Last weekend I was privileged to attend The Message Conference & 25th anniversary celebrations, and was excited to have a stand for Be Loved in their exhibition area.
If you don’t know about The Message then where on earth have you been?! You can find out all about them here.
During the two days I was able to share with some of the people I met about my journey with The Message, and it has lead me to want to write it down, as I feel that it is so evident that God was weaving a beautiful story between my husband and I, and The Message, right from when we were young.
My story started when I was 14 years old and The World Wide Message Tribe came to our school. Back then the original members were Mark Pennells and Andy Hawthorne, who is still the CEO of The Message today.
TWWMT would visit high schools and youth groups all over Manchester and sing, rap and dance (in ridiculous costumes) and then share about God’s love for us all.
After hearing them a handful of times I soon decided that I wanted to become a Christian too.
Unknown to me, at around that same time, my husband Mark had been taken under the wing of Mark Pennells, and would tour around the various Manchester youth clubs with them. They had found that mischievous young people would frequently unplug them mid-song so, at the age of 13 & 14, Mark’s job was to man the plug that connected the sound to the speakers!
Who knows if at a young age our paths crossed, but I would like to think they did.
After college I decided to take a year out before I went to University, and again, unknown to me so did Mark.
After the year out I went to Salford University and applied to do Eden through The Message. For weeks I waited for a response, but soon decided that it probably wasn’t right for me, so made the decision to commute from my home in South Manchester to Salford every day.
I studied Fashion Design and our campus was full of creatives from all different streams. In my second year I was conscious of a guy, who I would regularly see, around the building. At 6ft 2 he wasn’t hard to miss, especially as he wore extremely baggy jeans. I often wondered where he bought them from, but never plucked up the courage to ask!
During my degree I had done several weeks work experience at a popular teenage magazine in London, and was interested in pursuing something similar once I had graduated.
In 2001 I graduated from University and although London was the best place to be with a fashion degree, I felt the right place for me was to stay in Manchester. I had no idea what to do, so I decided to start up a teenage magazine that had some Christian content.
At the age of 22 a friend and I started publishing a magazine – Jam magazine. We somehow made contact with Mark Pennells, who by then was CEO of Innervation Trust, and we were invited along to a band launch.
We weren’t there long before I spotted baggy jeans guy from University! After the gig I went over to him and asked him if he’d recently graduated from Salford Uni. He had indeed and we started chatting. He told me his name was Mark (they all called him Sparky) and that he did Media Technology at Uni, and was the sound engineer for The Tribe (formerly known as The World Wide Message Tribe.) He also told me that he had lived on Eden Salford for the past two years!
Over the coming months we would frequently see each other at various Christian Events, the main one being Planet Life, run by The Message, at the Apollo theatre in Manchester.
Mark was good friends with the The Tribe and the rest of The Message crew, and we would often go out for food after Planet Life. We were soon regularly socialising together and after a couple of months started dating.
The Message had just moved to a new location in Sharston and they had a lovely new building. I had been invited along, with Mark, to the opening of the building and during the tour had cheekily asked Andy Hawthorne if there was room for Jam magazine. To my surprise he agreed, and weeks later we had moved into an office with various Message mission people. It was an incredible time for us and we felt so privileged to be there amongst amazing people and invited to join in with the morning Message prayer times. We felt part of the family and saw huge prayers answered along the way.
18 months after Mark and I got together The Message held a week of mission around Manchester, which ended with a concert in Heaton Park called Festival Manchester. I had been away on holiday, but had returned home in time for the festival.
The morning I was about to leave for Heaton Park I had received a phone call from Andy Hawthorne asking me if I wanted to promote Jam Magazine up on stage. I was excited about the offer and said yes straight away.
There were around 30,000 people there that day and Mark had spent most of his time in the sound desk tent, with the rest of the techie guys. When it was my time to go on stage he had come out of the sound tent and was backstage with me, telling me he was there for moral support.
It wasn’t long before I had to go up on stage and Andy introduced me to the crowd. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mark coming on to the stage behind me. I was stunned and wondered what on earth he was doing, I was also conscious of Andy saying something about him being a committed member of The Message staff and he didn’t let just anyone do this. The next thing Mark got down on one knee, in front of the massive crowd, and proposed…. I of course said yes!
18 months later and we got married. We thought it would be lovely for Andy to preach at our wedding, so had invited him to do so and he happily agreed.
I can’t remember much from the message he preached, apart from advising us to not go to bed on an argument, and that he hoped our mattress squeaked from too much laughing!
In true Andy Hawthorne style he must have shared the gospel, as that day my best friend’s husband became a Christian. We’d been praying for him for many years.
Our love and support for The Message didn’t stop there and we have been journeying with them ever since.
I am not sharing this to tell you about our love story, or to tell you about our friendship with Andy Hawthorne and The Message, but hopefully to show how God knows our beginning from our end. How he weaves people in and out of our lives, and how things that don’t seem important at the time can be an integral part of someone’s story.
I am also sharing this to show how a simple act of investing in a young person’s life can have a huge impact on them. If Mark and Andy hadn’t taken my Mark, at the age of 13, under their wing and invested in him, then this story could have been completely different. If they hadn’t donned their crazy clothes and come into my high school, then my story may have been very different too. Looking back over the 25 years I can see how God has orchestrated our lives so that there were different points where we could have met, yet the time wasn’t right until the day we did.
There’s probably hundreds of stories that people can share about their journey with The Message, and this is just one of them. It makes me hopeful for the seeds I’m helping plant through Be Loved, and makes me realise that being willing to invest in young people, however small, can lead to something beautiful growing between them and God.
So there we were this weekend, at the 25th anniversary, with our two children, celebrating what God has done in and through The Message over all these years. And I can’t contain my excitement, and anticipation, over seeing my 10 year olds reaction to hearing the gospel explained by Danielle Strickland, in such a beautiful way, and seeing her love for Jesus instantly grow. It gives me so much hope for her future, just like it says in Jeremiah 29:11;
For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Here’s to the next 25 years.
Gemma is the creator of the Be Loved resource. She has worked with young people for over 10 years doing various creative workshops all over the UK. For the past 2 years she has also been working in schools as a mentor, allowing young people the space to chat through issues one on one. She loves drinking tea, cooking and all things craft related. Her heart is to see young people reach their full potential and be set free from any issues, or circumstances, that can hold them back.
Gemma has been married to Mark for 13 years and they have two gorgeous children.