A more detailed version of the history of The Message can be found in the books Message 20 – Celebrating Two Decades of Changed Lives (Message Books) and Andy Hawthorne’s Diary of a Dangerous Vision (Survivor), both available from our online shop.
The Message Trust has its roots in Message ’88, a week-long youth mission that took place at the Manchester Apollo in 1988, pioneered by our founder and CEO Andy Hawthorne and his brother and business partner Simon. Having employed many young men in their Wythenshawe clothing factory and discovering how little they knew of Jesus, Andy and Simon felt stirred to do something that relevantly presented the good news in language they could understand.
Andy felt his vision confirmed by God when, a few hours after dreaming up the plan for what became Message ’88, and feeling somewhat deflated by the scale of what they were getting into, he opened his Bible:
I read my set Bible reading for the day, Isaiah 43:18–21: ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.’
‘I don’t think there are actually any better or more relevant verses anywhere in the Bible that I could have read back then. They remain the touchstone words upon which everything we do is built, and 25 years on you will see them prominently displayed around our headquarters.
Message ’88 was a massive faith venture, involving the most credible bands, theatre companies and special guests available at the time. More importantly, it was a breakthrough moment for the churches of Manchester who got behind the project in a big way, running 300 missions in the build-up to the event and ensuring the Apollo was packed for five full nights. In all, an estimated 20,000 young people heard the gospel message through Message ’88.
A repeat run at Christmas in 1989 attracted similar numbers and led to the brothers being approached by Mark Pennells, a member of one of the bands involved about forming a full-time youth mission to schools. A new charity, ‘Message to Schools’ was the result, formed with the express purpose of taking the gospel to young people in schools through pop and dance music.
It began with a schools week in Cheadle Hulme High School in 1991, where, after a week of lessons, assemblies and lunchtime meetings, the band put on a Friday-night concert in their assembly hall:
Seventy-five kids turned up, all of them looking completely bored. Mark did his music and I did my best to preach as if there were a thousand of them out there. At the end we invited them to join Mark and me in the changing room to receive Christ. You know what? Thirty-nine spiritually hungry young people did just that! And that night a ministry was born.
Message to Schools launched as a duo, with pop performances from Mark Pennells followed by gospel messages from Andy Hawthorne. But during a studio session for Mark’s new material they stumbled upon a winning formula:
We were in the studio with our producer Zarc Porter, just throwing a few ideas around for Mark’s next songs. For some reason I started doing some jokey gravelly-style rapping. To my surprise Mark and Zarc loved it and we quickly recorded some of this rapping on Mark’s next song. Next time we were doing a gig in school we performed it together and the kids went mad for it. Maybe we were on to something?
Singers Elaine Hanley and Lorraine Williams and a rotation of dancers from local youth groups were the first line-up of what was dubbed the World Wide Message Tribe. As Andy remembers,
It was a strange name for a band who were totally focussed on Manchester, but we liked it.
As is well known, Manchester in the early 90s was a centre of rave and dance culture and the band’s sound fit right in. The World Wide Message Tribe were courted by record companies as pioneers of a new credible kind of Christian dance music, but also received mainstream attention, radio play and chart hits, especially in the United States. Demand for the band grew and grew, yet they never abandoned what they saw as their core mission – to share the gospel in schools and serve the church in it’s mission:
We made a decision that Manchester schools and churches partnership would always be our focus and that anything else that came along, no matter how prestigious, would have to fit in with this. We also decided that any royalties we might make from the gigs and recordings would be ploughed straight back into the work. I’m convinced that these two decisions left God free to bless and open doors for the band.
Over the following years, the World Wide Message Tribe (later shortened to The Tribe) toured the United States, the UK and Europe (all in school summer holidays), performing face-to-face to well over a million young people and selling hundreds of thousands of albums.
The collective went through several changes of line-up – and many more changes of outfit – before disbanding in 2004. Tribe alumni include Lindz West (now of LZ7), Cameron Dante (Bizarre, Inc), current Message creative director Tim Owen and wife Emma Owen, author and songwriter Beth Redman and larger than life vocalist Deronda Lewis.
The impact of the Tribe has been felt widely, with many Christian bands and creative mission organisation crediting them with setting a standard of creative excellence and no-holds-barred gospel proclamation. New mission bands developed under the wings of The Message in Manchester include LZ7, BlushUK, Twelve24, MaLoKai, BrightLine and Vital Signs, together with several non-musical creative teams: theatre company In Yer Face, dance crew Square1 and sex and relationships team Respect Me.
In addition, well over 200 young people have been trained in creative mission through our training courses Xcelerate, Genetik and Message Academy.
