CLEVELAND, Ohio (BP) — A church planting renaissance is on the horizon in an unlikely locale. Southern Baptists in Cleveland believe they’re on the edge of something big — a church planting movement that could change the city.
But they’ll need Southern Baptist partners from elsewhere to see it come to fruition.
“Cleveland needs people who love Jesus,” said Dan Ghramm, a North American Mission Board church planter in West Cleveland. Among the 65,000 people in the area where he works, Ghramm says there are “less than 300 to 400 people in a Gospel-preaching church on Sunday morning.”
The numbers don’t get better in other places in metro Cleveland. Forty-two percent of Clevelanders aren’t affiliated with a religious body — Christian or otherwise. Only 5.5 percent are in evangelical churches, compared to almost 40 percent in the state of Mississippi.
Despite the fact that Southern Baptists have been involved in Cleveland since the 1950s, there are only eight Southern Baptist churches within the city limits — or one SBC church for every 53,000 people. Five of those churches are less than five years old. Include the population and churches for all of Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties, and that’s one SBC church for every 42,500 people.
Southern Baptists in Cleveland and throughout North America are working together to change that through Send North America: Cleveland — an effort to reach the metro area by connecting church planters with established churches in other parts of the nation.
Send North America is the North American Mission Board’s national strategy to mobilize and assist individuals and churches to get involved in hands-on church planting in 29 major cities and other areas throughout the continent. Through Send North America, NAMB will come alongside Southern Baptist churches that are not directly involved in church planting and help connect them to a church plant. And NAMB will partner with Southern Baptist churches already planting churches to help them increase their efforts.
Kevin Litchfield, Send North America: Cleveland’s city coordinator, sees Southern Baptists in the city at the front end of something big.
“I’ve never seen this much God-activity in our area,” said Litchfield, who also serves as a church planting catalyst for Cleveland Hope, the local Baptist association in Cleveland. “This time last year we had two church planters in the pipeline. If we really went at it, we could have 20 right now. We could potentially see 15 to 20 churches planted next year.”
When Litchfield first came to the association in 2006, less than 2 percent of the association’s budget was going toward church planting; today, it’s nearly half (47 percent).
That kind of progress will be required to meet the goals that the Cleveland strategy group has established for the city: starting 100 churches over the next five years and 256 by the year 2020.
To reach those ambitious goals, Southern Baptists in and around Cleveland need the help of partners elsewhere. The local strategy group already has built partnerships with churches in Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma, among others, but more are needed.
Churches interested in partnering through Send North America: Cleveland can get started by visiting namb.net/cleveland and clicking on the “Mobilize Me” button.
The Cleveland local strategy group has divided the 1.7 million people in Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties into eight regions, aiming to find a church planter to start a hub church in each region. Those hub churches will, in turn, start multiple other churches. They also plan to start a church planting school within each region. The strategy group tentatively expects to launch five of the eight regions within the next two years.
Besides the regions, the group plans to start at least 39 African American or intentionally multi-cultural churches within the Cleveland city limits. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 53 percent of Cleveland residents are African American.
Another critical component of the plan is the city’s Gateway Church network. Having already started three churches, the network will soon open up a church planting residency initiative to train higher-resourced church planters in Cleveland.
Yet it’s church planters like Greg Clark who are the core of the Send North America: Cleveland’s plans to reach the city. Clark, who still works as a county corrections officer, started Alive Church in 2010 in an effort to reach people who wouldn’t attend established churches in Garfield Heights, a Cleveland suburb. About 35 people attend the church on a typical Sunday — many of whom wouldn’t feel comfortable elsewhere.
“I believe there are some people that will never be reached by the existing churches,” Clark said. “The number one way to reach these people is to keep bringing up church planters and starting new churches that will reach them.”
Alive Church currently is the only Southern Baptist church in Garfield Heights.
James Edwards, whose church sponsored Alive Church, believes good days are ahead for the church in Cleveland. The pastor of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church and longtime Cleveland resident looks forward to being a part of what God is going to do in the city.
“I look at this city like when Jesus was standing over Jerusalem and crying out for the city,” said Edwards, who has lived in the city more than 50 years. “He’s telling His disciples that the harvest is white, the laborers are few. I see people coming to Cleveland, partnering with us to plant churches, seeing people actually come to Christ, learning to be with Jesus like they’ve never been before. Learning more about Him and following in love with Him.
“That’s what I see happening in Cleveland.”
Tobin Perry is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To view videos about Send North America: Cleveland, visit namb.net/cleveland.