About 'The Tribe' and urban evangelism
Andy Hawthorne is the Director of The Message Trust – which has birthed The Tribe; EDEN; the Xcelerate evangelist training school; The LifeCentre; Planet Life; The EDEN bus ministry and lots more.
He was born in Manchester and since ‘The Message’ in 1988, much to Andy’s surprise, he’s developed into a preacher and writer. He has been involved in developing a multi-level strategy to see every young person in Manchester having repeated opportunities to accept or reject Jesus.
Andy is also a popular conference speaker at Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, New Wine, Stoneleigh, Easter People and many more. His burning passion is to see the young people of his city transformed by the gospel.
In this interview, he talks to Huw Lewis, Director of Multiply and a senior leader in the Jesus Fellowship.
Huw: Andy, you’re a gospel man. How have you managed to identify with people without compromising the gospel? Have you found that bit of a challenge?
Andy: I’ve not found it a challenge until this year. I’m a very blunt evangelist and tell it it is wherever I can. The band is unashamed, godly and we make sure we preach at every gig. If we’re asked to do a gig where we can’t preach the gospel then we don’t do it.
The hard thing has been this year doing the huge Festival in Manchester. We’ve got partnerships with the police and local councils who are getting on board and giving us money and support. That means doing a round of meetings with people who just don’t understand our language and vision. You could throw millions of pounds into these areas, but unless God changes the heart of the people we’re stuffed and we might as well flush it down the toilet.
How did you first find Jesus?
I’ve always lived in Manchester and was brought up in a Christian family – my mum became a Christian when I was about three. I found the local Anglican church boring and when I was 11, decided church wasn’t for me!
About a year later a Christian band came to play at a youth club I was going to and at the end of their concert an American evangelist preached and I gave my life to Christ. For about six months I went to church and Bible studies, but soon ‘lost the plot’ and became a rebel in my teenage years and got into all sorts of trouble at school.
Right the way through secondary school my mum was praying for me and every Christmas she’d buy me and my two brothers a Christian book. We’d always ignore them and put them on the bookshelf.
When I was 17 and my brother Simon was 19, he started going out with a girl who was getting interested in Jesus. On one occasion she went into a second-hand bookshop in Blackpool, about 50 miles away from us, and saw a book on the shelf called “Turned on to Jesus” by Arthur Blessit. She picked it up, took it home and read it. She was impressed enough by it to give it to Simon, who opened the book and, to his amazement, read on the inside “To Simon, with love from Mum, Christmas 1974”. This was one of these books that my mum had bought us!
So, he read it hungrily and driving down the road in his Bedford van, he gave his life to Christ, was filled with the Spirit and broke down crying like a little baby! Simon was a rebel, into drugs and the punk rock scene. It was really through him that I came back to Christ.
What year would that be?
That was 1977. I was 17. That night when I got home after hearing Simon give his testimony, I knelt down by my bedside, saying “God I really want to go for it, if You’ll have me back.” I just didn’t know if God would have me back! I went to sleep on my knees on my bedroom floor and when I woke up I definitely felt different and found that I had a great heart to tell other people about Jesus. I believe God gifted me as an evangelist that night. And for the last 25 years a heart for evangelism is what’s kept me going.
What did that lead to?
Shortly after that, I went into a small fashion business with Simon. In 1987, braces came into fashion for ladies, because Lady Diana started wearing them, so we went from having one brace machine with one lad to suddenly having orders for something like a million pairs of braces!
We borrowed some money from the bank, bought some machinery and started making braces. We took on about 30 young lads over a short period of time and found that they were an absolute nightmare -fighting, causing trouble, nicking loads of stuff and covering the factory in graffiti!
But what really got to us was that these lads were absolute pagans. It wasn’t just their behaviour, but their lack of knowledge of anything Christian – all of them. Jesus was literally just a swearword. We felt the church had got to do something about it. It was all very well having big churches in the suburbs, but here were whole communities running riot and causing all sorts of problems because nobody had shared the love of God with them.
So what did you do about it?
We decided to write to every church in Manchester and face them with a challenge to get involved in youth mission. We then booked the biggest rock venue in Manchester – the Apollo Theatre – for a week, which was half a mile from our factory. It was completely arrogant and naive really. I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing? This sounds ridiculous, you don’t know people, you’ve not got the finances or the contacts.
That night God spoke to me through some words from Isaiah 43: “See I’m doing a new thing… There will be rivers in the desert…. Streams in the waste land”. It was just like God was saying these crazy young guys are formed to declare my praise and they’re going to honour me. It was that night that the vision of ‘Message’ was born – not just for Manchester, but for the toughest young people of Manchester.
How did you make the dream a reality?
We launched ‘Message ’88’ which was a week’s event. We had 300 local missions all across the city and 20,000 young people came to the Apollo during the week. It was an amazing time of blessing. We did it again in ’89. By then braces had gone out of fashion and the business went into liquidation.
How did the ‘World Wide Message Tribe’ come about?