(You can find a more detailed version of the history of Eden and many first-hand testimonies, in Matt Wilson’s books Eden: Called to the Streets and Concrete Faith, both available in our online shop.)
In 1996, five years after the first Message to Schools mission week, God prompted The Message to start thinking more holistically about work with young people. It started with a schools week in Benchill, Wythenshawe, at that time the most deprived neighbourhood in the UK. At a Friday night concert over 100 local young people chose to give their lives to Christ in response to the gospel appeal – not unusual in itself for The Message by then. But what surprised the local church partner was how many of them came along to next Sunday’s service – and how disruptive that would be!
That Sunday felt like the fulfilment of the prophecy from Isaiah 43 that was given to me years earlier, that ‘the wild animals will honour me… that they may proclaim my praise.’
We did our best to help the local church follow up these young people but it became obvious that we were all ill-equipped to bring these baby Christians, with all their issues and challenges, to full maturity. Over the next few months we saw most of them fall right back into their old destructive lifestyles. It was absolutely gutting. There had to be a better way than this.
Andy Hawthorne and team began to have a vision to see Christians moving into areas like Benchill to live and work, supporting local churches particularly to reach young people. This bold initiative was named Eden, and the first Eden partnership was launched in 1997 in Benchill.
Thanks to a partnership with Soul Survivor, a large number of enthusiastic (and mostly young) volunteers applied to join Eden, resulting in several new Eden projects in some of the toughest areas and estates of Manchester, including Harpurhey, Openshaw, Longsight, and the Swinton Valley in Salford. Others followed and word spread about this innovative and courageous mission adventure.
Central to Eden’s ethos is the belief that in our participation in the transformation of a deprived neighbourhood, the best and most lasting change always comes from the inside out. This is how change comes in individual human life and it’s how change comes to communities too. (Matt Wilson)
During Eden’s first decade, well over 300 people joined Eden teams, rising to over 500 by 2014. These figures make Eden one of the largest missionary-sending movements in the UK for over one hundred years. One of the most memorable stories of recruitment came from 73-year-old grandmother Liza Fawcett, who in 2002 chose to relocate from Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, at the time the richest council ward in England, to Harpurhey, at that time the poorest.
Around ten years after the first Eden, God began to open doors for Eden’s growth elsewhere across the country and the Eden Network was born. Eden London was established with the goal of planting new Edens in the toughest estates of the capital, including Bow, Tollington and Ladbroke Grove. Regional hubs opened in Yorkshire, the North East, Merseyside and the Humber Region working towards the long term goal of 80 Eden teams in our nation’s neediest neighbourhoods.
To support the early Eden teams’ work and to pioneer new partnerships with churches, The Message converted a double decker bus into a mobile youth centre in early 2000. Fitted out with state-of-the-art technology, games machines and more, Eden Bus was quickly in demand across Manchester and at one point over 500 young people were building relationships with volunteer mentors every week. New buses followed and are in development, including one permanently stationed in the Liverpool area.
Getting on a bus that turned up on your doorstep is, well, as easy as getting on a bus. It can go right into the heart of the tough places with the good news. It also has the added advantage of being able to leg it quickly if things get a bit hot!
A driving philosophy behind the growth of The Message is that the ministry should be characterised both by both social justice and unashamed gospel proclamation, embodying what Jesus called ‘salt’ and ‘yeast’ and ‘a lamp on a stand’ (see Matthew 5:13-16 and 13:33). In other words, we seek to bring in the kingdom of God both in unseen ways and seen; through public gospel proclamation, through visibly serving communities by acts of kindness, and through long-term relational ministry in partnership with local churches.
I’ve become convinced that combining social justice with courageous proclamation of the gospel is the only way to get the job done. One without the other is only half a gospel.
Perhaps this chemistry was seen most clearly when, in the summer of 2000, The Message partnered with Soul Survivor to run an ambitious city-wide youth mission, Message 2000. Around 10,000 young Christian volunteers – most of whom took part during their summer holiday – worked in partnership with Greater Manchester churches on social, environmental and crime reduction projects. The project was hailed as a massive success, not least because during the 10 days of work in one estate, Swinton Valley, there were no recorded incidence of crime and following the summer of 2000, police have reported a sustained reduction in crime. Message 2000 acted as a springboard for new Eden projects which went on to bless these local communities for years to come.
In the summer of 2003, The Message partnered with the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association, to put on another week-long city-wide venture, Festival:Manchester. Over 5,000 young people got involved in a total of 317 local community projects, many in association with the Greater Manchester Police. Around 55,000 people from across Manchester attended the open-air festival that took place in Heaton Park the following weekend, featuring Luis Palau, and performances from The Tribe, Michael Tait and TobyMac.
