I moved here to Manchester 7 months ago. Now, before moving here, I had attended a few churches, but I didn’t see myself as Christian. I was more of a spiritual tourist, you might say. I also visited the places of other religions. I wanted to meet new people and interact with these interesting communities, but I had never intended to commit to any one in particular. I’d had a lot of experience of religion in the past, and was pretty much done with it. So when I first moved here, as a spiritual tourist, I decided I would check out a church someone had mentioned that was based in a cinema. I thought it seemed a bit of a novelty; a church in a cinema! I thought I would meet some interesting people, and it would be nice to be a part of something, even if I couldn’t fully believe something like Christianity myself. I knew there would be singing and worship, and I didn’t mind that, as I had been to many different religious gatherings in the past, and I quite enjoyed praying to a higher power of some sort, whether it was to Buddhist deities, to Krishna, or my own ideas I’d had about some unknowable higher power. But in all honesty, I was an agnostic of sorts. I did believe there was something more to life than the material, but I felt that it was ultimately unknowable and would be a mystery until I died.
So I found myself entering this cinema church one Sunday morning, and I remember hearing the pastor speak for the first time. I don’t remember so much what he was talking about, but I remember thinking that this guy was pretty cheesy. He spoke with a lot of emotion and passion, and it did come across as cheesy but I liked it. He wasn’t afraid to be emotionally open and honest. I enjoyed the worship too, singing songs to Jesus. It just felt really good. I got a chance to meet the pastor after the service, and he invited me to meet him at a coffee shop a couple of days later. And when we spoke there, I had a few questions I honestly didn’t believe a Christian could answer. They were real ‘stumpers’ I thought. But surprisingly, this pastor was able to answer them with a lot of depth and clarity. I didn’t expect that, as quite honestly I had previously regarded Christians as kind yet gullible. I had thought something like Buddhism was much more intellectually sophisticated than Christianity, but as I learned more of these people my opinion on this began to reverse. He told me about an Alpha course they were about to start, and I hesitantly said yes, but I felt I probably wouldn’t attend. As much as I was enjoying meeting with these Christians, I still felt like an impostor, as I regarded it as a beautiful delusion. There was only a matter of time, I thought, before I would have to part ways, as I felt I would never believe what these people believed.
However, I decided I would explore it anyway, and take the alpha. What did I have to lose? At the very least, it would be interesting to learn more. So I arrived at the pastor’s house, where it was based. We were to watch a video series that introduced Christian concepts and discuss it afterwards. I remember feeling initially apprehensive as we watched the videos. What did strike me though was the feeling of peace in the room, and also the format of the alpha course, in the sense that we did very little. It was very light and unpressured. It was obvious that these people didn’t feel the need to force anything on me, and that they really did believe in God’s ability to do the important bits, and they were just there to facilitate my encounter with God. And I realized after a while, that my preconceptions about Christianity had been false, at least in respect to this breed of Christian that didn’t mind meeting in a cinema, and that was all about relationship with Jesus rather than mindless religion and tradition. So I decided I would hang around a bit longer, but still in the back of my mind I felt there was a clock counting down to my eventual departure. Then one Sunday, I was in church and I overheard some people talking about a week long Christian conference. Then a few days later, I got to thinking about it, and decided I’d like to go. It involved camping and really getting immersed with these people. So I signed up, bought myself a cheap tent and was able to get a lift there with a family from the church.
So I find myself in the large worship room at this Christian conference, surrounded by thousands of these Christians. They have a stage up front, with a full band and light show, and I’m standing a few rows from the front. The worship begins and we are all singing along to the music, singing to Jesus, and the energy of the room is intense. Then after the songs, it goes quiet and the man on stage says that we are going to “wait now for The Holy Spirit.” So I stood there waiting with my hands open and stretched out before me. At first I wondered what I should be doing, and I expected nothing to happen. And as I was wondering how I could make something happen, in spite of myself something began to happen. It felt like energy building up inside of me and filling me. I felt a little anxious, as I wasn’t sure what was happening. Now, these worship sessions ran every morning and evening during the event, and each time this feeling got more intense. I was seeing people around me falling over and convulsing on the ground. One woman was screaming at the back, and I was told she had a lot of pain she needed to release. Then at one point I felt an invisible energy come from near the stage, and it knocked someone over then hit me afterwards like a wave. I remember praying to God that I didn’t mind having some kind of experience, but to please not knock me out! I never expected it to be like this, I thought this was something that just happened on American evangelical television shows. I had thought all this stuff was fake and even ridiculous.
