Steve Looker and The Refuge Church are on a mission to reach 55,000 souls in Zanesville, a community in the Appalachian region of eastern Ohio.
But the story of the two-and-a-half year old “replant” began seven years ago when Looker became pastor of Southside Baptist Church Zanesville, a declining congregation in an area where average annual income is $20,000.
After more than four years working to reach the community through Southside Baptist, Looker said he reached a crossroad.
“I was going to leave and plant a church.”
Then he shared his plans with the congregation.
“Eighty percent of the people said if I left they were leaving too,” Looker recalled.
He told the group there were four non-negotiables to keep him there.
First, the church must change its name. Second, the congregation would become elder-led instead of deacon run. Third, women would play a more active role. “I’m not a woman pastor guy, but women weren’t even allowed to pray in the church,” Looker explained. Fourth, the church would become more missional.
During the past two-and-a-half years The Refuge has made multiple inroads to reach people in the community with the gospel, including a food pantry for the community.
“We are unique,” Looker asserted. “We take the food to the people. What you get, we give away.”
The church also works with Christ’s Table, a local ministry that serves hot meals Monday through Saturday as well as two Sundays a month.
Nearby Zane Gray Elementary/Intermediate School also has become a ministry site.
“We feel we should give back,” Looker said.
The church has provided hats, gloves and clothing for students as well as “Blessing Bags,” which contain meals for the weekend.
“Teachers pick students who aren’t going to get meals to receive the bags,” Looker explained.
The church packs 100 Blessing Bags every week — 50 for elementary students and 50 for intermediates. Included are fliers for church events, Bible-related items and holiday trinkets.
“We also partnered with Colgate in Cambridge to give items for ‘hygiene Day,’” Looker noted.
Place of refuge
Another way The Refuge plans to reach the community is through “A Place of Refuge Addiction Ministry,” still in its infancy. Currently 15–18 people meet to study “Experiencing God,” and the church also gives food to a sober living home.
As The Refuge has become more missional, members have seen God bless in new ways. Looker received a call from Jonathan Paugh, the pastor who preceded him at Southview Baptist, who felt led to return to the church to help Looker with the replant.
In addition to outreach, there now are two worship services — one Saturday night and the other Sunday morning. Attendance is 60–80, up from 20 before the replant.
The future is looking bright for The Refuge as Looker has the goal of planting five churches in Muskingum County.
“When we get to 75 people regularly we will start praying, and when we reach 125, we will send 50 people out to start a church plant,” Looker said. “I don’t want to grow a big church. I want to be a church that plants churches.”
As he looks back at the last few years, he says the change is evident.
“I am 100% sure we are called to Zanesville. Two-and-a-half years ago I was dragging people along,” Looker recalled. “Today people are pushing me. That’s the change.”