The model of ‘words and action’ evangelism which characterised Message 2000 and Festival:Manchester inspired many similar events across the country, including Merseyfest, NE1 in the North East, London’s Soul in the City and the nationwide ‘Hope 08.’ In each case, the church led the way in bringing together local communities to deliver social action and community-building projects, ranging from environmental clean-ups, painting, car washes, barbecues, children’s activities, fun days and youth concerts.
I’m sure that these events became the catalyst for church leaders across the country to think much more seriously about community engagement, and these days it’s unusual to meet a leader who just wants to focus on their own church meetings rather than get out there and impact society.
As we approached our twentieth year, God opened up to us a whole new area of ministry, once again as a practical response to an urgent need. The Message had been working with young offenders in prisons around the North West since around 2004, following a desire to reach the most damaged and most damaging young people – those behind bars or at risk of reoffending. This developed as a successful partnership with Youth For Christ, becoming known as Reflex.
Our Manchester-based Reflex team works in four prisons and young offenders institutions across the North West, mainly with young offenders between the ages of 18 and 21, with work spanning first-contact detached work on the prison wings, Alpha and discipleship courses in association with prison chaplaincies, and resettlement.
Every year, hundreds of men and women were finding new life in Christ through Reflex’s work. However, in too many cases vulnerable young men and women were leaving prison with little or no support. Despite the team’s best efforts to connect them to churches, with no hope of a job and in some cases no safe place to live, too many new believers were ending up back in their old criminal lifestyles.
It started to become a regular occurrence to hear of these most broken, dysfunctional and previously thoroughly bad young people praying for their friends and leading them to Christ in their cells. We’d even heard of some quite remarkable miracles taking place. But of course the hard part comes when it is time for their release. It was desperate to see so many of them sent to live in totally inappropriate hostels, back to chaotic home lives or even on to the streets. As a result many of them ended up falling back into their old lives of addiction and crime when we knew God wanted something so much better for them.
Something new was needed: a combination of a supportive, mentoring community, decent housing and a way of providing training and work for those who had often fallen out of the education system at a young age. A vision was cast for a partnership between local churches, Eden teams, local housing providers and a new unique business and training hub, specifically for young men and women from disadvantaged communities and those leaving custody.
After the miraculous acquisition of the property next to our HQ in Sharston, work began on developing the Message Enterprise Centre in 2012. Opened in January 2013 by the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, Sir Peter Fahy, the Centre now offers training and jobs in one of four businesses – a café, a hair & beauty salon, a cycle recycling shop and property maintenance and development businesses.
If we can actually meet those young men and women in prison and start putting together a pathway for them so that when they come out – particularly through a place like this where we can start getting them into a trade, getting them to set up a small business – it’s a massive opportunity for them to transform their lives and a massive saving for society in general. (Sir Peter Fahy)
Over the last 20 years, God has consistently done more than we’ve asked for or imagined. Why? Because the gospel is a seed, and when that seed is planted in someone’s heart and in their life it has unlimited potential for multiplication.
As the reputation of the World Wide Message Tribe and Eden grew, The Message began to receive requests from all over the country for help in establishing new projects in creative mission and community transformation. Our response was to establish a gap-year training school for young evangelists from 18-25 which opened its doors in 2001. The course has evolved over the years to keep in step with the needs of each successive generation of young people; today it is known as Message Academy.
Students join the life of The Message for a full academic year, receiving Bible teaching and experiencing practical ministry while soaking up the vision and energy of a cutting edge mission movement. To date, we have trained over 400 young people, with many being sent into new mission initiatives across the UK and Europe and some remaining in Manchester to serve on our teams here.
After several successful years as a full missions team with The Message, LZ7 became an Associate ministry of The Message in 2010. This means the band, led by ex-Tribe frontman Lindz West, are free to pursue their own exciting vision while remaining part of the family, sharing our DNA and working with us on many joint projects. MaLoKai joined The Message as an Associate ministry around the same time allowing them to split their time between schools work and growing their mainstream hard rock audience. And in 2015, Twelve24 also took the same step.
Around the world others are catching our vision to grow ‘urban heroes’ in their own unique contexts. Little by little, by God’s grace we are becoming a World Wide Message Tribe.
In March 2014, we launched our first international hub, Message South Africa. Beginning with prisons ministry around Cape Town and an Eden team in the Salt River neighbourhood, the team has a vision to expand its reach across South Africa as God opens the doors.
And in 2014 and 2015, two new UK hubs were launched to develop the three strands of our work – Creative Mission, Community Transformation and Christ-Centred Enterprise – across the nations of Scotland and Wales.
There has never been a more exciting time to become a supporter of The Message.