A friend of mine, Mark Pennells, who’d been in a band, came to see me. He’d become disillusioned with success, record deals and big gigs and wanted to go to schools and share Jesus, using his musical gift. We set up something called ‘Message to Schools’ which involved doing school assemblies and lunch time concerts and preaching in the evening. He would do the music and I would preach.
One day, about a year into this, we were sitting in the recording studio and I just started messing about doing some rapping, and they all loved this funny Sesame Street style clowning around! We made a track and when I came on to do my preaching I used this daft track called ‘Revival’ and all the kids loved it! So we put more and more of this rap music in his set, got a couple of other people to sing, and a couple of dancers involved and we decided to form a band. I’m not a singer, not a dancer – definitely not a rapper! But God just gave me this amazing platform for the gospel. Suddenly, the ‘World Wide Message Tribe’ became known in the Christian scene all over the world. We got asked to do big gigs but we really wanted to reach kids in the toughest schools.
Did you find it a bit of a pressure when you became more and more successful to stick to that vision?
We said from the start that the schools work comes first. We aim to visit 25 schools a year. Anything else, no matter how big, has to be turned down if it clashes with this.
We had quite good fun doing a school in Ramsbottom when we turned down the chance to perform to 70 million people on international TV and receive a Dove award! Since then we’ve always said the ‘Tribe’ (as the band is now known) will only go outside Manchester if it benefits what we’re doing here. It’s grown now, and we’ve got nine schools teams and we’ve just taken on another band. This is our mission field.
How has the ‘Tribe’ developed and changed over these last 15 years?
The big thing that has happened is the ‘Eden Project’ which was born out of the work of the Tribe, particularly a couple of missions we did in Wythenshawe. At the end of two weeks we had a fantastic concert where 100 kids responded to the gospel Even better – they all turned up at Kings Church, Wythenshawe on Sunday! This little church of 20 people suddenly had an invasion of 100 inner city scallywags! We realised that there’d got to be something long term in place. This is a tough calling that doesn’t work by just dropping into school for a week a year.
I felt we needed dozens of workers actually living there and not just going in doing a youth club on a Tuesday night.
Personally I believe that’s why the Tribe have been given this platform, to recruit workers for the tough places.
And that’s how the Eden Project actually started?
Yes. I shared the idea with church leaders from many of the big churches in Manchester, and I said to them that this project is only going to work if they’d pray for us, give us their best people and support us financially. Our first Eden Project was in Wythenshawe, which was then the most deprived ward in Britain.
So you’ve had a lot of support from local churches?
Amazingly enough, they agreed with my challenges and have been as good as their word.
Do you actually send hand picked teams Into particular areas, or do people feel a calling?
People generally feel a calling and we do try to spread the net wide. We put volunteers through a fairly rigorous selection procedure, which involves personality profiles, application forms, formal interviews, visiting their church and meeting the leadership.
The cause of the poor is white hot in God’s heart.
And what is the situation now with the Eden Projects?
We’ve now got 150 workers living in eight of the most deprived estates in Manchester. They either move in and work with a desperate, small Local church, or plant a church and build something from grass roots. This involves lots of serving evangelism, social action but also proclamation of the gospel.
But you’re having an impact in some of the most deprived communities.
Yes, a huge impact and the police are realising that. We’ve had crime reduction awards from the police two years running.
The Eden buses support what’s happening in the projects?
Yes, it’s a sort of detached youth work really, just to make contact with the kids. But also they go where the church can’t go, right into the heart of the action, and be able to get out quickly if necessary!
What have been the greatest difficulties you’ve faced?
There has been lots of opposition. Initially, we faced opposition from local churches and misunderstanding. Some churches feel: why should this church have 30 youth workers when we’re desperate for one or two? There have been all sorts of rumours and slander about us. However, the projects have now been going five or six years and we’re trusted by the agencies and by the other churches. It’s a constant financial challenge, because in faith we’ve got the word of the Lord, and we know this is a righteous cause, but we live absolutely on a knife edge. We’ve got about 50 full time staff now and we really are a faith ministry. It’s exciting when the money comes in, but waiting for it to come in is absolute pain!
How do you seek to train these teenagers who have just come through to the Lord?
We have a course called ‘Xcelerate‘ which is very much an evangelist training school to identify gifted young evangelists and equip them. The people on the course spend half their time in Bible teaching and ministry, and half their time out on the projects, working, helping us to fulfil our purpose to this city. Some people come for five months and very often stay longer.
The volunteers who move into the Eden Projects aim to disciple and mentor a small group of young people. They really give themselves to damaged young people who have come to faith and work stuff through with them – it takes time and commitment.
Do you find that you’re now seeing some of those local kids actually carrying on the work themselves in their own community?
We’re just starring to. The only way it’s sustainable is if enough people get saved in these communities.
And I guess that in time you’ll be looking to find real leaders among them?
Absolutely, that’s the dream. Generally it takes a long time and a lot of being there for people through lots of struggles and lots of failures.
How important do you see your big Festival Manchester?
