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Lessons from the higher tour

Over the last decade, it seems as if the Church has backed away from big-scale evangelism. But as J John brings the gospel to the Emirates Stadium, The Message’s Tom Butler reflects on last year’s Higher Tour and asks whether large evangelistic events have a place in 2017

In early 2016, The Message embarked on the biggest coordinated schools mission ever in Greater Manchester, visiting 55 secondary schools over three intense weeks as part of the Higher Tour. Our schools mission teams took lessons with every year group asking: “What is faith?” and: “Who is God?” Through our six teams (big shout out to our partners Chip Kendall, LZ7 and Twelve24) we were able to reach about 35,000 young people in school.

At the end of each session, we invited the young people to join us at one of four massive gigs at the Apollo in Manchester. Here we were able to share the gospel boldly and we saw thousands of young people choosing to give their lives to Jesus for the first time. It was incredible!

But it didn’t stop there. The very core of our vision for Higher is that we might “see disciples, not just decisions”. We didn’t just want a bunch of hands going up in the heat of the moment, but for these precious young people to get connected to a local church and begin a lifelong journey of discipleship.

Every new Christian was given a copy of the Bible and connected via our Higher app to one of our partner churches who were running a bunch of youth sessions tailored for those just starting out in their faith.

The vast majority of young people don’t actually know any Christians or spend any time around the Church: the gospel is something new and interesting which provokes fascination

It was an unforgettable month, a really special time. Our vision of genuine partnership with local churches to see real disciples - who would go on to impact their families, friends and even whole school with the message of Jesus - had become a reality. Here are a few stories:

Nathan, one of the young people who gave their life to Christ at Higher, had suffered from anxiety and self-harm as a result of bullying at school. He’s now running a project at his school that seeks to help people experiencing bullying. “God took away my anxiety,” he says. “The Higher Tour was just the beginning of my journey with God - but it was an amazing start.”

One young person from an estate in Old Trafford - a self-confessed pagan - had put graffiti on the door of their local youth worker’s house in order to cast a spell. They got invited along to one of the gigs at the Apollo and became a Christian.

Another teenager who encountered God powerfully at one of the Higher events has now been free from self-harm for over a year. She says: “When I feel an urge to self-harm I look to God for help. I have a personal relationship with Jesus and a church family who love and support me.”

We’ve heard story after story like these; we’ve heard from youth groups who have been revived with a bunch of Bible-loving young people and we’ve seen the temperature of faith rise across the Church in Manchester.

Now, we’re taking Higher to the Midlands, Wales, Yorkshire, Manchester (again) and a load of other places across the country so we can see the same level of generation-shifting responses to the gospel throughout our nation.

“I was a sceptic at first, but these miracles work”

To be honest, I used to say I’d never work for organisations like The Message Trust. After ten years spent in church-based youth work, I’d seen so much fruit from one-to-one conversations and groups numbered in the tens rather than the tens of thousands. My passion has always been about genuine discipleship rather than flash-in-the-pan conversions - I always thought evangelism was great, but that not enough time was devoted to genuine follow-up with new Christians.

But, after six years working with a church in Manchester, I sensed God was moving me on and a door opened up at The Message, giving me the opportunity to play a part in shaping the Higher Tour. The vision blew me away: this was a full-on, evangelistic mission with a heart to see genuine discipleship - discipleship that could see a generation transformed by the power of Jesus; how could I turn the opportunity down?!

So I jumped in. We set about creating a bunch of resources, built an app, raised funds to give away thousands of Bibles for free and, in partnership with YFC and Light, produced the discipleship youth sessions that would be used for follow-up. We also invested in relationships with church and youth leaders who were passionate about seeing young people come to know Jesus.

After all the excitement and the noise had died down, I found myself in a quiet office with a cuppa in my hand and a blank piece of paper in front of me. It was time to report to our trustees about Higher Manchester - time to answer the all-important question: what did we learn? That’s the question that forces us to face up to our shortcomings, hear from our critics and accept that, despite pulling off this humungous feat, there were probably a bunch of things we could have done better.

So, what did we learn from Higher Manchester?

Young people still want to respond to the gospel

Children and young people are genuinely open to God. Our teams spent loads of time in schools and saw this across the board - young people are more open than ever to talking about God and want to know more. In a strange way, we think this might because the vast majority don’t actually know any Christians or spend any time around the Church. It seems that the gospel is something new and interesting that provokes fascination.

We have unreached people right under our noses

Through Higher Manchester, we recorded 200 young people who went through our six follow-up sessions who had had absolutely no contact with any of our partner churches before. These were young people who had never connected with a Christian before. There were plenty more who went through the sessions, but these 200 are really significant to me because we were their very first experience of Church. To be honest, though, I wish that those 200 were the rule rather than the exception; I wish we saw more young people who started their journey of discipleship and were completely new to Church.

So we’re working on making our resources even more accessible: getting creative about how we unpack the Bible for those to whom it is an alien concept; coming up with ideas for how we can better throw open the doors of our local churches to welcome new people in.

It’s not easy, but it’s the greatest cause to give your life to. I truly believe that it’s only through our dogged persistence that we’ll see this shift, so we’re making extra space for what we’re calling ‘legacy’: after every Higher mission, we’re building opportunities to do more work to open doors for the completely unreached.

Partnership is hard work

We linked up with over 30 youth leaders and almost 70 churches across Greater Manchester. Now, I’m married with two kids and two lodgers and we usually struggle to keep up with each other! Running something of this scale and communicating well with all the parties involved is tricky. But it’s the only way forward: if we’re serious about discipleship, we’ve got to do it as community and as family. It doesn’t work otherwise.

I’ve learnt that it’s impossible to over-communicate when it comes to church partnership. The more clear and open we can be, the better.

One teenager who encountered God at one of the Higher events has now been free from self-harm for over a year

Schools are still open to us

It’s still possible for Christians to go into schools. Booking schools wasn’t impossible, although there’s still plenty of effort involved. Building good connections is crucial, especially when it comes to the detail of things like timetables.

The history and experience of The Message definitely helped. We’ve been working in schools regularly since 1992, and that speaks volumes. But often, as far as schools are concerned, we’re seen as a professional service that helps them to tick a box on their next Ofsted inspection.

This is where Higher is neat: we don’t shy away from the gospel in schools, but often it’s not appropriate to ask for a response to Jesus in the middle of a lesson. But, once we’ve engaged with young people, and they join us for one of our gigs, we’re much more free to invite them into a relationship with Christ.

Technology is important, but face-to-face communication remains paramount

We spent plenty of time working on the Higher app in the lead up to Higher Manchester in 2016. It had a bunch of features, including a way to buy gig tickets and a church finder based on your current location.

But we found that the majority of young people downloaded the app at one of the Apollo events rather than in school, so going forward we’ve changed tack: now, version two is going to be focused entirely on follow-up - still connecting young people to their local church, but also giving them easy access to our discipleship resources.

But through all this we saw that technology will never replace the amazing youth workers we partnered with. Regardless of the map on the screen, if there was no relationship there it was a waste of time. So we’re pushing ahead to make the best app we can, but also ensuring we don’t do this at the expense of seeing incredible, real-life youth work at the other end.

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