In just a few weeks, Manchester will be playing host to one of the biggest Christian missions in the region for a generation.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to come to Festival Manchester, being held free of charge in the city's Wythenshawe Park from 1 to 3 July with Matt Redman and Lecrae among others on the line-up.
The festival is being put on by The Message Trust and Luis Palau Association in partnership with local churches, charities and businesses.
But The Message Trust's Andy Hawthorne says the vision is to be more than just a festival, with hundreds of social action projects taking place in the build-up under the umbrella of Love Where U Live.
Andy speaks to Christian Today about his hopes for Festival Manchester and why in all his years of ministry, he's never seen the UK so open to the Gospel.
CT: The pandemic forced the cancellation of so many large-scale events and festivals. How does it feel to finally be putting on something like Festival Manchester and Love Where U Live?
Andy: At the height of the pandemic, when travel restrictions were eased for a while, I managed to get away on a retreat to Scotland and I just felt God speak to me 'don't be afraid, don't be discouraged, for I will be with you in whatever you are doing'. Joshua 1 came to me repeatedly and it's really on the back of that that we've embarked on what we believe could be the biggest mission in Manchester for many generations.
So it's a little bit terrifying but we're also very excited and it's going to be amazing to gather again. We are expecting tens of thousands of people over the weekend, and in the build-up we will be running a couple of hundred social action projects, so it's going to be quite something.
CT: This is a really community-focused festival. What impact are you seeing from the pandemic on local communities around Manchester?
Andy: There are so many struggling families but The Message Trust, in partnership with local churches, is helping to feed them with the launch of something called community groceries. The way the community grocery works is that families pay just £4 but can fill their whole basket. There are well over 20,000 member families across Manchester and we have seen hundreds of decisions for Christ. We'll be launching our 18th community grocery in the next month, and in the coming year, we expect to provide 10 million meals through the community groceries.
It's very much about both words and actions. So as well as feeding struggling families, we want to make sure that we give them the bread of life, which is what Festival Manchester is about.
CT: The event is being put on completely free of charge. Why is that?
Andy: It was important that the festival be free because so many families are struggling to pay for amazing days out for their families. There will be a funfair, an extreme sports zone, a huge beach, a kids zone and a mainstage with live music, all of it free. And everywhere the good news is going to be shared so we're believing for many thousands of people to come to Christ over the weekend. That's something to get excited about for sure.
CT: Have you already seen any decisions for Christ in the social projects you have run so far in the build-up to Festival Manchester?
Andy: Yes, big time. We were involved in Love Wythenshawe which has been held twice in the build-up to Festival Manchester and we have seen hundreds of decisions for Christ. Around 80 per cent of the congregation at my own home church was reached through Love Where U Live, Love Wythenshawe and the community grocery. That's given me a real taste of what could come right across the region.
CT: We hear a lot about how challenging the spiritual climate is in the UK. Do you feel that to be the case in Manchester?
Andy: Wherever there's faith and vision, God is doing extraordinary things. A lot of people are really struggling and a lot of churches are feeling fearful but, honestly, in my lifetime - and I've been a Christian for almost 50 years - people have never been so open to the Gospel. I've never known a time when it's been easier to lead people to Jesus.
During the pandemic, people have been confronted with their own mortality, and there has been despair and fear about the future. The goodness of Jesus speaks into all those things like nothing else. So we are sensing a real openness and the Church really needs to step up at a time like this.
I know there are many Christians feeling exhausted but we can't miss this opportunity. That's why we felt it was time to just go for it with Festival Manchester. And it's not just The Message Trust; there are hundreds of churches across the region stepping up. It feels pretty unprecedented.
CT: It sounds like a real partnership with local churches?
Andy: At The Message Trust, we like to say that we live or die by the local church. Our local church partners have given more to this mission than any other mission I've been involved in, not only financially but in supplying thousands of volunteers and we've been out and about putting on training with local church members in how to do friendship evangelism, teaching people how they can best share the Gospel in word and action.
We've got teams prayer walking every street in Manchester and we're looking for 500 people in local churches to foster and adopt children. There are so many good things happening and it's all through the local church. At the end of the day, Festival Manchester and Love Where U Live will only be as successful as the local church is able to step up and get involved.
CT: What kinds of projects are you doing for Love Where U Live?
Andy: We are running fun days, doing up people's gardens, painting and refurbishing houses that have fallen into disrepair, and just generally making the community look better. Anything imaginative and creative really, and all while sharing the Good News within that context. We're planting 5,000 fruit trees so that the festival is carbon neutral and our prayer is that the city looks better at the end of this festival then when we started. It's basically a chance for the city to have a party and to do everything we can to bless Manchester.
CT: What is your hope in terms of the legacy and long-term impact on the city?
Andy: We've had some incredible prophetic words from people saying that it's going to be transformational for our region - and we're praying and believing for nothing less. It's not just about more people in church on Sunday. Of course we hope that will happen, but we believe that this will be a by-product of lives being changed, families changing and communities changing. We want family life to flourish, crime to come down, and Jesus to be honoured like never before in our region.
Festival Manchester takes place from 1 to 3 July in Manchester's Wythenshawe Park and is completely free of charge.