Most ex-national newspaper journalists would probably be able to reel off an impressive list of festivals and exhibitions that had punctuated their professional life: G8, Ideal Home, Glasto, Expo.
Me? After nearly three decades with The Times, it's primarily three – Greenbelt, Spring Harvest and the Christian Resources Exhibition (although I did get to Crufts a few times). I've pretty much followed Greenbelt around the country. Now this year, the CRE has moved as well, from Sandown Park Racecourse to the ExCeL in London.
Sandown Park was great for the Surrey county church set with free parking for their hatchbacks and 4x4s. They made the most of ample boots to take home all the hand-carved pulpits, hand-painted stoles and hand-embroidered kneelers they could desire. But while great in the early years, it outgrew the premises and became purgatory for journalists. By the time I abandoned it a few years ago, I couldn't get a signal on my mobile, get the wireless to work or get a story in the paper.
The CRE is not there for journalists of course; it's there for exhibitors, clergy and laity. So how does ExCeL compare from that point of view? Well, like the rest of the Church, it's been 'Welbied'. Gone is the messy, broad and muddled confusion of Sandown with the high rooms, the low rooms and the seek-and-you-shall-find coffee rooms in the middle. CRE at ExCeL is lean, strong and commanding.
The first sign of this is the chocolate.
At Sandown, one guilty pleasure was the huge bowls of shiny wrapped chocolates at every stall. It was easy to stroll past and pocket a month's supply, and no-one ever complained. They couldn't because they were Christians. This wasn't stealing, was it?
At CRE at the ExCeL, there is hardly any chocolate, apart from the delicious Fairtrade chunky buttons at the Meaningful Chocolate stall. These were promoting the churchy chocolate business that is fighting the good fight against supermarkets to get Easter Eggs linked in the public mind with Easter.
But instead of chocolates, there are bowls of beautiful shiny pens. As a flawed human being, I might find chocolate consuming. But as a journalist, I find pens completely irresistible. And the terrible thing about CRE is that it is somehow impossible to just pick up a pen and walk off with it. To possess one of these, there is no alternative to stopping and talking to the stallholder. Genius.
By the end, I had lots of lovely new pens, sufficient to last this year at least. And I also had a notebook full of interviews – hence the ridiculous length of this article.
The best pen of all was that of Fullers Finer Furniture. (It's the green one in the middle.)
Now be honest, if you are in a huge exhibition stuffed with:
a) Big shiny motorbikes (albeit for Motorcycle Funerals);
b) Blue sunshiny racing cars of the Alpha & Omega Christian Motorsport Team;
c) The limited edition theological super hero of the London School of Theology (the blue mouse that is, not director of communications Matt Adcock);
...you're not really going to want to stop and talk to a man selling lecterns, even if he is holding something that looks like a skateboard.
But you see, the green pen worked, because I had to have one, and so I had to stop and talk, and it was so worth it. Lecterns are far more interesting than I had ever imagined, as Paul Fuller explains. His have a built-in LCD screen and are gas-fuelled (cue a million obvious sermon jokes). An internal cistern powers the rise and fall mechanism. One's called Canterbury and the other's called York. The difference: York is bigger than Canterbury. The 'skateboard' thingy is in fact a changeable frontage that is coloured according to the liturgical season. The Queen has used one, as has Lord Puttnam. Actor Steve Coogan actually owns one. If I'd come in the car and not on the DLR, I'd have been tempted to buy one and take it home myself.
While on the subject of fitting out churches, the first stand that grabs the eye on entering the ExCeL is Richmond Reproductions. As a Richmond resident, I seized on the chance to promote a local company. Or was this Richmond in Yorkshire? Or even Virginia, where Google keeps telling me I live? It was none of these. It was actually in Bangor, Northern Ireland. (Paul Stewart explains that his father, who founded the company, had simply wanted a name that evoked a London borough.) If you've ever wondered who it was that turned that boring office, warehouse or bingo hall into your local worship space, it was most probably these folks. And RR had triumphed just to be at this event, having come through a fire in their factory earlier this year.
By now desperately thirsty, I go in search of a cup of tea but am waylaid by Latin Link, the interdenominational Christian mission agency, at Kingdom Coffee, who offer a cup of 'coffee with a conscience'. Latin Link is awe-inspiring. They send volunteers – doctors, teachers, nurses and many others – to Latin American countries on projects and placements. One example is working with women at high risk of prostitution. They also bring missionaries from Latin American to Britain, to help bring the Bible back to us. This is one of the best things about being a religion journalist. You get to meet these incredible people all the time.
CRE also has everything you could possibly want for modern mission, and more.
Surely few could resist the temptation of the twinkly crystal-topped pens for sale at Trinity Xtras, along with remote-controlled wax candles.
Or the VeggieTales DVDs of Bible stories and fairy tales as told by vegetables – Sweatpea Beauty, Celery Night Fever, Beauty and the Beet.
Or the Heroes app for phone and tablet, where you test your knowledge of the Bible by playing as Moses Law Giver, Gideon Mighty Warrior or Mary Tomb Raider.
There is even a Christian archery company with non-kill arrows. Discover Archery was founded by Joshua Edwards-Lloyd, who was going to join the military but became a Christian and instead invented bows that unleash a soft-tipped arrow that keeps you safe from breaking the Sixth Commandment.
It's time for a health check. By this stage at Sandown, I would be almost passing out with stress. Here, it's easy find the Seventh Day Adventists with their bowls laden with fruit, and nurses and pastors offering physical and spiritual refreshment. So efficacious is this new improved CRE that my blood pressure has actually fallen. It is 125/71. Here are yet more Christians doing incredible work. Countless people have been saved from pending heart attacks, diabetes and other serious health crises through their encounters with these volunteers in the streets, the alleys, the dark places outside the clubs and pubs where few dare venture late at night or in the early hours. Sometimes, the help they get leads people to open up about life problems, such as financial or other stresses in their lives. Elsie Staples explains that although they never "push" prayer, sometimes their work can lead to a request for prayer.
Next is Send A Cow, where Catherine Helps explains that although the charity started 26 years ago by sending real life surplus cows to Africa, that no longer happens. Instead, they work with families and farmers to help them reach a position where they can grow their own food, or look after a locally bred cow, rabbit, goat or chicken, depending on what is most useful in their environment. These are the sub-Saharan countries where families live on £1 a day or less.
Leaders of the CRE at the ExCeL are working hard to attract exhibitors who represent the wide diversity of the capital and beyond. Lorna Robinson, manning the National Church Leaders Forum stand, also has products from the business she recently set up, Garden of Delights, selling gifts and cards engraved with personalised verses from the Bible: "God so loved James that he gave his only begotten Son."
Melissa Harrison, a former lawyer, demonstrates her Gospel Robix, a Christian-themed workout to Gospel music built on the belief that God wants us to be good stewards of our own bodies as well as all the earth.
And I get invited to Creation Fest, a Christian festival in Cornwall.
Really I've just skimmed the surface. There is so much – more than 300 exhibitors in all – musicians, Christian theatre and film companies, the Israel Ministry of Tourism, Holy Land Travel, Mercy Ships, the Salvation Army Family Tracing Service, the Barnabas Fund promoting a new book about the Armenian genocide. There were accompanying seminar, conference, worship and music programmes, including one teaching vicars how to tell better jokes in their sermons.
The underlying narrative is one that speaks to a community that is no longer in crisis. The decline and irrelevance that has underwritten so much of Christian life in Britain for the last few decades is not at this exhibition, if it ever was. What is new here is the extraordinary sense of space to grow. Big things are happening out there, and I learned one important lesson: I must get out more.