Praise lights up Leicester
The 25th anniversary of the annual "Christian Praise!" was held in the heart of the UK earlier in the month.
Hundreds were at Leicester's famed De Montfort Hall, enjoying two hours of praise and worship in what is invariably the city's largest annual indoor Christian event.
British fitness guru Rosemary Connelly was on hand and proved a hit as she spoke eloquently, her slim figure adorned in a fitted blue dress. But this time she wasn't speaking on her physical diet, but her spiritual diet.
Connelly told how she was brought up in a Christian family but went to church "only out of habit". In 1968, she married her first husband, started her now well-known slimming classes and subsequently had a daughter. Everything at this time was so good that, apart from weddings and funerals, she didn't feel the need or necessity to go to church. All that changed in the early 80s, when she was approached to open her classes nationally and wasn't prepared.
By 1985, the business had folded, her marriage had collapsed and gallstones had left her hospitalised and in great pain.
"My life was a complete mess," she remembers.
Connelly began to read other people's testimonies, Christian testimonies such as that of Sir Cliff Richard, the British "Peter Pan of Pop". She felt that she'd made a mess of her life and was searching, consciously or unconsciously, for meaning and purpose.
"I was ashamed of all the things I'd done in my 40 years," she admitted.
One night, she knelt and prayed for the first time since childhood.
"There were no flashing lights or claps of thunder as I climbed into bed after praying on my knees, but I remember feeling a great sense of excitement. Something had changed," she went on to say.
That was a Friday night. By the following Friday she had proposed to an ex-boyfriend who had, in between her prayer and that time, come back into her life, and they have now been married almost 26 years whilst her business has subsequently flourished beyond her wildest dreams.
"God just opened doors for me and carried me through the most extraordinary 25 years. He has transformed my life without a doubt," she told the captive audience.
Meanwhile the gospel choir, "OAKS of Leicester" performed some powerful numbers which kept worshippers on their feet and their hands in the air. Smartly dressed in red shirts and black suits, they looked the part and their gospel-trained voices raised the roof.
And then there's the large, awesome choir that this event is renowned for.
"Christian Praise!" is never truly complete without the colorful, all-age multicultural choir and they sang enthusiastically and with passion throughout the afternoon session.
Roy Crowne, executive director of mission initiative HOPE Together gave an extremely inspiring speech. He became a Christian at the age of 16, after an invite to a Christian event from a fellow student.
"He lied to me," said Crowne. "He told me it would be fun."
Such humour interspersed with much inspiration ensured that the audience were entertained and that everyone left inspired and challenged.
Crowne is an inspiring man indeed. After coming to faith, within two weeks he'd read the entire Bible from cover to cover.
"Genesis was OK. Leviticus, well, that was a bit of a challenge. Song of Solomon - I'm glad that was in there!" he recalled, sending the audience into roars of laughter.
But amidst such humour, there were challenges and a serious message too.
"Pentecost is not about how to survive but how to thrive. There will be purpose and plans rolled out for our lives. Have you stopped dreaming dreams for the purpose of God?" he asked, before going on to warn that once that happens, "something dies within you".
Crowne is a living example of how dreams, when coupled with prayer, can and do often flourish and prosper. He told of his fortuitous meeting with Prince Charles that then led to an audience with the Queen and subsequently to he and his organisation succeeding in putting grace back onto the agenda by persuading Her Majesty to allow her story of faith to be included in special Jubilee copies of the New Testament.
He still faced the obstacle of having the Bibles printed cost effectively but that was no big challenge to a prayerful man like Crowne, and he had soon persuaded the NIV to print the Bibles for just 50p a copy for a run of 150,000. Even such a low price would sound like a financial risk to most, but Crowne doesn't seem to like the word "impossible".
"As of Friday, half a million copies of this New Testament will be printed," he announced to great applause.
"When God puts a dream in your heart, big doors open on small hinges. It starts with a dream. Once you get a dream you need to pray, and you need to pray big prayers," said Crowne, and all those who hear his testimony realise he is someone who knows about praying big prayers.
He also spoke of his longing for the churches to come together in unity and lamented that those outside the church cannot understand why we, as Christian believers, cannot get along.
"Jesus sees one church, the body of Christ, so we'd better find a way to get along because otherwise when we're in Heaven, there's going to be a problem!"
It was said in a humorous way, but clearly contained a serious message which many took with them as they left the venue.
One woman from Bible Hall Fellowship in the city brought three non-Christian families and friends along to the afternoon event and said that all enjoyed it.
"My father-in-law would have preferred some old hymns though," she added with a smile. Her 16 year old daughter thoroughly enjoyed herself, she said, "especially on hearing Rosemary Connelly's speech, since she's into her fitness regimes".
Catherine Hingston from Trinity Life Church in Highfields, an inner city area of Leicester, has been attending the annual even for the last twenty years. She said: "It was so uplifting with a combination of worship and testimonies, very varied, and a great opportunity to meet people from other churches."
Whilst attendance from some churches proved disappointing this year, there were many pastors who went the extra mile in recruiting attendees for this special 25th anniversary celebration.
St Luke's Church, Thurnby, a village just east of Leicester's city boundaries, had around 100 of its congregation attend, and Alastair Gray, pastor of Wheatsheaf Christian Community Church, Leicester, supported the event by cancelling the regular Sunday morning worship session at his church in favour of encouraging people to attend the event instead.
A committed supporter of local Christian initiatives, he went so far as to offer to pay for tickets for those who couldn't afford the entrance fee.
Well over 1,000 people attended the events over the course of the afternoon and evening. As a part of the worship, a total of over £5,500 was donated in aid of charitable organisations including Celibrate, supporting and uplifting people practicing chastity in an over sexualised society, Open Hands, a charity local to the venue working with people from disadvantages backgrounds, and the global development charity Christian Aid.
Mike Howitt, President of Christian Praise! said, "It has been good to see the event back again after missing 2010. We made a big departure from previous years in holding it on a Sunday, and we have been pleased to see that many Christians supported this experimental change. The organizing team is already planning the way ahead so that the opportunity for churches to worship together will long continue through Christian Praise!"
During the evening event, four people gave their lives to the Lord, and two re-committed. It is likely that many more that didn't come forward nevertheless left the venue touched, inspired and possibly transformed forever through an event that has stood the test of time and brought countless people to God, or into a new relationship with Him.