Meet the Church Planter: Mark Johnson // Encourage Church

What? – I thought. Did he say hug line? Yes, a hug line.

by Joe Valenti, Cuyahoga Valley Church – Missions Pastor

This morning I drove down to 79th and Superior and could not seem to find Encourage Church anywhere. I was planning to meet Mark Johnson, a church planter that CVC supports, at the location for this new plant. But for the life of me, I could not see a church building anywhere. So, I parked in the rear parking lot of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Professional Building and gave Mark a call.

“Do you see police cars?”

“What?” I replied.

“Do you see police cars?”


“You’re on the other side of the building. Go ahead and park and walk towards the building. I’ll meet you there.”

I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was this just a good parking lot to park in? Was Mark going to walk me down the streets to the hidden little church that I could not seem to find on my own?

[wpvideo JLhAiNbh]

I parked, and started walking towards the building and, to my right, Mark called to me. After we introduced ourselves, we led me into the East Professional building. I was a bit confused as to what was going on, but I just followed along into this massive old high school.

The East Professional building used to be East high school – home of the Blue Bombers. But in 2010 the district closed the school as part of the Academic Transformation Plan and turned it into a professional development center for meetings, trainings, etc. for educators in the district.

At the same time, Mark Johnson had finished his seminary work at Princeton – yes, you heard the correctly – and he and his family had taken a pastorate at Liberty Hill Baptist just a mile away on 82nd and Euclid. And while Liberty Hill is a beautiful building, the issue for Mark was that many of the young men and women from the community did not seem very keen on stepping into a traditional church setting. So, as Mark and his wife Heather continued to seek the Lord, they heard him loud and clear – go out to them instead of expecting them to come in here.Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 2.47.03 PM.png

Fast forward to January 2016, Encourage Church, and the old high school turned professional building. The old East High building was not being used on Sunday’s, and so Mark and his team worked out a plan to utilize the building to start a new church – a church that would engage the community where they were. 

Mark stopped right in the front foyer and told me about the “hug line.”

What? – I thought. Did he say hug line? 

Yes, a hug line. Many of the ladies from Liberty Hill line up at the entrance and if the young men want to come in and play basketball, their price of admission is to hug all of these wonderful ladies. This is, Mark told me, a strategy to help these men get comfortable with the idea of feeling loved. What was once awkward is now a loved tradition.

After hearing about the hug line, we walked around the massive school and Mark showed me about the discipleship and care that is happening through Encourage Church. The building boasts a massive auditorium that probably seats over 1,000 people. They use this space to show faith-based films as a way to provide a safe and fun environment for families to spend time together. There are beautiful classrooms were children’s ministry and other Bible studies take place. But Mark noticed that he still did not seem to be getting the young men.

So, Mark decided to use another of his passions – basketball. Mark played professional basketball in Europe before going to Seminary and decided to open up the school’s huge gym (complete with 3 full basketball courts) to see if the young men would come. Well – they did. Now Mark and his team minster to to around 100 young men each week. After they walk through the hug line, they spend their time shooting hoops. Mark is building relationships and looking for opportunities to share the gospel one on one off the court.

It was an exciting time and I am proud that Cuyahoga Valley Church has the opportunity to financially support the work that God is doing through Encourage Church. Would you add the Johnson Family and Encourage Church to your prayer list? Let us lift them up before the Lord and ask him to open hearts and minds to the goodness of the gospel message.