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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Interview with a Church Planter from Hull England

During our recent trip to Brighton England I took the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend Steve Whittington, who was my youth leader and mentor for a few years. Steve has planted a Newfrontiers church in Hull -- the number one worst ranked city in the United Kingdom.

Steve moved to Hull in May 2006 with 13 other adults to start the church. He now has 100 adults and a donated building in the center of the city -- you don't want to miss this story.

Use the interface above to play the most recent podcast or download the interview with Steve.

Matt: Steve, give me some information about how you launched the church and how you gathered people?

Steve: Great, well it was actually in Brighton, probably about 12 years ago, I heard a talk about church planting and it was at that time I really felt like God telling me to do that. So I went forward at a meeting and said "yeah, I want to be a church planter".

Well, it was a long process actually. I was in a great church in Brighton, a Newfrontiers church (Church of Christ the King), I learned a lot but got to the point I think in being in a large church that I didn't feel stretched any more, which sounds a bit crazy, being in a large church you might think you'd get stretched a bit more, but I wasn't.

Then I felt God call, actually an audible voice, something I'd never heard before, to go to Middlesbrough, which is up in the north east of England. I was very scared when I first heard the word "Middlesbrough" because I realized we didn't have a Newfrontiers church there when I looked on the internet. I thought "oh no, I still want to be a part of this family of churches". But I knew I wasn't ready to church plant.

The great thing was, it was in a region called Teesside, and when I looked again on the internet we did have a church. So I went to join a smaller church, about 60 people at that point, it was a great growing church. I was a full-time pastor when I was in Brighton but there wasn't a job for me so I went there, got a job and just started to serve in the church and after about a year I think, they did employ me and I would say that was my church planting training. Being in a smaller setting, being involved in leadership there and looking how to grow this church.

Matt: You took a real risk. Were you constantly having to come back to that point that God spoke to you?

Steve: Yes, definitely, because it was an audible voice, which I have never heard God like this before, and I don't think I'll ever hear him like it. It was so dramatic that it had to uproot me from Brighton, where my friends and family were. So that was the start of it. It sounds weird but I think the church planting process always took place because it was letting go of a large church were I had a lot of friends, grown up in and discipled in. But, to go to another city, another place where we didn't know anybody. To start from scratch with friendship and that was a great preparation.

So, we served in that church but still there was this inner thing I think God was calling me to church plant. And, different options came up at different points. I considered maybe God was calling me to Australia because I wanted to go were I had relationship.

Matt: How did you test that?

Steve: I tested that by just finding out about it. I went online "how do I get to australia" and what I realized is I needed a degree which I didn't have. So I talked it through with the guy I was leading a church with and we thought about going part-time and I could do a degree part-time. Looked at the options but really felt that it wasn't the way for me.

And also, having spoken to our apostolic team that were involved out in Australia it was like "we are not interested in church planting immediately, we've got to get a base [church] first" and the guy said to me "Steve, you need to do your own thing now". And it was right.

So then we looked at where to go. On the north east coast of England there is a little place called Hartlepool which was about 12 miles from where our church was and we were helping develop a church plant there. Could I go there? I realized immediately it was too small a place I needed a big city with plenty of room.

Matt: So when you said you realized "for me", what did you mean?

Steve: I don't have a small village mentality. I've lived in big cities like Brighton and Middlesbrough and the danger for me was that it was only 12 miles from Teesside, the church I was involved in, and my mission would be I'd want to reach back into where I had already come from. And so it wasn't me. I also felt like we had begun to form and shape the church and I thought "no, I want to put foundations in from the start. I want to be involved in that process". Which is what church planting involves.

So, we looked at different options, prayed about it and as a region of churches we had been praying for this city called Hull. A city of quarter of a million, with quarter of a million on the outskirts. And, a local Newfrontiers York church prayed, holding prayer meetings to pray for the city. I got stirred to think about it by the guy I was working with. My wife and I started to chat about it "is Hull the place to go?". We knew it was the right time, we had got to that place, now where is it?

We just prayed. We were going on holiday (vacation) and thought this is a good time to really reflect, have a great relaxing time, get some thinking time because often as church planters you don't get much time to think. We started watching TV, a program came on "the worst places to live in the United Kingdom", and they had done research on all different statistics and facts and come up with the worst places to go. So it was the 10 worst places. It got to number 5 and it was Middlesbrough, which is where I had already been, where we had moved to in Teesside, and when it came to the number 1 worst place to live in the United Kingdom -- and it was Hull!

