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Tim Hughes on Birmingham church plant: 'a huge adventure that has tested our faith in every way'

In this exclusive interview, Tim Hughes reveals the highs and lows of establishing St Luke's Gas St

Last April you moved from HTB in London to start St Luke’s Gas St in Birmingham. It’s been one year since we last spoke. So what has happened since?

Wow, where to begin? Birmingham diocese had bought this warehouse that used to manufacture gas but we needed to raise £1.2m to begin the renovation process.

When I spoke to you guys last year my big fear - and the thing that kept me up at night - was how on earth am I going to raise £1.2m? I’ve never raised any money in my life and that’s a colossal amount of money.

There was one particular moment when I was in the kitchen with Rach and I was having a low moment, saying ‘this is too much, we’ve bitten off more than we can chew, I don’t think we’re up to this.’ I was down in the dumps.

As I’m grumbling and moaning, my phone goes and it’s this guy saying ‘Tim we want to give you £25,000 toward the vision and the building.’ That was unbelievable. Obviously the money was fantastic but more than anything it was the timing. It was God saying ‘I’ve got this, it’s not resting on your shoulders. Trust me and I will give you everything you need.’

Money has come in and God has provided in incredible ways. We’ve raised £1.2m and a bit toward the next phase. In early February we opened up the building, had a big launch, the bishop of Birmingham and Nicky Gumbel came. 450 gathered for the evening to celebrate.

Before that you were meeting in lots of different venues. How did that work? 

We met this guy who helped oversee Broad St and managed the relationship with the bar owners. We said ‘we need a venue to meet in short term do you know anywhere?’ He said ‘yeah I’ve got just the place. He starts taking us over to this nightclub that’s a Gentlemen’s club – strip bar. You think ‘this is going to be interesting, how do you explain all the poles to the kids?!’ [Laughs]

It became apparent it wasn’t going to work as a venue! But next door was the comedy club Jongleurs. They were incredibly generous, opened up their place for us. So for 3 months we met there on Sunday afternoon’s and began to grow. 

What have been the benefits of having a permanent home at Gas St?

Ultimately the Church is the people not the building but it does help to have a base where people can get familiar with and is a centre and vehicle for you to do ministry.

I think the Church needs to be viral and needs to be meeting however, whenever wherever. The building thing is secondary.

Both worship leading and church planting are viewed by some as being glamorous jobs! But what has been more difficult or challenging for you?

You’re constantly on the edge in terms of levels of faith, feeling out of your depth and at the limit of your capacity. There have definitely been a lot of moments – pastoral situations, a decision needs to be made, or strategy for the way forward – where you feel you're not up to it.

I don’t feel I’m suddenly working harder than ever before but I feel like I’m working with a weight and a sense of responsibility that’s new.

You want to go for it 100% and you want to do everything straight away but actually, you can’t. You’ve got to put in place days off. I don’t want to screw my family over for the sake of the ministry.

The truth is when you’re starting out in anything, you’re almost constantly disappointed. Because you’ve got such high hopes and high vision, you’re constantly thinking ‘that wasn’t quite what I hoped’. We did Alpha and in many ways it was so encouraging how many came. But the other side was ‘I’m disappointed more non-Christians didn’t come.’ You’re living in this tension of huge encouragements and then huge disappointments.

When you’re leading, you feel everything more. The joys are sweeter and the disappointments are more brushing.

It’s been incredibly exciting and one of the most fulfilling and faith filling things I’ve ever been a part of. But it’s definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s a huge adventure that has tested our faith in every way. We’re standing here pinching ourselves at what God has done and what is unfolding.

Your vision is to reach young people and students. A lot of people would say this demographic is uninterested in Church. So how do you interest the uninterested?

One of the things I was interested in with the Talking Jesus research that came out is the group talking the most about things of faith, spirituality Jesus are the millennials – the group which is missing from many churches. So people are interested. But sometimes I think the methods and the way we try to engage them clearly isn’t always working.

The best way to engage that demographic is by mobilising our congregation to be missionally minded. But a lot of it is down to confidence. I think confidence is so low. So often we’re embarrassed and it’s awkward telling my friends. But actually I think people are interested.

How have you built a new community?

We have a phrase for our hosting teams at church ‘no one stands alone’. So if we see anyone on their own, we grab them and draw them into conversation and community.

We have loads of people coming who don’t necessarily have a faith but they’re enjoying the friendship and the community so it then becomes a safe environment for questions of faith.

Rather than playing down the things of the Spirit we’re trying to really go for that. All of these things - prophecy, healing , even the gift of tongues - if you explain it, it takes away some of the weirdness about it.

We had this moment of singing in the Spirit. This guy brought a friend from university who wasn’t a Christian. He’d describe himself as an atheist. He said after that moment, ‘that’s the happiest I’ve ever felt in my life. I don’t know what was going on inside of me but I felt an elation I’ve never felt before’. That began a journey, then last Sunday this guy gave his life to Christ!

What’s it been like leading the church with your wife Rachel?

It’s been amazing working together with Rach. She’s so incredibly gifted, passionate, visionary, communicator. She brings so much drive.

We really felt this calling to lead very much together. So we’ve got 4 young kids under the age of 8. If we’re going to lead together, it means we need to take responsibility together for the kids. If we are going to make space for Rach to lead it meant I have to step up more with the family. Last Sunday Rach was leading the 6pm service. I was the one who went home, put the kids to bed, missed church while she was there leading it all. That was quite a weird experience for me. But it was brilliant and from all accounts it was a phenomenal service and probably a much better service for me not being there!

The best thing we’ve done is once a week praying and worshipping together. Because if we’re not connected spiritually, it becomes very hard to lead together. We’ve got out the habit the last few weeks and its interesting a whole bunch of stuff starts to come up and cause little divisions. Praying together is really key to making it all work.

You said last year that you still wanted to be involved in leading worship. Has that happened?

Yes, leading worship is still a massive part of who I am and what I’m called to do. I’m not leading as much as I was when I was a worship pastor at HTB but that’s right. Anna Hellebronth is our worship pastor and her husband Luke helps me run Worship Central.

Worship Central has moved to Birmingham with you, but it seems to have become a lot more international recently. What are the plans for the UK?

It’s definitely become a lot more international. We’ve got great leaders in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, Netherlands and lots of great stuff bubbling away in Germany and Norway. The opportunities are vast.

We feel really excited about focussing a lot more on doing stuff in the UK over the next couple of years. We haven’t stopped but it’s fair to say we’ve done a bit less. There’s a couple of things I’m excited about that I can’t quite say yet but will be really exciting. And now we’re in Birmingham there’s an opportunity to engage with a lot more people in the UK.

Now that you’re leading a church, will you be able to make as much music and tour?

To be honest I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to miss a Sunday. There’s no other place I’d rather be.

Yeah I probably won’t be putting out quite as much music, but I’ve never been wildly prolific. Longer term for me, where I get excited is seeing young songwriters who hear things totally differently, writing amazing music.

I hope I’m not writing the same old songs in the same old way as I get older. I feel like some of our music needs a bit of freshness and that’s going to come through young people reimagining it. I’m excited to do what I can to encourage and release that.

How can people be praying for you and your vision for Birmingham?

I’d love people to pray that we see God’s Spirit doing this stuff. At the end of the day we can try all we like but as Proverbs says ‘unless the Lord builds the house the labourers work in vain’.

It just feels like there’s so many opportunities. We need real wisdom in what to throw our weight behind and faith to keep stepping out. Now we’ve got the building, the next step of faith is to fill it. 

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