Bubble football, archery tag, trampolines, fairground rides, water walkers, flight simulators, fencing – and of course music! These are just a few of the delights on offer at last weekend's Big Church Day Out (BCDO).
My family and I joined around 22,000 others at the Wiston Estate grounds in West Sussex. Many church groups now choose to camp together onsite, some travel down each day and others, like us, have comfortable (and warm) accommodation awaiting us not far from the site.
The Big Church Day Out sees itself as a 'huge church family meeting' that seeks to unite the diverse expressions of church across the country. Organised by former Delirous? keyboard player and manager Tim Jupp, from midday until midnight each day the music programme is packed with artists from around the world, and there are a range of activities for young and old alike to enjoy.
The bazaar area gave space for more than 100 organisations to advertise and share more of their vision. Some were also given time on the stages in between acts, and I loved the way that it opened our children's eyes to the bigger picture. While enjoying worshipping together, we can also plug into the amazing work that is being done around the world to reach out to communities with practical help as well as the gospel, sharing the love of Jesus in word and deed. It's wonderful to be able to provide our children with a sense of wider mission – that we are a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
I loved that Tearfund announced their Give Like Jesus appeal there, too. The organisation was asking for festival goers to pledge £5 a month to provide meals for people facing extreme hunger, with the goal of funding one million meals. With a generous sponsor willing to match the amount pledged at BCDO for a year, the goal was surpassed by the end of the final day. It was fantastic to see a real difference being made.
Our family highlights
The highlights of BCDO for us as a family included archery and catching up with others from our church. My daughter and I loved the Mercy Ministries pampering and then sat enthralled at the 'evening with CS Lewis'. We love worshipping together (particularly in the car!) to Jesus Culture so it was fantastic to see them back this year, especially as Kim Walker-Smith and the Torwalts were there. Newworldson were fantastic, and Matt Redman rounded off the weekend with an amazing time of worship on the Sunday evening. There is nothing like worshipping with thousands of others as the sun goes down – the atmosphere was incredible.
Brilliant for young people
One of the great things about BCDO is how it attracts young people. At an age where standing out from the crowd is difficult and churches often lose them to other draws, it is wonderful for teenagers to have a credible event to attend in which they can be part of something much bigger and realise they aren't alone.
It is also a place they can bring non-believing friends to without cringing. My eldest niece had three friends with her – one of whom had been the year before and loved it so much she encouraged their other friends to come too. No profession of faith as yet, but the musical acts are very forthright about their beliefs, and all three are already asking to go again next year. I wonder whether BCDO provides a place in which people with questions or those who want to make a commitment can chat things through and get prayer. It is easy to get caught up in a moment in a crowd – and each evening had a powerful 'altar call' – far harder to walk out that faith back in the reality of everyday life, so some helpful input would be really useful.
A day out for everyone?
In the week running up to the event we had seen various church leaders, and, rather inevitably, our conversations turned to BCDO. One pastor told us it is the weekend each year with the lowest attendance at their church, and that they now come to expect that each year.
I found it interesting to hear our now retired pastor's thoughts. He told me that he used to find the BCDO weekend a nightmare when he was the pastor, as so many people went away to it. But, now, he wonders whether we worry too much about services and meetings and whether there should be more emphasis on being able to enjoy one another's company and be community together. BCDO certainly gives opportunity for that – but not for everyone. We discussed how, while some churches that are situated fairly near the festival shut the church down for the weekend and encourage members to go, we have decided not to do that.
I am very conscious, with a wheelchair-bound mum who could never sit on the ground in a field or spend long on a hard chair in the more civilised tea tent area, that the event, while being considerate of all types of users, is very much for the young and young at heart. Yes there are more sedate areas, lovely grounds to wander in, gospel and brass bands, but at its heart is the pumping energy of the main stage and all the noisy activities around the site. I think the long hours are hard enough on families with small children, but I can't imagine the more mature members of churches finding the length of day and level of noise that easy to deal with, either.
The cost of an event like BCDO, though kept as low as possible and no profit is made, can also be too much for some, which is another reason why we have chosen not to shut our Sunday church service down. We had a great time catching up with the few families from our church who went – but I know we left many more behind.
Having said all that, the range of artists and activities packed into the weekend is phenomenal, and I can totally see the benefit of church groups utilising the weekend to build family and friendship. I applaud Tim and the other organisers for their vision and for the way they draw so many from the world of worship and other Christian music.
For those who feel up to braving the rather basic camping facilities, the weekend is a fun-filled, activity-packed extravaganza and a unique opportunity to experience an eclectic range of Christian music. There is definitely nothing else quite like it.