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Urban vibe at Norfolk showground

24 July 2015

The organisers of the Newday youth festival wanted to widen its appeal. Madeleine Davies reports on their progress


Role models: Christian hip-hop artist Guvna B on stage at Newday

Role models: Christian hip-hop artist Guvna B on stage at Newday

AGAINST a backdrop of doomsday predictions about the demographics of the Church, every summer thousands of young people fill fields and tents across the UK at Christian festivals.

More than 25,000 attended Soul Survivor last year (News, 29 August), and events such as the Big Church Day Out and Greenbelt add several thousand more.

Another of the relative newcomers, Newday, a Newfrontiers initiative, has doubled in size in a decade to 7000.

When Ben Lindsay arrived at Uttoxeter Racecourse, Staffordshire, Newday’s venue in 2007, he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the 100 teenagers he had brought with him as a youth leader from south-east London.

"Inner-city children — many of them black — were expected to engage with a culture which was completely foreign to them," he recalls. "The one attempt to engage with them was a tent with two broken turntables playing inappropriate hip-hop. . .

"All around the main meeting, I saw predominantly white middle-class children meeting with God powerfully, being equipped and commissioned for mission, while inner-city children were outside the big-top meeting, left to their own devices."

It was a feeling familiar to him from his own experience of Spring Harvest in the 1980s and ’90s.

Today, as associate pastor at Emmanuel Church, Greenwich, and a member of Newday’s leadership team, he feels confident that the festival is "moving in the right direction", and that the story of the past eight years has wider implications — not only for those working in church youth circles, but for a country where children are reported to be among the most unhappy in the developed world.


THE first Newday festival took place at the Newark Showground, Lincolnshire, in 2004. A youth camp for 12-to-19-year-olds, it is organised by Newfrontiers, a Charismatic Evangelical family of churches founded by Terry Virgo in 1979.

His son, Joel, leads Newday, and agrees with Ben that the event has evolved: "Our history as a movement is in the more suburban south. Our tendency has been to play to that without meaning to — the style, music, activities, the tone of it, the make-up of the platform has been quite white middle-class."

He admits to "blunders" along the way, but believes they have since come a long way: "It’s very exciting, because it feels like we are reaching whole cultures better."

Pivotal to this has been changing not just the activities on offer, but the whole culture of the camp. In 2009, Mr Lindsay launched Rhythm Factory, offering workshops in music production. In the evening, he managed to book urban gospel talent, including Faith Child and Victizzle.

But, although the Rhythm Factory was a success, he felt "slightly uncomfortable. On one hand, suddenly all these kids were saying ‘This is the coolest thing’; but I was thinking, ‘You are not hearing what the middle-class kids are hearing: they are hearing great teaching, and being inspired to plant churches and change nations. You are learning how to ‘Kingdom Skank’, and I have a slight issue with that."


WHAT followed were two years of frustration, during which he saw the London riots unfold, and became increasingly concerned that the young people he was in touch with were dealing unsupported with "the most horrific circumstances — domestic abuse, sexual abuse, gang violence, substance misuse, and poor mental health".

His response was to lead a seminar stream, #YOLO #SWAG #PEAK, connecting "strong Bible teaching" with these issues, and turning on its head some of the narrative in contemporary hip-hop.

"There’s a Drake song that says you start from the bottom, and you keep building, and when you get to the top, everything is OK," he says. "But, if you take Jesus, he started from the very top, worshipped in the heavenlies, and came down to the bottom. It’s that humility described in Philippians 2, but you will never hear anyone say that this is how you live your life as a young man or woman."

Ultimately, he believes that the teenagers filling the main tent need to look up and see people like them. "With white people, there are constantly positive role-models around you, to the point where you do not even think about it. There is constantly someone who is the same skin colour as you in a position of authority or power.

"With black people, it is not as simple. Our models are limited, and a lot are not positive."

As a young man, Mr Lindsay experienced the worst of racism. Aged 14, he almost died in a racist attack in Charlton, a month before the murder of Stephen Lawrence, just a road away from his school.

Now, having worked for a youth offending service and as an adviser on gang violence, he still worries that the Church is not equipped to deal with the sort of issues that young people are facing: "It is not enough to have love. You need to train and be clued up. These kids are exposed to a lot more than we have ever seen in the history." His dream is that Newday could be a blueprint for youth services, as "a movement that puts God at the centre of everything, and has strong biblical teaching; where pastoral care and counselling is top-notch, and works alongside social services and children’s services".


LIVY GIBBS was among those who planned the first Newday, and she now helps to lead the ministry team. She agrees with Mr Lindsay that the issues they are dealing with have changed over the years: "Sexual activity and the age at which young people are involved in or exposed to sexualisation, pornography — we would talk about it a tiny bit, but it’s now a regular topic we would need to address."