The ethos behind that is trying to be kingdom people. Jesus talked about the kingdom as salt and light. The salt is actually the invisible thing that goes in. He also talked about the kingdom as a lamp on a stand, a light on a hill, -visible for all people. It’s trying to keep that healthy tension. The church at its best is known to care for the poor and be sacrificial, but it also knows how to party! It’s extravagant, it’s generous.
We did something similar with Message 2000. We had 10,000 people working on the streets doing the invisible stuff for 10 days, putting on huge free parties in the Evening News Arena and it was amazing, I felt like 10 years work was done in 10 days!
What was lasting fruit of the Message 2000 event?
I could show you nine inner city churches that were born at that time as well as a couple of our Eden Projects. For example, in Openshaw, we took over an empty Salvation Army building. Our teams did a lot of detached work in the estates, with servant evangelism, and birthed a charismatic church which is now bursting at the seams, full of ex-heroin addicts and alcoholics – real gutsy Salvation Army at its best without the uniforms and brass band!
What scale are we talking about for Festival Manchester?
There’ll be 10,000 people on the streets again with 400 projects going on, and churches right across the streams involved. At the end of the week we’re doing a huge, free party in Heaton Park – the biggest Park in Manchester. We’ve got a funfair and a food court, the biggest skate park Manchester’s ever seen, a motor show – anything to get a vast crowd in. There’s a main stage programme where we’re having world renowned artists and preachers like Luis Palau. We’re believing for 50,000 people a day.
How are you going to handle follow up of all the people who find Jesus?
Obviously, we’ve been networking with local churches for the last 15 years, so we now have 500 churches coveting the city and thousands of workers out there ready to support the follow up. People still fail away, but Jesus promised that. Alpha is a key part of it. We’ve recently had a big training conference with Nicky Gumbel and Sandy Miller, so we’re prepared.
We’ve also just finished our own new course called ‘Fresh’ which is a teenage radical discipleship course. Where do you sense you’re going from here?
There are two main directions. Firstly, we need to bend back into our youth focus after this festival. The other thing is developing strategic partnerships with key cities in the North. We’re working with leaders in Liverpool and Sheffield to think about extending ‘Planet Life’ which is our monthly celebration. We’re looking for people with the same heart, vision and values, in a city, who want to replicate this.
How has your own ministry changed? You’re an evangelist first and foremost. Do you feel a bit tied down in organisation?
The problem with a ministry that grows from £15,000 turnover in the first year, to £3 million this year is handling all the administration.
Basically, I want to be freed up to do four things. Firstly, to communicate – particularly evangelistically – to the lost, Secondly, to raise up and train evangelists and stir a passion for the lost. Thirdly, to work on promoting what’s happening and networking. Fourthly, and, probably the most important of all, to bring vision.
We’ve just taken on David Morgan who will be looking after the whole operation. We’re calling him Executive Director, but his job is concerned with all the Health & Safety issues, training, personnel and finance.
Why isn’t evangelism in our nation more effective?
I think our biggest hindrance to the gospel in this nation is materialism. We’ve got a church that’s absolutely addicted to things, and we’re never satisfied. That dreadful advert on TV with Elton John and all these parcels pouring down sums up this lifestyle of acquisition – more, more, more for me. Sadly, we’re all his disciples to one degree or another and the church has bought into that – hook, line and sinker. That’s why Eden is so powerful and so prophetic because it’s not just following the Great Commission, it’s also breaking that worldly culture and going against that lifestyle. It’s the exact opposite!
Materialism has got such a grip on us so there has to be a daily breaking through of its power. If we were left to it we will always conform to the pattern of this world and its culture – ‘God can have my 10 per cent and the rest is mine’ or ‘I’ll go to church, I’ll go to the Bible study but it never affects me in terms of radical discipleship’. The encouraging thing is there is a whole group of people starting to rise up who are challenging this materialism.
Do you carry any other burdens for the church?
A vision of mine is a church that is extravagant in serving the poorest of the poor with people and resources.
I’d also love to see greater concern for our brothers and sisters who are persecuted. Let’s not forget those who are being locked up and tortured right at this moment, just for doing what we’re going to do this summer – trying to make Jesus known.
We must keep grateful about the few resources we have got when faced with a great sea of need and apathy and a sin-soaked society. At the moment we’ve got a trickle in the desert, but there’s a flood to come.
Is there anything else you want to say about your work or vision?
The key thing is we have a passion for united prayer for mission. The battle is won in the heavenlies. If we try to meet together to pray about a doctrine or how to do church, we’re going to fallout. But if we pray for the lost we tend to agree on that.
We try to build into team life here a message, a rhythm of prayer, with every day starting with prayer, and once a month we retreat for a whole day to pray. We’ve got a prayer room that’s open continuously to bring our requests before God.
Are you an optimist about the future?
Yes, I’m optimistic because I don’t think God’s finished with us yet. At times like this when things seem so desperate God loves to work, We do live in the only bit of the world where the Christian church isn’t growing, but God’s got to build His church. If we can be faithful and stay close to Him, we’re going to see some amazing things in these next years.
This article was taken from our Jesus Life magazine, and was first published in September 2003.
A weekly newsletter keeping you up to date with the ongoing work of the Jesus Fellowship.