By: Katie Sobiech
While pastoring a small church in Cuyahoga Falls, Mark Ford, Executive Director of Love Akron and Director of Community Development at First Presbyterian Church, faced a crisis that brought him to his knees – revealing to him the importance of uniting the body of Christ in Akron.
As problems in his church arose it led him to go on a fast in order to hear God’s voice more clearly and find direction. One night during his fast he could not sleep. While lying awake he says that the Lord spoke to his heart in a powerful way about the ministerial association that fell apart in Akron. He was convicted about the fact that he didn’t know the pastors in Cuyahoga Falls as well as he should. He realized that if asked, he wouldn’t have been able to point them out by name.
Shortly after this revelation he began setting up appointments with every pastor in Cuyahoga Falls and making a point to visit each one. During these visits he asked each pastor about his own personal journey, where his heart was, what his vision was and how he could pray for him.
After talking to many pastors, Ford says “I discovered that they, like me, had dreams. They, like me, had discouragements.”
He no longer saw them as his competitors but he saw them as what he refers to as his “compatriots”.
“We are soldiers together on a different kind of battlefield,” he explained, “our battle is not against humans, but against spiritual powers and wickedness.”
He realized that as Pastors of the city they weren’t independent – they were connected.
“We were really pastoring the city together, only we were doing it in different buildings.”
Along the way, Ford was influenced by several men; including Dr. Jack Dennison. Dennison is passionate about the church coming together as one, to do together what he believes they cannot do alone.
“Historically,” Ford says, “the only time churches worked together was maybe at a large crusade.”
The most famous being the Billy Graham crusade where all of the churches pulled together their people and resources to make it happen.
“When Billy would leave town, everybody would go back to business as usual,” Ford said, “ but what if we didn’t go back to business as usual and we just continued to serve together, work on projects together and love the city together as one church, many congregations?”
While on a trip to California, Ford met another man with the same heart and passion – Dr. Jack Hayford – who encourages pastors to go back to their cities and call their leaders to pray. Hayford, the pastor of Hollywood Presbyterian Church, came together with Dr. John Lloyd Ooglvee, Chaplain of the Senate at the time, who pastored a church in the same area. Together they formed a prayer group with other pastors in the area, calling it Love L.A.
Flying back to Ohio from California, Ford realized that something needed to be done in Akron. When he got back he shared his heart with Pastor Knute Larson at the Chapel. Soon after, Larson, Ford, and Pastor Ron Fowler from Arlington Church of God, came together for their first Love Akron prayer event. Thirteen years later, they still gather quarterly with pastors and Christian Para-church leaders in Summit County for an hour and a half concert of prayer.
There are three dimensions of Love Akron – one being prayer.
“Our number one passion is to ignite as many prayer teams and opportunities as we possibly can,” Ford said.
The second is unity – pulling together the body of Christ for the purpose of both loving one another and tearing down the walls that divide colors, cultures and congregations.
The third purpose is to form collaborative efforts in the city so that churches will co-labor together.
When George Bush Sr. became President he began what he called A Thousand Points of Light. With this, he found one thousand places in the United States that were bright lights – cities on a hill that could not be hidden. One of the places that he chose was the Haven of Rest in Akron.
“There are bright lights all over Summit County,” Ford said, mentioning not only the Haven of Rest, but Akron Pregnancy Services, Urban Vision, and South Street Ministries – which are just a few of the many ministries in Akron that are dedicated to helping others.
“All of these are points of light. If you fly into a city you’ll see that city dotted with lights all over the place,” he said, comparing it to a dot to dot picture.
“When you connect the dots – these points of light – what emerges is the face of Jesus Christ.”
The Beauty of Unity
“I believe that the beauty of the body of Christ is that it is so diversified – like multi colors – each color has its own beauty. I believe it’s the same with the churches. The different expressions and traditions are beautiful, and those are distinctives that I wouldn’t want to disturb, but if we can unify around the person of Jesus Christ, not around our denomination, not around our traditions, but around the person and work of Jesus Christ, and be the face of Jesus in the city, it would be amazing what would happen.”
Ford believes one of the greatest obstacles for non believers is the fact that they aren’t convinced that Christianity is real, due to the distance and divisions between those in the body of Christ.
“My dream is that there would be a day where the Christian churches of greater Akron would be able to have such a presence of salt and light in the community that the world would say ‘Wow, there must be something to this’,” he said.
What’s important, he added, “is to major on the majors.”
In his opinion, the majors are agreeing on the inspiration of scripture, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
“There’s one thing that Satan doesn’t want and that is unity in Christ’s church. I believe we could evangelize the world overnight if the church of Jesus Christ would come together and answer the prayer that Jesus Christ prayed in John 17 – that we be one.”
He prays that people will feel the tug of the Holy Spirit and answer the prayer of Jesus, “not just lock themselves in their little world, but be willing to get outside of their world.”
Streams of Living Water
In his book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster says that in the history of Christianity of over 2,000 years, six significant movements have been established.
Some of these, described by Ford, include the Charismatic/Pentecostal Movement – made up of spirit driven people, the Bible Movement –who focus on the Word of God, and the Social Action Movement – who focus on the poor and disenfranchised.
Foster describes the movements as six unique streams in the church.
“My dream is that someday all of the streams will flow together and we’ll have a river,” Ford smiled, “the river of God.”
Fruits of the Ministry
Ford has already begun seeing positive things happen as a result of this ministry. Last January the Imagine Unity initiative began out of a concern he had about the Caucasian community not doing enough to respect Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.
He stepped up and invited black pastor’s fellowships to come together and have one day of celebration and unity. Out of that they developed an organization whose entire mission is to tear down the walls between different cultures and ethnic groups so that we have a better appreciation and understanding of each other.
The Acts Society also developed, which came about after Ford mentioned that not even churches of the same denomination seemed to be united. He noticed a stream of Pentecostal churches in particular that didn’t even fellowship with each other, so he went to some of the “gatekeepers”, telling them that it was time they get together to get to know each other and what God would have them do together.
The purpose of the Acts Society is to try to mobilize and energize the charismatic community to come together as one group, and then be connected to the fuller church.
“Love Akron is really being used of God to help stimulate creative ways for the church to get together,” Ford said.
In the Future
The ministry is currently seeking other ways that the body of Christ can serve the city together. Ford envisions having a thousand people from a hundred different churches in Summit County coming together for one week to work on houses in the inner city.
“We’re looking for exciting ways that Love Akron can serve the city,” he said.
Ford encourages Christians to get to know other Christians in their geographical area, regardless of their denomination and ethnicity.
“Get in their world and invite them into your world,” he encourages.
He wants prayer cells to multiply all over the city; every street having a prayer captain so that Summit County is completely covered. This he dreams will go on 24/7 “so that this place is not known as the rubber capital of the world, but the prayer capital of the world!”
His goal is also to bring all of the urban missionaries in the Akron area together so that they can see each other as a team, rather than competing organizations.
For more information on this ministry please visit their website at http://www.loveakron.org