SOUL SURVIVOR MESSAGE 2000 was, for thousands of Mancunians, the most important event of their lives. Tony Cummings reports.

It's been a tough year for big Christian events. Junction 1 didn't happen, Kingston Festival went bust. Hearts On Fire lost money and the Soul Survivor Message 2000 mission to Manchester only got 12,000 people rather than the 20,000 they'd budgeted for. But attendance figures and budget shortfalls don't always tell the story.

Andy Hawthorne stands in a street in the middle of the Swinton Valley Estate in Salford. Until recently, such a seemingly simple action could have been potentially damaging to Andy's health. The Valley Estate was one of those places you'd choose not to visit. A once attractive area of green suburbia turned into a graffitied encapsulation of urban blight, where crackheads, joyriders and graffiti yobs made life hell for the parents struggling to raise families in its enclaves. A place where the police went in gang-handed, burglaries were epidemic and where old sofas, fridges and rubbish mounds rusted or festered in the abandoned gardens of boarded-up houses. But today Andy Hawthorne, the founding father of one of British Christian music's most cherished institutions, the World Wide Message Tribe, would rather be at Swinton Valley than anywhere else in the world.

Much of the vision the rapper/evangelist has carried for eight heart wrenching years is coming to pass. On every side this run down estate is being transformed, physically and spiritually. Young people, dozens, hundreds of young people, push wheelbarrows, repaint graffitied walls, hack at tangled garden hedgerows and, most amazingly of all, laugh, joke and sing worship choruses in the spasmodic rain showers. Their unrelenting good humour is infectious. Residents are out in their gardens as all round the battered and blighted houses are transformed once more into pleasant homes. An elderly man in a less-than-clean vest with a fierce looking dog tells me, "I don't know what these kids are on...but I wish I could get some." He pauses for a second as his listening neighbours chuckle then, catching the expression on my face, continues, "You're going to say God aren't you?"

God, and the army of his young followers who have descended on Swinton Valley as one thrust of Soul Survivor Message 2000, is on everybody's lips. The Christian faith is being openly chatted about as smiling residents offer cups of tea to sweating youths clearing gardens or plastering the walls of a single storey building being transformed Into a smart community centre. A policeman, Bob Collier, whose special relationship with the Salford area community has been crucial in Operation Valley, an ambitious three year scheme initiated by GMP and designed to tackle local crime issues, is clearly ecstatic at the impact these "great young Christians" are having on the community he loves. Another resident, who's gone from nothing-will-change-here cynic, to astonished observer, to enthusiastic helper, bubbles happily about the seven skip loads of rubbish removed from the football pitch before admitting shyly that he'll be "going to the Evening News Arena tonight" so he can "check out what's going on there."

Andy Hawthorne, nimbly stepping around a wheelbarrow full of house bricks, playfully holds up his Access All Areas pass for photographer Ian Homer. We journalists have heard of the significant shortfall in the number of delegates booked in to Message 2000. But nothing can wipe out the day's smile on Andy's face. 'Things are going fantastic from our point of view. I feel like I'm a man who's living with my dreams. For many years we've been praying for things we're seeing now. We've been praying for rivers in the desert. This city is buzzing with the good news of Jesus. God's provided in an absolutely miraculous way. Mike Pilavachi so hates hyped-up collections so that at the stadium last Friday he did the most understated, chilled appeal.

I'm thinking, 'Oh no, we're not going to get any money.' And yet these young people, just the delegates, gave 54,000 quid in the collection! It was just humbling. God's bringing in money from all over the place, he's going to provide. This is his heart. We're going to be fine."

I ask Andy what have been some of the highlights of Message 2000 so far. "We've had a thousand workers on the estate here, working alongside the police, to do up the community centre that had run right down; a resource centre, dean up the park and the amphitheatre, and make a dog-walking track. We're doing every garden on the estate, cleaning all the graffiti, clearing all the litter. And this is not just the Christians coming in. The residents have caught it. Residents are actually out there on the streets, working with us, and we've seen already lots of residents make a commitment to Christ. And no one's been knocking on their doors offering them the four spiritual laws. They've just seen a demonstration of Jesus' love.

"Every night about a hundred of these residents come along to the arena and it's amazing. It feels like the Kingdom's come. Somebody prophesied over me two days before this event that I was going to see things over these next few weeks that I would have to see to believe. When I was on the estate yesterday, 1 saw these rough and ready guys totally soft to Jesus, even one guy saying that these two streets that had been warring with each other had just come together for this project, working together with these Christians. Two houses that hadn't spoken for 15 years have come out working on this thing. A kid coming up to me and saying, 'I've asked my mum if I can become a Christian and she says I can, so I'll be becoming a Christian tonight.' This mum saying, 'I can't believe it, my kids aren't fighting.' It's amazing."
The huge complex, previously called the Nynex, is readying itself for another 4,000 plus throng. Paul Oakley is sound checking a new worship song. Technicians are scurrying purposely around the echoing edifice. It's going to be another demanding night for them. Last night California's R&B divas Out Of Eden and radical rappers GRITS had torn up the place. Tonight, girl pop team Shine and, showcasing their new live set, the World Wide Message Tribe are set to play at 9.00pm. But before then, the raison d'etre of Message 2000 - evangelism - will take place when the delegates are joined by hundreds of non-Christian visitors. Just before their sound check, I catch a word with the Tribe in a litter-strewn dressing room.

Dancer and rapper Emma positively explodes with enthusiasm, 'This is the most important event the Tribe have ever played. It's not always easy, we saw a whole heap of handbags stolen yesterday, but the response to the Gospel invitations just blows you away. We've seen hundreds and hundreds of people come forward for counselling."

A few hours later I am witness to the phenomenon myself. Evangelist J John spins a profoundly affecting fantasy story involving a John The Baptist preaching session where badges are slapped on everybody giving their name and greatest sin (Harry, drunkenness; Sarah, adultery; Arthur, gossip) until suddenly the official is confronted with Jesus who has no sins to declare. Jesus then walks around the crowd taking everybody's badges and sticking them on himself. This dramatic device hits tellingly hard.

When the appeal is made, hundreds begin to make the long trek up the auditorium steps for counselling. Andy and Emma also give short evangelistic messages and again people respond. As I make my way to the Arena car park through the throngs of people waiting for those being counselled, I ponder on the similarities I see between this amazingly ambitious hi-tech gospel presentation and little old Cross Rhythms festival. Although a fraction of Soul Survivor's size, and with a different structure and direction, Cross Rhythms shares a burning conviction that the Church must move out of the safe enclaves of its comfort zones to engage the great mass who know nothing of God's grace.

Like Soul Survivor, Cross Rhythms has had to bite the bullet when attendances were smaller than those hoped for. Like Soul Survivor, Cross Rhythms has suffered its share of snipes and criticisms from the terminally religious. It would have been easy for Cross Rhythms to refrain from a free ticket campaign to attract non-Christians, it would have been easy for Soul Survivor to ossify into an insular bless-up where teenage believers dance and sing and celebrate "All Things Redman". But as in the times of Gideon, the Soul Survivor throngs have been divided. Those, who need more healing and training, have returned to the boot camp of Shepton Mallet. But those with God-given zeal and vision have been led out into a Manchester war zone where they've done good and effective battle against the powers and principalities. And as a result, hundreds of ordinary people like that family on the estate who've all accepted Jesus, who once thought that Christians were toffee nosed miseries unwilling to get their hands dirty and Jesus was a myth or an expletive, have come to love and live for a Saviour. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.