Buckeye Renewal: Church Planting in the Rust Belt’s Rocky Soil
By Megan Fowler
church plant


David Wallover calls himself an “Ohio evangelist.” He describes Ohio with the nuance of a sommelier discussing wine. “Rural communities mixed with light industry,” Wallover’s description of northeast Ohio, sounds intriguing. He wants more people to check it out — and to stay and plant churches.

Since its formation in 2010, Ohio Presbytery has prioritized church planting, expanding the PCA’s presence in unreached swaths of Ohio. This isn’t “just a place to be from,” one pastor told byFaith in 2011. “It’s a great place to serve.” 

In many respects, Ohio Presbytery has fulfilled Wallover’s dream. During the past decade, the presbytery has particularized two churches and now has four mission churches or Bible studies in the works, demonstrating that a commitment to church planting doesn’t require large, wealthy churches. 

Planting in the Heartland

In 2014, Wallover, then senior pastor of Harvest Presbyterian Church in Medina, asked Mission to North America’s Alan Foster to put Ohio on his radar as he recruited church planters. Foster connected Ohio Presbytery with Mark and Marci Robertson, Ohio natives who had left for school and found work at a church out of state. The Robertsons returned to Ohio in 2016 to gather a core group in Cleveland’s Shaker Heights neighborhood. The Heights Presbyterian Church began public worship in 2016 and became Ohio Presbytery’s first church plant to particularize.

The following year, Jeremy King and his wife moved back to Ohio to work with the Robertsons. Two years later, King began gathering a core group in Mayfield Heights to launch Story Church, which became an official mission church in 2020.

In 2018, Ohio native Lee Hutchings moved his family back to Ohio to establish a core group in Canton, Ohio. Trinity Church particularized in 2020. In 2019, Resurrection Church in Cleveland called Jason Piteo to continue church-planting work that had started in Cleveland. 

Two pastors have also started Bible studies in deeply secular Ohio college towns: Kent and Oberlin. The churches and church plants all reflect the unique personalities of the church planters and the communities they want to reach. Ohioans pastor nearly all the mission or particularized churches started in the past decade.

Church planting seems to be snowballing in Ohio Presbytery, says King. “To see the presbytery as a whole and individual churches get behind that is really exciting.” 

Slow Work Among the De-Churched

The rapid succession of church plants can mask how hard the work is. In many respects, northeast Ohio feels more like New England than the Midwest. Cleveland hasn’t experienced the same economic revival as other Rust Belt cities such as Pittsburgh. There are more than 4.4 million residents in the 20-county region of northeast Ohio, yet only about a quarter of Ohioans consider themselves Evangelical Protestant (27%), while 22% identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nones.”

Piteo hopes that Ohio Presbytery will one day have a large church healthy enough to send out core groups for new plants.

King said Story Church is one of just a few evangelical churches in Mayfield Heights. Before returning to his native Ohio, Piteo worked with a church plant in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he said the Bible Belt ethos meant church plants could count on more visitors. But the church-planting landscape feels very different in Ohio, he said.

Many evangelicals in Cuyahoga County attend the region’s megachurches rather than seeking out a small neighborhood church. The post-Christian culture pervasive in Cleveland’s suburban communities means that residents do not think of church as the place for forming meaningful relationships. Instead, they look to their children’s sports teams or other activities, Piteo believes. 

King said that planting in a bedroom community such as Mayfield Heights makes it hard to instill a sense of being for a community when most of the community members work an hour away. He’s learned that loving his community might also mean loving the places where his neighbors work.

Church planters have also learned that northeast Ohioans aren’t always eager to embrace newcomers. “There’s a skepticism toward outsiders. It takes a long time in old urban centers and rural areas to build trust with people who live and work in those communities,” Wallover said. What’s more, he continued, “Ohio’s reputation for dull, gray industrial towns is accurate. But if pastors only see dismal towns and not the people who have hung on,  then you’re missing the richness.” 

Along with building trust, pastors must build an understanding among de-churched communities of what a pastor does and the value of a church in the neighborhood. Brett Barkley, Zion Reformed Church pastor and Ohio Presbytery’s missions committee chairman, says church planting in Ohio requires realistic expectations because the work takes time.

Piteo said he feels like he’s on the front lines of church planting. That’s exciting work, but hard work, too.

A Presbytery for Ohio

The pastors celebrate how the gospel is taking root. In October, Story Church received its first class of new members. “The people we have coming on Sundays now, and who are committed to community groups — these are people who didn’t belong to a church two years ago,” said Piteo. 

Piteo sees his congregations developing a new sense of hospitality and looking to invite others.

Wallover and the northeast Ohio church planters appreciate the sense of camaraderie in Ohio Presbytery and its commitment to growth through church planting. Ohio can be a great example, Wallover said, that “you can be faithful, godly churchmen who want to plant churches and be committed to presbytery.”

Among the items remaining on his church-planting wish list is to recruit an African American pastor who can plant a church in Cleveland or Akron. “If we are going to demonstrate the reconciling power of the gospel, we need someone to work with us to demonstrate it’s true. Those candidates are in such short supply in the PCA,” Wallover said.

Piteo hopes that Ohio Presbytery will one day have a large church healthy enough to send out core groups to plant daughter churches in nearby locations.  

Barkley and Wallover insist that the presbytery will stay true to its mission and strengthen relationships with people. Barkley also wants the presbytery to prioritize church revitalization, ensuring that existing churches are rooted and healthy. 

But on that foundation, Barkley said, church plants will look very different at each location. 

Wallover recently retired from his Harvest Presbyterian Church ministry; he is grateful for how his church and presbytery have embraced a vision of church growth through planting. 

“God has been so kind to us in a small presbytery with limited resources. My hope is that our small congregations can draw courage and hope from the fact that, as we work together, we can accomplish much in and for the Kingdom of God, as He gives us grace to do so.”  

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