As New Springs City Church set out to plant in Hartlepool this autumn, MIT Sarah Weaver (inset, above) scoped out the town in an unusual way. She told Chris Rolfe the story.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday since June, Sarah Weaver has driven to Hartlepool and asked God where to park.
“Where shall I go? Who do you want me to talk to today?” she has asked.
As has God answered, he has led her into conversations that have helped birth a new church. As an Minister In Training at New Springs City Church in Loughborough and with a calling as an evangelist, Sarah is involved with its vision to plant ten churches in ten years.
With congregations established in Loughborough, Sunderland and Stoke-on-Trent already, its most recent move has been to pray into and scope out Hartlepool as a potential fourth site.
It is here that Sarah’s unusual detective work has come in. “It was decided that I would go to Hartlepool each week to see what was going on there and build connections,” she says.
“It’s a model of church planting we haven’t tried before, but I just started going up each Tuesday and Wednesday and waiting on God to see where he wanted me to go that day.”
As she did so, she made some incredible connections.
“Sometimes I’d start walking in one direction and sense the Holy Spirit telling me to go another way. Whenever that happened there would be a key connection or he’d show me a different part of town.”
New Springs’ vision was to plant in the centre of Hartlepool near to some heavily deprived communities. Following God’s lead, Sarah met some key people as she visited each week.
She was introduced to Ian, who runs all the community centres in Hartlepool.
“I shared with him our belief that Jesus is the hope for his community and our heart to love and serve people there.
“He said, ‘I don’t believe in God but I do believe in the church. You can do whatever you want here.’”
Sarah met many other people too. At a “proper old-school local pub” she met Frank, who is a member of one of the 11 masonic lodges in Hartlepool.
“I started having great conversations with him. Being in the pub helped because it broke down barriers. I was going into the community and meeting people right where they were, rather than asking them to come to me.”
At an amusement arcade, Sarah met two men who run an addiction recovery group. She shared her faith with John, a former addict who was once a violent crime ringleader in the town.
Faces started becoming familiar at a bakery, coffee shop, soup kitchen and various community centres too as Sarah walked around.
Her brother-in-law Nathan Weaver, who pastors New Springs in Sunderland, accompanied her sometimes and helped her get to know the area.
From all these conversations, the church built connections, formed a plan and got started. In September it launched a parent and toddler group on Tuesday mornings, a lunch club and an Alpha course on Tuesday evenings. It also hosted a Halloween alternative Nightlights evening in October.
The team are now looking ahead to Christmas and the New Year.
“We’ve got a whole Christmas programme planned around outreach,” she says. “We’re planning a carol service. We’ll go into the shop- ping centre too and offer to wrap presents for people – just as a way of being there with them.”
“Then we’re looking to launch meetings and are seeking God for a building where we can do all of this.”
As New Springs establishes itself in Hartlepool, Sarah is considering her next move.
“My role is as an evangelist, so I won’t be pastoring the church. Someone else will do that and I’ll go to the next area for six months or so and get to know it in a similar way.”
And how has she found her role as evangelical town detective?
“It’s definitely meant I’ve needed to lean into God more than ever, to make sure my personal devotional life is good and that I’m in a place where I’m hearing from and trusting in him.
“It’s incredibly exciting. There’s nothing I love more than having conversations with people about Jesus!
“It can be hard work. There are times when God just asks me to walk around and pray and I can’t see any results – I end up asking myself if I’ve been effective for Jesus that day.
“But the fact I get to go in without my own agenda and just lean into God has been the best bit about the whole thing!”
• New Springs Churches are part of the Elim Network.