Replanting with Purpose: Refuge Church’s Mission-Focused Transformation

Replanting with Purpose: Refuge Church’s Mission-Focused Transformation

By Stephanie Heading, managing editor

Pastor Steve Looker and The Refuge Church, a two and a half year old church replant, are on a mission to reach 55,000 lost souls in Zanesville which is located in the Appalachian region of eastern Ohio.

However, the story of The Refuge began seven years ago when Looker became pastor at Southside Baptist Church, Zanesville. Southside was a declining church in the challenging southside of Zanesville where incomes are approximately $20,000 a year. 

I was going to leave and plant a church.

After four and a half years of working to reach the community through Southside, Looker reached a crossroad. “I was going to leave and plant a church,” he said.

He shared his plans with the Southside congregation. “Eighty percent of the people said if I left they were leaving too.”

Looker told the church that he had four non-negotiable changes that had to occur  if he were to stay. First, the church must change its name. Second, the leadership of the church would become elder-led instead of deacon run.

Third, the women of the church would play a more active role. “I’m not a woman pastor guy, but women weren’t even allowed to pray in the church,” said Looker. Fourth, the church would become more missional. 

Two-thirds of the church voted to approve the changes, and The Refuge replant was born. “I was going to do what God was telling me to do,” said Looker. “It was just a matter of the address.”

During the past two and a half years, the replant has made multiple in-roads to reach people in its community with the gospel. 

We take the food to the people.

One ministry is a food pantry for the community. “We are unique,” said Looker. “We take the food to the people. What you get, we give away.” The church also works with Christ’s Table, a local hot meal site that serves meals every Monday-Saturday as well as two Sundays each month. 

Zane Gray Elementary/Intermediate School in the church’s neighborhood has also become a ministry site. “We feel we should give back,” said Looker. The church has provided hats, gloves, and clothing 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.” The church packs 100 “Blessing Bags” every week—50 for elementary students and 50 for intermediate students.

One of the exciting things about the “Blessing Bags” is that the church can add extra items to the bags, such as fliers for church events, Bible items, and holiday trinkets. “We also partnered with Colgate in Cambridge to give items for Hygiene Day,” he noted.

In 2023, Looker was one of nine missionaries selected to participate in WMU’s Christmas in August event. The missionaries give WMU a list of items they need for ministry and outreach. The lists are posted online, and individual, churches, and WMU groups purchase the items and send them to a missionary or missionaries on the list. 

To expand the ministry to the teachers at Zane Gray, Looker requested items that students and families have a difficult time providing--pencils, 24-count crayons, colored pencils, kid’s scissors, glue sticks, construction paper, loose-leaf paper, staplers, staples, and clear tape. The response to Christmas in August was great. “We are trickling in school supplies to teachers.”

Another way The Refuge is reaching the community is through “A Place of Refuge Addiction Ministry,” which is in its infancy, according to Looker. “We are trying to figure out how to do more with that.” Currently 15-18 people are meeting in the group to study “Experiencing God.” The church also gives food to a sober living home.

As the church became more missional, it saw the Lord bless in new ways. Looker received a call from Jonathan Paugh, the pastor who preceded him at Southview BC. Paugh felt led to return to the church to help Looker with the replant of Southside. “He called me and asked me to pray for him,” said Looker. “God is calling me to come and help you.”

After his arrival, Paugh took a job at Spectrum which has a program to give grants to places where their employees volunteer. Recently The Refuge received a $2500 grant from Spectrum. “We are using it for our food pantry.”

In addition to outreach, the church now has two worship services—one on Saturday night and one on Sunday morning. Attendance is 60-80 total, up from 20 before the replant. 

I don’t want to grow a big church. I want to be a church that plants churches.

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,” said Looker. “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 two and a half years, the change is evident. “I am one hundred percent sure we are called to Zanesville. Two and a half years ago, I was dragging people along,” he recalled. “Today people are pushing me. That’s the change.”

Spectrum recently awarded a grant of $2500 to The Refuge Church.

Distributing food in the community and local schools is an important outreach at The Refuge Church.