It was that point that I felt God say to me "where would Jesus go?". Jesus would go to the places of bad reputation. I actually discovered it is a really nice place with fantastic people, although it does have its problems. So, I knew in that moment that God was calling us. My wife needed convincing by actually going to look at the place. I didn't need to know even before we had gone. We turned up in the city and we both felt at peace "this is the place to come". That is a long way to say how did we start.

Matt: How did you get other people involved?

Steve: What we begun to do, once we realized where we were going, was to ask "who are my best friends?" People I have a relationship with, people I trust. And I want leaders. I don't mind who joins us, who is part of us, but I need to have good leaders to start with. I think the secret of how we've been successful is by starting with a good core group.

What we did is, we spoke to some of our best friends, our small group leaders in our church at Teesside, youth workers, and said "will you come with us?" And they said yes. And I thought, if you are going to start a church plant the key thing is we are going to need worship and it needs to be good. There is nothing worse than starting a church plant with no musicians. A large part of what we want to do together is worship. And it does help having people who can help lead it.

Matt: You were very specific about targeting and approaching someone to help you with worship.

Steve: I thought "who are the best worship people in the country that I am friends with?". So I ran up and old person who used to be in my youth group, called Matt, not you Matt, another Matt, another good friend also involved in my youth group. And he was leading worship at Church of Christ the King in Brighton, leading the worship team, and I thought "he's ideal".

I rang him, totally out of the blue, I hadn't really spoken to him much over the years and just said "would you consider?", and to be honest I thought I didn't have much chance really. But the amazing thing was he had been to the North East and lead worship at one of our conferences and it was at that point they felt God stir them to move. And when I came and said Hull, to them it wasn't out of the blue, it was like "I think God is speaking to us!"

Matt: So God had already gone ahead of you and spoken to these guys about coming -- that's encouraging!

Steve: Yes. There were specific people I targeted and lot who said no. it wasn't the right time for them. In fact I asked your brother and he came up to Hull, to visit, Dan and Adrienne.

Matt: I remember talking to him on the phone when they were going through that process.

Steve: They went through the process but it wasn't the right time. And that is fine and I don't think there is anything wrong in that, to have a look, but in the end we gathered 13 adults to go with us.

There was one couple from Kent, which is down on the south coast of the UK, and he had been an elder in a church who felt like he had been called, firstly through business as a property developer, wanting to develop a house as an investment and they had looked around the country and thought where are the best cheapest properties to buy? One of those was Hull. He'd come to Hull, and as he was coming up decorating they just thought where should we go to church. They had looked around at churches but there was no Newfrontiers church and thought this city is in need of a Newfrontiers church. So they had begun to come themselves and it came to the challenge -- the doing it!

We had 13 adults and my wife and I moved in May 2006. We hit the ground. We were first.

Matt: As people began to move how did you gather people together and what did you do to form that team?

Steve: We had 2 prayer meetings before May in Hull. We said "come to Hull, come to see it" because people we having to find jobs anyway and find accommodation. Let's come and pray together, lets have food together. Some of these people were friends, but some where people I had never met in my life. At that prayer meeting everyone was coming together and I laid out some of the vision of what we are doing and we just prayed.

Right from the beginning in prayer "what are we believing God for?" The prayer was specific. We ate together. I said this is what we are going to do. We are going to pray and eat together as part of our church because I like eating! The people gradually moved up over the summer. And really we just spent a lot of time in our home, we have people around all the time, in fact not much had changed. A lot of food, a lot of gathering, and at the same time we are here for the lost.

So right from the beginning I got funding for the first year from Newfrontiers, to fund my salary, and other Newfrontiers churches in the region have funded us. £10,000 from our sending church. A few thousand from other churches which paid for our PA system. It paid for different things which was great. But I got the finance in May and I thought there is no church people. So, I am looking at venues, thinking about where we are going to meet for a Sunday thinking about when that is going to happen. One day I wake up and think I need to do voluntary work and start meeting people. So that is what I began to do. Also I wanted to get to know Hull and some Hull people.

Matt: You have a particular gift of being able to connect with lots of different types of people very quickly.

