When people want to plant churches in regions that shape America’s culture, they typically relocate to the East or West Coast. In the process they probably fly over or drive through an oft-overlooked area that profoundly affects American culture: Ohio.
With its mix of thriving cities, struggling economies and rural communities, Ohio is more than just a political swing state; it is a region brimming with opportunities for church planting, and Ohio Presbytery Clerk Pete Miller wants Ohio natives to do that planting. His message is simple: Sons of Ohio, please come home.
Why Ohio Matters
Among those unabashedly enthusiastic about the Buckeye State is the Rev. David Schutter, an Ohio native who pastors Northwest Presbyterian Church in Dublin, a Columbus suburb. He believes that for its relatively small population, Ohio exercises disproportionate influence on the rest of the country.
“Ohio is not just a place America flies over on their way to really important stuff; really important stuff is getting done here,” he said. Politics aside, Schutter believes Ohio is a good indicator of the country’s spiritual temperature. And with 12 urban and 48 rural counties, Ohio is, as Miller sees is, a microcosm for the rest of the country.
But huge swaths of the state have no PCA churches, and most PCA churches in Ohio do not have the budgets for multiple pastors. As a result, church planting is the most viable option for men feeling called to minister in Ohio, and Schutter sees that once men leave the state for seminary, they often do not return.
“Once you’ve graduated from a seminary, it’s easy to become a free agent. We have to start building a network [within the state],” he said. Northwest and other Ohio churches are trying to make the most of local resources and distance seminary courses to train men for ministry without them having to go out of state for seminary.
“We are certainly not arrogant enough to think we can do what [a Reformed seminary] can do, but we have to think through our pastoral expectations,” Schutter said.
Reaching the un-Reformed
Another hindrance to church planting in Ohio is the state’s historical lack of a strong Presbyterian influence. Because most communities do not have connections to the Reformed heritage, people need more time to understand what Presbyterianism means.
“We have to be much clearer about what our values are,” Schutter said. “That is good because it leads to fresh conversations with a lot of people, but the bad part is it takes a long time for people to appreciate things like connectionalism and our larger theological commitments.”
The Rev. Jason Strong discovered this fact firsthand when called to pastor Zion Reformed Church (ZRC) in Winesburg, the heart of Amish country. Despite its name and German Reformed heritage, ZRC was a United Church of Christ congregation when it called Strong, and he had to spend years teaching members the tenets of historic Reformed faith before the church could particularize as a PCA congregation.
During those difficult years of educating the congregation, Strong recalled, some presbytery members doubted whether he could gather enough members to support a full-time pastor. But he said he has never assumed sole responsibility for growing the church.
“The Gospel has to be the power that builds and sustains the church. The rest will come,” he said. “Don’t worry about [monetary] giving and full-time employment; just preach Christ, and the church will grow.”
As he preached Christ, Strong also invested his life in the community. Now employed full time by the church, he works as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician and occasionally assists community members with hay baling.
“We will never be flashy because we’re Winesburg,” Strong said. “But if people want to plant in the countryside, trust God’s Word. We have to have courage enough to believe it.”
Ohio Presbytery held its May meeting in Oberlin, a town that has a renowned liberal arts college bearing the same name. But, according to Miller, it has never had a Presbyterian church. Miller and others in the presbytery want to make it a custom to hold presbytery in towns without Presbyterian churches in order to provide a faithful witness to communities throughout the state.
Another Ohio native saw his home state as the ideal place to turn his ministry disadvantages into strengths. The Rev. Greg Blosser planted and continues to pastor Grace Central Presbyterian Church in Columbus, but he is originally from Greenville, a town of 13,000 roughly two hours northwest of Columbus.
When he considered his ministry options, his sense of call toward urban ministry coincided with an opportunity to plant in Columbus, a city with tremendous influence throughout the state and one of the country’s youngest populations.
“Youth can be a disadvantage in ministry, but when you plant in one of the youngest cities in the country, all of a sudden it becomes a strength,” he said.
Still, Blosser believes there are ample possibilities in communities like Greenville for a church planter with passion and commitment.
“I think we make things really complicated when it comes to church planting, and it doesn’t need to be that complicated,” he said. “You just need someone who feels called and is willing to go in [to a community] and do the hard work.”
That hard work involves raising funds, gathering members, and investing one’s life in that community. It means knowing the community and developing a deep love for the area.
“If you love your city, you love what your city loves,” Blosser said.
And Schutter said Ohioans love Ohio. Having worked at churches in South Dakota and Illinois before returning to his home state in 2007, Schutter knows that Ohio’s culture is unique.
“I can’t prove Ohioans love Ohio more than Pennsylvanians love Pennsylvania or New Yorkers love New York … but there is a distinctive Ohio culture shaped by the history of the state,” he said.
Knowing Ohio’s culture might be the key to remedying one of Miller’s biggest disappointments with the PCA presence in Ohio: While there are several PCA congregations in Cleveland’s suburbs, particularly in Hudson, to date only one PCA congregation exists in Cuyahoga County, which is the state’s most populous county and includes the city of Cleveland.
Several factors could play into the struggles with planting in Cleveland, including the relative newness of Ohio Presbytery, formed in 2010 from Great Lakes and Ascension presbyteries. “Nobody really knows each other well,” Miller said. “We need to get to know each other.”
Blosser believes presbytery-level factors could be at play, too. “Healthy organisms reproduce much better than unhealthy ones,” he said, and if Ohio Presbytery wants to see more churches in Cleveland, it will take the support and unity of this new presbytery. “Sometimes we are really good at oversight and not quite as good at encouragement and support. I think that is getting better,” he said.
Schutter believes a church plant in Cleveland, his hometown, needs to work from a different model. “Anyone looking to plant a new work in Cleveland would have to embrace a new mindset for church planting,” he said. “In some ways it is more similar to mission work than to traditional church planting.” Knowing Cleveland’s culture and the intense pride Clevelanders have for their city will help, he said.
And the Ohio Presbytery’s newness could make it an agile, aggressive force for church planting. On Nov. 6, Grace Central started holding public worship at its second campus in Grandview Heights. With individual churches and the presbytery both contributing funds toward church-planting endeavors, a man with the passion and calling to plant would find himself right at home in Ohio.
“It’s not just a place to be from,” Schutter said. “It’s a great place to serve.”