Another challenge, she says, is responding to questions about views on gender, inside and outside the Church. While Newfrontiers encourages all young people to consider leadership — "we believe it is totally gender-neutral gift" — and women at Newday give talks and lead worship, a distinction is drawn between leadership and eldership. Those who govern Newfrontiers are all male. Young women in the organisation are raising theological questions about this.

Self-harm, drug abuse, eating disorders, and family breakdown all affect young people, and require careful support. In addition to this, many young woman are battling insecurity about their appearance, Mrs Gibbs says, and this is heightened, she believes, by social media. They also have to deal with young men whose treatment of women is skewed by pornography and "the culture of objectifying".

Grace Windsor will be 18 when she attends her seventh Newday next month. "If I did not have it, I might not be as strong in my faith as I am now," she says. "I would not miss it for the world. . . When I first went, I felt so accepted. I was really scared, but it was like a bubble, like a bit of heaven. I thought ‘I love it here.’"


SENSITIVITY and integrity are essential. Last year, the Christian commentator Vicky Beeching spoke about having been subjected to a sort of exorcism at a Christian youth camp, after telling the ministry team that she was attracted to women.

Mr Virgo says that it is right to raise this issue, but is confident that Ms Beeching’s experience would not happen at Newday: "We don’t see it is our job to counsel or to teach them or take them through some particular kind of analysis, especially into the situation that Vicky was raising."

But he knows that talks can have a powerful effect on the vulnerable. "Sometimes, young people are having to deal with abuse situations in their past, and they hear a sermon that completely undoes them, because something that has been buried for years becomes very real."

Pastoral care is ultimately the responsibility of the youth workers who bring the young people with them, but there is also a referral team on site, made up of people experienced in dealing with difficult issues.

Claude Murray, a youth worker, agrees that "aftercare" is hugely important, given that these young people will go back home after a week and will need somebody with whom to continue conversations. "Ultimately, we are there for a week, and we can’t solve those issues."

But transformations can and do happen, he says. He remembers talking to "M", who was taking drugs and struggling with a "volatile" home situation. "He felt disgusted with what he was doing, and we spoke on a couple of occasions," Mr Murray recalls. "Just through prayer, he felt that he could see light, and said ‘All the darkness around me is going,’ and there and then he felt Jesus come into his heart."

And Mrs Gibbs talks of more radical healing, and of more than 1500 people experiencing healing over the years, including the recovery of hearing and mobility.


SO DO youth events hold a key to the future of the Church? Dr Pete Ward, Professor of Theology and Ministry at King’s College, London, has identified them as a crucial element in the success of Evangelical and Charismatic churches in engaging young people (News, 31 January 2014).

"I think they [young people] come with an expectation that something different will happen compared with normal life," Mrs Gibbs says. "They will be exposed to the bigness of what God is doing among their generation. . . I think God seems to bless gatherings of people . . . It can be a real spiritual high for them: things fall into place."

Despite being the son of a celebrated church leader, Joel Virgo admits that he "drifted badly" as a teenager. "We mustn’t be simplistic about it and think, if we pull a few levers and change a few co-ordinates, we will keep all these thousands of young people," he says. The most important factor in drawing people back to Jesus is "parents who keep believing the best and praying for the best for their kids".

But he believes that the "scale and force" of Newday is powerful. "It’s ‘Wow! There are thousands of people here all excited about Jesus.’ That is compelling."

He estimates that thousands of young people have become Christians at Newday over the years. Last year, a collection among the 7000 people present raised £160,000. Half went to church projects in Zimbabwe, half to help fund churches that are being started in European cities.


AMONG the video testimonies shared on stage at Newday during Mr Lindsay’s seminar stream was that of Dominic, who became a Christian after hearing a street preacher in Elephant and Castle, south London.

He first went to Newday aged 16, and "loved it, every second of it". He found "so many people in the same environment who spoke like me and acted like me, but, in their heart, they were different. They were living for Jesus."

He left transformed, he says, no longer regarding girls as objects but "as what they are: human beings. Not just here for my pleasure, but for a purpose of their own. Only Jesus can do that. Only the gospel can change a mindset like that."

A Christian hip-hop artisit, Guvna B, has now been at Newday for five years in a row, after being invited by Mr Lindsay. In his first year, he played a 45-minute set — "in a random field in Norwich where you have 6000 white people who speak better English than you". He now spends the entire week on site.

Events are important, he believes, because they showcase an alternat-ive culture that is "relevant and cool, and not cheesy and not old people in white robes singing ‘Kumbaya’. . . It brings young people out of gangs, and encourages them to hang around with people that are influences on their lives.

"You only have to look at London, or switch on the news, to see how much hurt and pain there is out there for young people. If a Newday conference means 100 young people turn their lives around, it is definitely worth it."


This year’s festival takes place at the Norfolk Showground, 3-8 August.

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