Steve: Yes. I am an evangelist. The best church planters are evangelists because you've got to be able to gather people and reach the lost. If you are a pastor, just a pastor, you are in big trouble. You'll love people, which is great, but you are not really out there for the lost. And church planting was about reaching the lost.

The first few weeks I was there, there was a guy who I met, a young guy, and he asked why I was here and I told him what were doing and he told me he was interested in first aid. I said "that is great! When I start on a Sunday I'll need a first aider", which was a load of rubbish!

Matt: So you created an opportunity for him to serve? Here is something you can do in our church.

Steve: He said I'd love to do that! I thought we'll never need him! But I'll come back to that a bit later in terms of the first Sunday.

My wife went to work for the refugee service one day a week voluntarily and she met a refugee from Zaire who had moved to Hull, actually from Democratic Republic of Congo, as they are referred to. He's a Christian church pastor and he said I'd like to come and join you. So, we gradually met people. What we purposefully didn't do is we didn't advertise.

All we did is we had one web page with my phone number on because what I didn't want is anybody turning up at any of our meetings. They didn't know where we were or what we were doing because I wanted to talk to them first. I knew it would be Christians and we needed to start with a sore group of Christians as well to find us on the web and I didn't want a load of fruit-loops because you know in every city, in every town you always get church hoppers, and they come to the latest thing, they have got past issues, they want to suck you dry, they want to take your time and we were there for the lost. We are on a mission. We will pastor on the mission like a field hospital. If people are hurt in battle they set up a tent and the tent moves on with them. You get healed in the process, on the way, we'll help you and care for you.

Matt: So, no formal marketing or mass-communication?

Steve: No because we are there to reach the lost. The lost in the UK don't respond to marketing, or very little. We wanted good relationships with other churches. If we started a mass marketing campaign all the other churches would be suspicious thinking we are trying to steal their people. We have no intension to steal people. We are there to reach the lost. That is our primary calling. And if other people want to join us on that mission that's fine, but we'll connect with them on that level.

Matt: Was there any particular group of people you were purposeful about trying to target?

Steve: Everyone. Everyone who is lost. If they are not a Christian they are our target. So the first week in the end we started with 30 on the first Sunday. It was public in terms of we were coming together. The morning we started, started setting up, we met in a church hall, I got a phone call, we had met a couple of times to pray, we hadn't done anything else.

Matt: So you had a core of 13, then you made connections and grew to about 30 with kids and then you started a corporate gathering on Sundays.

Steve: And, I would lay down a foundational vision every weeks on a Sunday. But the first Sunday I got a phone call while I was setting up from a guy who was a Christian who said "we just found your website and we are looking for a church, where do you meet?" I told him it was our first Sunday and that he was welcome to come.

Over the summer we had done a couple of outreach events. We didn't have any publicity remember. We thought lets go and pray and ask God to lead us to people. I went with a guy who is now my elder, Matt, who is the worship leader who hated doing street evangelism, more than I do, you know cold contacts.

We went up to people and said "would you like prayer?" And now again in the United Kingdom most people are never offended, everybody we asked received prayer which is amazing. It was encouraging but we thought that none of these people are going to come on a Sunday -- we are not going to connect with them. And I said to Matt why don't we just pray, we had a few minutes left before we were going to meet everybody. Why don't we pray that we will meet somebody who is a Christian who has just moved to Hull.

At that point, we hadn't prayed, we literally bumped into somebody and I said "I'm really sorry". And they were looking up on a building in Hull and looking at something written in Latin. And I said "Do you understand what that means?" And she said oh, it means God guides us. Totally cheese-ally I said "Do you think God guides you?" And she said yeah! I said "are you a Christian?" She said yeah! I said "ah, have you just moved to Hull" ... yes! ... "Are you looking for a church?" ... yes! It was a mother and her daughter from Holland.

Matt, who is fairly quiet and not into street evangelism, turned to the woman and said "have you got something wrong with your knee?" And she goes yes! He said "Well, I had a picture of you before I came up this morning of a woman in a floral dress having something wrong with their knee. Can I pray for you?" We prayed for her in the street and God healed her. So guess who turned up on the Sunday? The family with their kids.

