The Message Trust : Still reaching the last, least and the lost after 25 years - by Peter Wooding
Andy Hawthorne was faced with a major challenge in the mid-1980s, when many of the ex-offenders he was employing were vandalising and stealing from his fashion accessory warehouse in Longsight in Manchester. However, what happened next helped to birth a major global youth movement called The Message Trust, now celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
“The lads we hired had come straight out of young offenders’ institutions. They were a nightmare. There was absolute carnage with violence, vandalism and graffiti all over our factory and then the break-ins started about three times a week,” explains Andy. “Their lives were totally chaotic because nobody was telling them about the Christ in a language they could understand.
“That led myself and my brother to come up with this naïve, arrogant idea to book what was then Manchester’s premier rock venue in Manchester, the Apollo Theatre, and organise the biggest youth mission the city had ever seen called Message ’88. Despite the fact that we didn’t know what we were doing, God just blessed it so much. A few years later I left the business to set up the charity The Message Trust.”
Twenty-five years on and Andy is just as passionate about reaching broken young men, like those he used to employ.
“There’s two reasons we continue to reach out in the toughest communities, prisons and schools. Firstly, it’s God’s compassion. He’s got a massive heart for the most broken. The second reason is it’s in his revival strategy. Throughout the history of the Church, revival was always bottom-up. It starts on the margins – the unschooled, ordinary – and then spills up and everyone gets blessed.”
Freedom from addictions
As well as regularly going into prisons to share the Christian message, the charity now runs an enterprise centre next to their headquarters in south Manchester. Operating a number of businesses including a café, beauty and hair salon and bike shop, the MEC employs ex-offenders whose lives have been turned around.
One such person is Danny McEwan. Before joining the MEC’s building services team, Danny had reached the lowest point in his life as a homeless, nine-stone heroin addict with no hope of ever breaking free from his destructive lifestyle. However, after encountering Jesus he not only found freedom from his addictions, but he also discovered a new purpose in his life.
“I was sleeping rough, feeling completely alone, just trying to make money to feed my addiction. My life completely spiralled out of control, serving time in prison, staying in mental hospitals and hanging out with prostitutes. My heart was destroyed. I was ruined. I didn’t know what peace or rest was.
“Then I decided to get help to get off drugs so I went to a Christian rehabilitation centre run by Betel. After about six months, God impacted my life and I felt great because I wasn’t using drugs anymore. My heart was restored. I felt renewed.
“I then felt a tug in my heart to come to The Message Trust. This was after I heard a brilliant message on evangelism from Andy Hawthorne. I’d already been to The Message before at a Christmas event. I thought this was the future of Christianity, with young people working in a move of God, which is going to help reach lost and broken people. I just knew I needed to be part of this.”
At the lowest point
Another team member at The Message whose life has been completely transformed is their facilities assistant, Cyril Wilding.
After years of drug and sexual abuse, Cyril Wilding’s life was in crisis when he ended up on suicide watch while in prison. During this time his life was turned around when a brave old lady visited him and told him about Jesus.
“She told me that Jesus died for me. All the pain I was carrying about, he put on the cross for me. I thought she was a nut job at first! But when she left I opened up the Bible and discovered it was true. I read Psalm 23 with new eyes. I heard him say to me that he was all I needed. I knew this was the love I was looking for. So that day, I asked Jesus to come into my life. Straightaway I could feel a change in my heart. I lost the desire to do drugs and the self-harm stopped too.
“At the lowest point in my life I got support from Victory Outreach Manchester. They helped me put my life back together, depending on Jesus day by day. I met an amazing Christian woman, Laura, and we got married.
“I love working at The Message now. As well as the variety and challenges of the job, I also appreciate how you can get anybody to pray for you when you’re going through a difficult time.”
Despite the roller coaster journey Andy has faced over the past 25 years, he says it’s stories like these that make it all worthwhile.
“It’s the best thing in the world. In fact it’s the only thing you’re going to take with you, people you’ve invested in. In the book of Galatians Paul refers to people being rescued from this present age, and we’re a rescue mission.
“I saw an article about the massive rise in suicide and self-harm in prisons. So when our guys go into prisons they’re not just rescuing people, but they’re enabling them to go from being the problem to the answer. What a prize that is. I feel like we’re seeing more of that than ever before now.
“There are also so many people whose schools we went into with The Tribe, some who became Christians during those very early days who are now some of my best friends.
“That’s the nice thing about sowing seed, you’re constantly meeting people who have come right through to Christ who are now in all sorts of spheres of influence including church and business leaders and missionaries.”
Accelerating nationally and internationally
As well as their prisons work and enterprise centre, the charity also has several creative mission teams, an academy, Eden buses as well as Eden teams living and working in some of the toughest communities, and massive city-wide missions called the Higher Tour.
The work is accelerating rapidly beyond Manchester both nationally and internationally. Alongside Message hubs in South Africa and Canada there are plans to expand the work in a number of other countries.
Just over a year ago, well-known Sorted contributor and former CVM CEO, Carl Beech joined The Message team as their UK director to help expand the work across the UK.
“Andy and I had been cheering each other on for some time and I’d sometimes come and speak at staff prayer days or would come in for some advice,” explains Carl. “Every time I came here it felt like I was coming home. I was seeing radical mission to the poor, broken lives healed up, creativity, unashamed proclamation and lots of entrepreneurial stuff happening. It was just so much of what I’d been about for so many years. Within a month of coming here it felt like I was part of the furniture.
“There have been some big adjustments from leading another work to being part of something bigger. From being a CEO to coming under someone was an interesting transition. As Andy often says, it takes humility on both sides. Your life is not about you. It’s about a greater mission and a greater goal and purpose.
“If you are truly about the gospel, people being rescued and lives being changed, then it actually doesn’t matter who the boss is. If you’ve got gifts and abilities and skills and energy that you want to use in the best way and reach more people, you need to come under something else. You’re a mug if you don’t do that.
“If I could reach millions more people through joining myself to something else and going under something else, why would you not do that?
“My role is to replicate The Message across the country in strategic hubs. They may not all look like the Manchester hub but they will have the same thrust of Eden, creative mission, Higher, enterprise and prisons work in all sorts of shapes and forms but very identifiable as The Message Trust. So my job is to build teams, raise funds, deploy people, make it happen and keep the culture with the DNA and values absolutely on point.”
A significant gathering
As the work continues to grow, the charity is planning to celebrate 25 years of ministry by hosting their first-ever Message Conference, 17th to 18th November at Victoria Warehouse in Manchester, with key speakers Luis Palau and Danielle Strickland.
Andy says it’s going to be a significant gathering: “People can expect The Message raw passion. If we can have two speakers in the world, number one and number two would be Luis Palau and Danielle Strickland. Not just because they carry our DNA as rampant evangelists. Luis Palau is in his 80s but there’s no stopping him. He’s won millions for Christ. When he shares with the Church it’s with such authority and so amazing.
“Danielle Strickland is literally the best speaker I’ve ever heard. For me she is the world’s number one communicator. She’s with the Salvation Army and when you look at how they were when they started, it’s so like The Message Trust today. The creative ministry and passion for the poor and the prayer and the sacrifice.
“There will also be lots of surprises, with many special guests coming from the last 25 years, but there’s also going to be a track around urban mission and a track around gospel proclamation, which Luis and Danielle as well as myself and Carl and others will cover.
“We’re so excited to also have Tim Hughes leading worship as well as Rivers & Robots.”
Andy concluded: “If people have been involved in any part of our journey in the last 25 years, you don’t want to miss this. It’s an absolute landmark event.”