And something was beginning to happen between the worship sessions too, as I interacted with the other Christians, as I was working together with them on the volunteer catering team and interacting over coffee and other social events taking place at the conference. I began to get the sense that the events around me were being orchestrated somehow and were teaching me things. Even the words people said to me, it was becoming apparent that I was being spoken to by something beyond the ordinary, something teaching me through events and even the mouths of those around me. What they called The Holy Spirit was undeniably thick in the air. And I felt the voices begin to merge into one, and it was a message to me about my past and my future. It reminded me about how I loved The Chronicles of Narnia when I was little, and how it was actually written by a Christian and inspired by Jesus, God. It reminded me of a time in my youth, before I had taken on the weight of disappointment, the weight of the criticism of those around me over the years, and the weight of the hopeless sense of having to “grow up” and stop believing and imagining things, but to “get into the real world”, the cold, hard reality. It reminded me who I was deep down inside, and when I heard possibly the 4th stranger mention CS Lewis to me out of the blue, it suddenly clicked and I knew in my heart there was a God, and he was reaching out to me. Then on the last day of this conference, in the final worship session, a young man approached me. He said, “I’m not very good at this, and I don’t do this very often, but I really felt like God wanted me to tell you something.” And he said, “You can dare to dream again.” Then I rose up as a new song started, and the lyrics stood out to me: “open up my eyes in wonder.”
I entered the conference an agnostic, but I left it a follower of Jesus. Not long after that I completed the alpha course and I went and got baptized. Then a while later, I attended another conference. It was on the exact same grounds as the last one, but run by other Christians. So I found myself once again in the same big worship room, only it looked different as it had been arranged differently. During the worship, after a few songs, we were asked to lie down on the floor if we wanted to, as a way of being reverent to Jesus. I felt a strong urge to lie down, almost like something invisible was pulling me down, and it just felt natural. So I did it, I lay down between the plastic chairs on the concrete floor, inwardly bowing to Jesus. As I did it I felt something wash over my body. It felt like water or energy running all over my body, and it felt alive and as real as anything. I was a little anxious of it. And then a new worship song started, and it was that same song again, about opening up my eyes in wonder. And as it started, I stood up to sing, and as I sang those lyrics “open up my eyes in wonder”, something amazing happened. I saw a vision appear before me. It wasn’t to my physical eyes, but it was more real than anything. It wasn’t an imagination or dream, it was something very real and overpoweringly so. It was a mass of bright light, so bright and intense, and I felt an overwhelming warmth and love coming from it. It was God. It was the same energy I had felt all along. What they called The Holy Spirit. I could feel His loving smile. It was so intense and bright, it was like pure concentrated love, so intense I could barely look at Him directly and it was hard to bear. It was like I had just made first contact with some extra-terrestrial being. I just felt very clearly that he loved me to an unbelievable degree, and was just pleased and delighted with me. This experience shook me to my core, and I felt close to panic but also incredibly amazed and blissful.
I found out that this wasn’t just something people chose to do with their lives, like one of the endless choices people could make about who they are or what they do. On the contrary, God chooses us. This is real. It’s not just another label we can stick on ourselves. God is real. This is why I became a Christian. I couldn’t not. God had always been here waiting, just waiting for us to pray to him and ask him the simple question, “Jesus, if you are real, please show me!” Because once someone does that, gets down on their knees and genuinely from the bottom of their heart, asks him that, the biggest adventure of their life begins.