We hadn't planned to have kids the first Sunday. I had a friend visiting to support us on the first Sunday and I said "you are running the kids work for me, is that alright". It was our first Sunday and we started kids work. So that was the beginning. It was a bit raw.

The first Sunday somebody came in, we meet on a very rough council estate in the center of Hull, and somebody came in with glass in there head -- they had been bottled. So my first aider dealt with him and we rang 999 and had an ambulance at church on the first Sunday helping him out. This is going on out in the foyer while I was preaching, which was great! Second Sunday, somebody came in with a stab wound. Ha! It was really good, it was great, I love that stuff, that's me!

Matt: So the first aid guy had a calling?

Steve: I don't think he had ever dealt with anything like it. He thought we might have someone with a cut finger.

But what we did from the very first Sunday is that we are going to eat together every Sunday. First we found a place, a church hall, with food. We wanted to build relationships, get to know one another, then the people who come can stay for lunch. And because we were busy setting up, you are always busy being a church planter, you have to transport all your stuff there. You've got to sort it all out. We thought if we tried to go back to some bodies house and be together we didn't have anyone with a big enough house. We thought let's eat!

What began to transpire is that these people coming in being 'bottled' and 'glassed' saw we had food and we said "come in for a meal". What happened is that the whole estate begins to hear about it and we had about 30 people come every week just to come for the dinner. They turned up at the end. They wouldn't come for the service but that's fine, I didn't mind that. So I said, "you come to church, this is church and we are eating here".

Matt: You spent all your money on food?

Steve: Everybody in the church brought pot luck. That's what we did. What began to happen was a couple of them began to come a bit earlier, and a bit earlier, and they started getting saved!

Matt: Now it's 2 years on from the beginnings, what have you seen in terms of conversions?

Steve: We've seen about 20 people saved now. We are up to 100 adults now and 20 are new converts.

Matt: How many kids?

Steve: About 35 kids. We've got quite a diverse thing, the people who are getting saved. Last weekend we had a young guy out of the pub culture who had become a Christian. A daughter of one of our church members who is 74 who became a Christian back in December we baptized her and her daughter came to Christ who is in her 30's.

Then we started a coffee morning. And started inviting people to come for coffee .What we did was we went out to the streets with free tea and coffee and invited people into the building. We invited two people, and they came along, came into the building, one was 76 and the other 82, didn't know Jesus at all and they loved it. Came the second week and asked to come to church and I thought they are never going to enjoy our church. We are quite loud, it's noisy and it's vibrant. It was their first Sunday and we always give a response of salvation.

Matt: Ok, so you are very purposeful about the gospel?

Steve: Every week we share the gospel. We give a good opportunity for people to respond. I gave a call for the response and who came forward? This old lady and gave her life to Jesus! Her husband couldn't walk forward, he's in a motorized wheelchair, he was waving. So I went over to him and he said I want to become a Christian as well. And so we baptized them as well.

We had had people saved from drug addiction. From that kind of background. One of the guys which I didn't refer to, had been in a Newfrontiers church, but had moved to Hull for University and fortunately wanted to stay with Newfrontiers. Please plant a church in Hull, we need a church in Hull! And so when I went to meet him I thought "he's got a vision in his mind" and I sat down with him in a coffee shop in Hull and said tell me what do you want to see in this church plant? He said what I want to see above all is my sister, who lives in Hull with a non-Christian partner, I'd love to see God work in my sisters family.

So I said "that's a good thing we can pray for them". So Warren, the partner who came from a drug addiction background, in fact was originally from Brighton, I made an immediate connection when I met him. We got on really well. He used to live in a place called Hangleton, which is where you are from, but you can't tell by your accent anymore! You used to be like mine!

Matt: Yeah, I'm a missionary!

Steve: You are a missionary, exactly!

We managed to get him (Warren) on Alpha. He was working where I was volunteering, that is how I got to know him. That is why I volunteered at this place to get to know him because he was out of work. Got to know him. Invited him to Alpha and he came along. He enjoyed it. Chatted, got to know people. Brought his kid with him which is a bit of a pain at Alpha but we thought we can put up with young kids at Alpha. He came along but didn't respond to the gospel. And then what began to happen is that he started coming some Sundays, occasionally.

One Sunday we had a guest speaker and again we were having lunches at the end. There was a word on knowledge for somebody with a kidney condition and a few of us who knew about it thought that's him! But we looked around and he wasn't there. I thought I don't understand nobody responded to that word of knowledge.

