Imagine the scene; it’s early September 2004, a glorious evening over the Tamar Valley, and a deep pink-orange sky is touching highlights of Cornwall to the west, Dartmoor to the east, Plymouth Sound ahead and the rolling fields of north Cornwall behind us. Descending quickly from 5,000ft I was attempting to hit a friend’s field below.
I braced myself for a hard thump, but with a short prayer, a light brush through the tree tops, the basket slowed and we were gently delivered to a freshly cut field. Here, in the middle of nowhere, it was Harvest Festival at a nearby rural chapel; the sounds of worship were on the breeze, and pausing to give thanks for our lot, it was the moment that the vision for the Jesus Loves You hot air balloon first came.
I’d been around ballooning for years, but only recently progressed to a commercial rating for corporate advertising, special shapes and stunts. Trinity Balloons was born out of that corporate ballooning journey. Friends from church trained as commercial crew; we formed a group to sponsor a branding project locally for Alpha, then Make Poverty History and several campaigns or fundraisers for other Christian charities.
Big brands use balloons because they are highly effective. The Church hasn’t because they can be ridiculously expensive. Not so, if it is done at cost by volunteer professionals. In rural Tavistock we have cultivated more than 30 such crew and pilots; it’s probably the only congregational resource of its type in the UK. Or anywhere.
In late 2015, I and others in the team felt the calling to structure the group into a non-profit and to personally commit fully. The 11-year vision of the Jesus Loves You balloon was replaying again and again; but it wasn’t quite time. After an encouraging chat about leaps of faith with Tim Jupp (founder of Big Church Day Out), I juggled being stay-at-home dad with hitting the festivals to raise the profile of Trinity Balloons. Our young family spent much of summer 2016 on the road in a caravan.
During that period, outsiders started to envision the Jesus Loves You balloon too. The recurring theme was an intentionally bold, vibrant design. The time felt right, the lively design had a clear raison d’être: social media. Standing out in newsfeeds. Irresistible to camera phones, instantly shareable with friends. If 10,000 people each shared an image with 100 friends, the message could reach a million. Anyone, no matter how shy at sharing faith with friends, could ‘share’ Jesus in one click – in a highly visual, memorable and conversation-starting way.
Our team asked the public for money for the first time. Not an easy ask when there are far more emotive causes. It didn’t pour in. It came in steady rhythm. What we needed, not what we wanted.
The Jesus Loves You balloon is as pioneering as the project. Built in the UK by a supportive Lindstrand Technologies, it is the first of a new semi-bulbous series. Economically cut, efficient and light to fly, it is 60,000 cubic feet of evangelical message, and totally portable. Whether in the sky, visible for miles around, rising gently over a festival, or travelling rapidly through social media, it is a pure and simply branded asset.
We launched it back in those Tamar Valley fields on Ascension Day 2017 at the start of the Thy Kingdom Come period of prayer. It then went to Big Church Day Out and a Pentecost event. We boldly set a 1 million target for social media reach for the year. But the target was surpassed within the first six days. It was a humbling response. But only the beginning.
I believe God has big plans for our little ministry. It is built on solid foundations of restored broken people, preparation and time. But it is so pioneering that we find it hard to qualify for traditional funding. There is no tick-box for it. We are dependent on the generosity of philanthropic and ordinary individuals and ongoing tithing from the community.
Having seen how God can deliver on commitment and faith, we are excited for the wider vision of a full-time Christian ballooning project pioneering out of a permanent heritage base. It seems bonkers to some and might never happen. But, then, the same was said of many such things. It will happen. Somehow.
If you have a long-held mission like this on your heart, act faithfully on it. Wait prayerfully; test scripturally; ask humbly; consult wisely; and expect it to happen.