Cleveland Heights, one of Ohio's cultural centers, may be "a church-planting graveyard" but Zach Weihrauch nevertheless came to the city in 2011 to start a church as a North American Mission Board missionary. "It's tough, but I really felt God was telling us that if there was a Gospel-centered church here, then things would happen in Cleveland."
Weihrauch is part of a new generation of pioneering Southern Baptist church planters who are re-engaging the major unreached cities of North America with the Gospel through church planting.
Cleveland wasn't on Weihrauch's radar when he finished seminary. Neither was church planting.
The son and the son-in-law of pastors, the southern Indiana native thought he'd spend his life serving in an existing church. Weihrauch had two earlier opportunities to get involved in church planting, but neither seemed right to him and his wife Amy.
In February 2010, however, the young Illinois college pastor sensed a nudging from God to do something new. For a couple of months Weihrauch wrestled with God over what it would be. He couldn't shake the belief that God was moving him toward church planting, despite his previous resistance to the idea.
Trying to be obedient to God's call, Weihrauch started looking at possible church planting locations. Being highly organized by nature, he put together a database of cities throughout the nation that he thought probably needed churches -- and contact information of people in those cities.
But God still didn't give the green light. So Weihrauch waited. Yet one night, at 2 a.m., God brought him back to church planting and the database he had created earlier.
"It was one of the few times in my life that I can say, 'I heard from the Lord,' in that audible yet non-audible way," Weihrauch said.
God's message was clear -- contact Cleveland director of missions Kevin Litchfield about starting a church in the city. There had to be other options, Weihrauch figured. He knew nothing about Cleveland and knew no one there.
"I really only knew two things about Cleveland," Weihrauch said. "It's really cold and no one really has anything good to say about it."
It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the city, but God wouldn't release him from the call. The Weihrauchs visited the city a few months later trying to be obedient to the Lord's leadership.
"The city is so much different than people think," Weihrauch said. "Certainly it has its rust belt elements, but it also has a thriving arts scene. The city is really being taken over by 20- to 35-year-olds."
One particular area of Cleveland stood out to the young couple -- Cleveland Heights. Home to the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Orchestra and Case Western University, the suburb was thriving culturally but stagnant spiritually.
Weihrauch went into one visitor's center and asked to be pointed to the nearest evangelical church.
"What does evangelical mean?" the attendant asked.
"Well, we're just looking for a church that loves Jesus and teaches the Bible," Weihrauch responded.
The receptionist looked at Weihrauch and said, "There's nothing like that here."
At that moment God broke the hearts of the young couple who could now see the desperate need for the Gospel in the area. God also started to give them a vision of what could happen in the community.
"The vision that God really began to give birth in my heart was that if there was strong, Gospel-centered church here that placed a primary value on developing young men into future pastors, future leaders, future church planters, that this could be the tipping point for all of Cleveland," Weihrauch said.
Only 5.5 percent of the population is affiliated with an evangelical church. Southern Baptists, despite six decades in the city, have only 42 churches in metropolitan Cleveland, which includes Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties. That means there's only one Southern Baptist church for every 42,500 Clevelanders.
The Weihrauchs moved to Cleveland in March 2011 with no supporters and knowing only Litchfield. They met people in grocery stores, at story time in the local library (where Amy became a regular) and at ballgames and invited them to join their new church. After meeting with a core group for several months, Weihrauch launched Gateway Heights in October 2011. The new church had 52 adults in attendance for the first worship service and has continued to grow since.
"I want to engage culture like any church planter -- particularly any 28-year-old church planter -- but I've become increasingly aware that I'm just a man," Weihrauch reflected on his mission. "I'm in Cleveland with weakness and fear and trembling, and I need a Spirit-anointed message."
Tobin Perry is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To view videos about Send North America: Cleveland, visit namb.net/cleveland. Send North America is the North American Mission Board's strategy to mobilize and assist churches and individuals in hands-on church planting in 29 major cities and other areas throughout the U.S. and Canada. 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. To find out more about Send North America: Cleveland and how you can partner with church planters like Zach Weihrauch, visit namb.net/cleveland.
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