have helped
support a new work for one or two years—often not enough time for a fledgling
church to become self-supporting.
The strategy in Cleveland is to develop deep partner relationships in order
to start strong new churches.
“We have 42 partner churches from 15 states providing prayer support,
missions teams, and financial support,” Randy says. “Three churches—Olive
Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida, First Baptist Church in Springdale,
Arkansas, and Cuyahoga Valley Church here in Cleveland—have partnered with more
than one church plant. Cuyahoga Valley Church has sponsored six new churches in
the area in the past 22 months.”
Multiplying new churches, rather than just adding them, is another key to
successful church planting.
“All our new churches in Cleveland must sign a covenant to plant a church
locally within the first 24 months of their first service,” Randy says. “Three
of our church plants already have begun partnering with new works in inner-city
Planting churches that have an Acts 1:8 vision of starting churches
themselves—locally (Jerusalem), across the state (Judea), around North America
(Samaria) and globally (uttermost parts)—sets a powerful dynamic in motion,
says George Thomasson, senior associate pastor of another Cleveland Hope
partner, Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Florida.
“Several years ago, I was pastor of a church that was exploding with growth
in a city of 1 million people,” George says. “The Lord asked me a question:
‘How do you expect to make a significant impact on 1 million people by just
growing one church?’
“I realized that even if we had 20,000 in attendance, it still would be just
a drop in the bucket,” he says. “We needed to grow our church, but we also
needed to reproduce ourselves into other churches that would multiply as well.
We needed to stop adding and begin multiplying.”
Cleveland won’t be won to Christ by merely adding churches, says Rick
Duncan, pastor of Cuyahoga Valley Church in Cleveland.
“Within a five-mile radius of our building, there are at least 80,000 lost
people. Our church can’t begin to reach them all. Even adding another church
won’t reach them all,” Rick says. “We have to start churches that have Acts 1:8
DNA so we start a multiplying effect of churches starting churches that start
A vision of churches multiplying throughout Greater Cleveland has led
Cuyahoga Valley Church to make a remarkable investment in Church of the Hills.
Pastor Rick Duncan has asked for 150 members to volunteer as the core of the
new church plant. The church also has provided contact information on about 300
families living in the focus area.
Southern Baptists entered a new era of church planting as churches began to
realize that the Great Commission gives them, not a missions agency, the
responsibility to start churches.
Making disciples of new believers only happens in the context of
congregational life, and new churches reach the lost far more effectively than
established churches, says Phil Nelson, missions pastor at First Baptist
Concord near Knoxville, Tennessee.
“The new churches we’re partnering with have a vision for starting churches
themselves. That’s healthy. You want to plant a church that wants to plant
No, churches don’t fall from the sky and they don’t just magically appear.
Churches are started when God awakens a body of believers and reveals people
not being reached with the gospel. And then that body of believers responds to
God’s call and engages an unreached people with the gospel. The North American
Mission Board outlines a seven-step process for planting churches:
Step 1: Cast a vision for multiplying. Church leaders help a congregation
understand that their community is made up of many subcultures. No one church
can reach them all, but the Great Commission commands us to make disciples of
them all. The only way to reach all peoples is to partner with others and start
churches that will multiply themselves.
Step 2: Identify the ministry focus group. A church-planting church
carefully studies a people group currently not being reached with the gospel.
The “portrait” developed from that study will reveal how to communicate the
gospel in a way those people can understand.
Step 3: Enlist planters and partners while clarifying roles. Great care is
taken to be sure the church planter selected is a good match for the focus
group and has the right skills and experience. Multiple partners are recruited
to spread out the cost of the new work and give more people opportunities for
ground-floor involvement. The roles and expectations of those involved are
carefully spelled out to prevent misunderstanding.
Step 4: Discover and commit resources. The partner churches list the
resources needed to accomplish the vision—spiritual, human, material, and
financial. The challenge is shared with the partner churches, the state
conventions, local associations, and with the core group of the new work.
Step 5: Mobilize sponsoring congregations. Once a commitment to planting a
church has been obtained, the hard work begins. Members of the sponsor network
must get together regularly to pray, share what’s happening, sharpen their
focus, plan to meet needs, and discuss how to mobilize their members.
Step 6: Support birthing process and ongoing evaluation. Partnership is
always more than sending money. Sponsoring churches must understand the needs
that will arise as the new church develops toward maturity and be prepared to
Step 7: Celebrate and communicate church multiplication. Starting a new
church is a journey, with many points along the way to stop, gain new insights,
and celebrate what God is doing. Leaders capitalize on the excitement about one
new church to cast a vision for multiplying and start the process all over
Randy Chestnut hopes to show the people of Cleveland—known as the “City of
Bridges”—that God is the greatest bridge builder and that Jesus is the only
bridge to salvation and a hopeful future. Randy believes God is calling
Christians to be bridge builders in their communities. “The people of Cleveland
need to hear how the story of Jesus intersects their lives,” says Randy. “They
need to see how His story can become their story.”
So, what do you picture when you hear the word church? Is it an image of
stained glass and a tall white steeple? Or do you think instead of churches as
redemption centers that build bridges to their communities? Bridges that
provide ministries and take the gospel to new people.
Southern Baptists are making a difference in Cleveland because of
partnerships, and they’re bringing hope to a city in need by starting new
Mark Kelly is a writer living in Gallatin, Tennessee.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC