Top Gear meets Songs of Praise: What happened at the UK's biggest Christian men's gathering?

More than 2,000 men gathered in a field near Swindon for the 2018 Christian Vision for Men (CVM) festival last month.

Carl Beech founded The Gathering around eight years ago while dreaming of creating a Christ-centred festival for men, after a series of conversations which went something like: 'We need a field, a bonfire, cars, footy, chess, and worship...let's do something like a cross between Top Gear and Songs of Praise.' In the beginning just a few hundred people attended, but the three-day men's festival has grown each year and is now CVM's flagship event.

Worship was part The Gathering 18 experience.

For a few days in summer a farmer's field becomes home to an enormous marquee, a mess tent, prayer shed and hundreds of tents, caravans and camper vans. The comprehensive programme included activities such as ninja archery, quad bikes, sword fighting, wrestling, Zorb football, a five kilometre run, a zip wire, inflatable games and a free-fall stunt bag. Other highlights of the weekend were a powerlifting demonstration and a spectacular Battle of Britain fly-past.

In addition to the many activities, seminars and Bible studies on offer there was a packed programme of teaching from speakers including CVM chief executive Nathan Blackaby, CVM president Carl Beech, HOPE Together executive director Roy Crowne and chief executive of The Message Trust Andy Hawthorne. The main worship sessions were led by singer/songwriter Graham Kendrick who shared the platform for an impromptu performance of Shine Jesus Shine with bagpipe player Ian Christie, who'd travelled down from Scotland. The editor of Sorted Magazine, Steve Legg, played host and entertainment was provided by author and comedian Andy Kind.

Archery was one of the activities on offer.

More than 20 Christian organisations had exhibitions on site, including Mercy Ships, Sports Chaplaincy UK, The Message Trust, Compassion UK, the Christian Police Association, the Armed Forces' Christian Union and Street Pastors.

The event aims to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for non-Christian men. Along with the opportunity to enjoy the fun with friends there's a 'Just Looking' seminar where questions and discussion are actively encouraged. Over the course of the event 120 men became first-time followers of Jesus and a further 100 men recommitted their lives to him.

Paul attends The Gathering each year. He said: 'Our group brought three non-Christian guys and two Christian guys who were far from God. The three non-Christians gave their lives to Jesus and the other two moved closer to God and will hopefully continue to do so. It was brilliant as always but this Gathering was probably the best yet, something happening from start to finish, free tea/coffee, laughs, banter, gospel, fellowship, singing till your throat was sore and you couldn't sing any more.'

2018 was Gary's first visit to the Gathering. He said: 'Been having a dodgy time with my faith last couple of years, was like a china bowl I had dropped, had all the pieces but did not know how to put back together. Pledged my life to Jesus and totally restored my faith, lifted a great weight off me and left feeling like a new man with Jesus back in my heart.'

Before attending The Gathering Andy wouldn't have called himself a man of faith, but the weekend has changed his life. He said: 'I gave my life to Jesus on the Saturday night at The Gathering 18. I have never felt so emotional in my life. Have never felt so part of a group ever.'

Participants in The Gathering were able to share together.

Mike returned to The Gathering for a second time. He said: 'I went to The Gathering for the first time last year and was absolutely blown away by the refreshing, fun, manly weekend that it was. I couldn't wait to come back this year and it didn't disappoint. I personally have had quite a turbulent year working in a tough environment, so to be able to get out in the awesome weather, have some proper man time and worship my God and my saviour with so many blokes has not only recharged my human batteries but completely refocused me and recharged my desire to serve God. Thanks to the whole team for all your faithful work and serving heart.'

The weekend was brought to a close with over 2 000 men in the open air, standing shoulder to shoulder, praying with and for each other. They took communion together, many of them for the first time.

For further information about CVM or to read more stories about The Gathering 2018 click here.

Plans for The Gathering 2019 are well under way and bookings are already pouring into CVM headquarters. The event takes place on the weekend of June 21-23rd 2019 and more than half the tickets have already been sold. Click here to book.

Val Fraser is an author and journalist. Follow her on Twitter @ValFraserAuthor.