5 minutes before the end he turned up because it was dinner. They turned up as a family for the food. Somebody grabs him and says about the word of knowledge and says comes forward to the front. He came forward. We laid hands on him and he had never been prayed for in that way. He said there is a heat in my body! Mate, there is a heat! It's really warm, it's really hot! I said "ok, I think that is probably God", we didn't know what was happening. And God just came on him and we said "Warren, do you want to become a Christian?" And he said Yes!

He became a Christian that Sunday and went to the consultant that week for his treatment. They had to do a new scan and couldn't find the condition. It was a condition that couldn't be healed. They could only give him medication to control it. But he was totally healed. Now his partner, we married them, and it was our first church wedding. They have got 2 kids and have been together and we are still praying for his wife to come through.

We have lots of stories like that of individuals coming to Christ.

Matt: That's amazing! Let's wrap this up. It sounds like since you've taken a leap of faith God has been with you in some amazing conversions and miracles. What things, in hindsight, would you do differently, where are you headed now and what would be your advice to me as I prepare to plant out?

Steve: Well, you probably wont like what I have to say. You can have all the training in the world, until you do it you've got no idea. What we found is that we made it up as we went along. We had very little strategy. We knew what our church mission was, we knew what our foundations was, we knew where we were going. But, we had no idea what it looked like or what was going to happen.

And I made decisions, because I was the church leader, every week "how are we going to do it? ... Oh my goodness, we have people like this now we've got these people coming to see! Shall we let them keep coming? Shall we not? Ok, we'd like to start a social outreach project but we already have one! We don't need to create anything we already have. I think we made it up as we go along.

What would I do differently? I don't think I would do anything differently.

Matt: What is your plan for the next couple of years?

Steve: The plan is, we got given a building, by the brethren church , they gave us a facility. They are people of the word. But they were very generous to us. The church was closing down, well I told them to shut down, that's another story, and they gave us the building.

So, our plan now is we are going to meet there. It's in a strategic location in Hull, by the football stadium. Very visible. Everybody knows. We will use that facility more and more. Our vision is to just keep doing outreach. That is our main thing. We don't want to get distracted. And I think that is the key thing I learned from doing a church plant. The one thing is that it's the lost! Everything we do is mission. If it is not about mission then lets not do it. Let's no waist our time.

So for example, some of the girls in the church wanted to start a book group, let's get together an talk about book. I said "that's fantastic, only if you bring friends. If you are only going to do it once a month on a Friday that is fantastic, but only if you are going to bring friends." We need to keep meeting people. I think that is the key thing for me is that it's about mission. When you take your eye of the ball of mission and you get sucked into pastoring and all that as a church leader and that's the key thing, you have got to have people around you that are going to pastor people because you've got to lead. I just pray people in.

I have an older couple with us, in their sixties, he's been a pastor for 15 years, been a Christian for 50 years. Any problem, with any pastoral need that is going to take more than 1 appointment I say you go and see that couple because I don't want to be distracted because I am on a mission. I think Mark Driscoll said it this week at the conference, I have got to work on the church not in the church. If I am always working in the church I have not got thinking to think where are we going next?

Now within a year we became elders, myself and Matt, we became elders of the church which helped bring stability. But now we are looking how are we going to build our leadership. Where is the next elder coming from? It's got to be leadership. And within it, in the beginning, the DNA of the church, has been and will continue to be, where are we going to plant next?

From week one we say It's great you are all here, but in a couple of years you are not going to be here because some of you are going to be planting the next church. We are a church planting church. We don't get settled. And so now we have this small building, it only seats 150.

Matt: If you are 100 adults now, you are going to outgrow that place soon.

Steve: We are. We are going to go with multiple meetings probably -- multi-meetings. I mean, you come to a conference like this and you think, what are we going to do? God speak to us? You have given us this building in a strategic place but it is too small. Let's multiply the service. We are thinking now, maybe from January, let's just do it! Keep going on the mission.

Matt: Well Steve thanks so much for joining me on my podcast and it's been great to catch up with you.

For more info about the Newfrontiers Church in Hull visit:

1 comment:

steve.miles said...

Nice interview. It's great to hear stories of how God is at work in church planting.