In the top row of the second balcony at the Opera House in Blackpool, England, Hannah Jowle paused to take everything in.
The 21-year-old was wide-eyed and shocked at what she had experienced in her hometown over the three-day Lancashire Festival of Hope. A total of 9,000 people had packed into the Winter Gardens complex over three nights with hundreds making life-changing decisions for Christ.
The Church is alive.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “I’ve never seen this many people worship together.”
Franklin Graham, a worldwide evangelist, had come to the seaside tourist town near Manchester and Liverpool, despite stiff opposition from Blackpool activist groups. His mission, contrary to local media reports, was quite simple—to communicate the love of Jesus Christ.
“It’s not Franklin Graham that’s the cause of the dissent,” said Steve Haskett, executive co-chair for the Festival. “It’s the Gospel. The Gospel has always been controversial.”
Jowle heard about the bus ads yanked around town. She caught wind of the planned protests, which consisted of a few dozen people per night, dropping to single digits the final day. She wasn’t fazed.
“God loves them, just like He loves us,” she said, before defending Franklin Graham’s Biblical stances that often get labeled “hate speech.”
After all, she said, he’s offering anyone who will listen the best gift around—the Good News of Jesus Christ. Love wrapped in truth.
“He’s so blunt, but he’s so truthful,” Jowle said. “He’s not politically correct, but he speaks exactly what the Bible says.”
A longtime married couple from nearby Preston couldn’t agree more. Neil Towers and his wife, Gill, who served together as prayer volunteers all three nights, have seen a lot of changes in their country over the years.
They find Franklin Graham’s style remarkably refreshing in a world of shifting truth.
“He was on the BBC this morning and he was absolutely superb. He just stuck to the Gospel,” Neil said, reflecting on the wave of social issues dividing the church in the U.K. “Nobody wants to go on TV or the radio. We don’t have any big names that stand for Biblical values. It’s split many churches.”
Conversely, the Festival has had the exact opposite effect on the 200 churches and 1,300-plus individuals involved.
With every news report or social media campaign aimed at derailing the Festival or de-legitimizing Franklin Graham, the church countered with another prayer rally and renewed commitment to unite.
“God loves you” may have been the one thing Franklin Graham wanted people to remember, driving home this all-important fact each night. But “prayer works” may be the lesson that revives the Lancashire churches.
“It was brilliant,” said Haskett, the Festival co-chair who’s also vicar of nearby St John’s Church. “If you talk to any pastor or church leader, they’re grinning from ear to ear about what happened this weekend. It was a major breakthrough.”
Clearly energized by all the new believers, Haskett was more optimistic about the future of the church in Blackpool, Lancashire and even spreading to other parts of the United Kingdom. Sure, Michael W. Smith, Rend Collective, The Afters and Franklin Graham may have been the main draw for three nights, but it’s the hope of a changed England and revived believers that has churches steeped in anticipation.
“It’s like opening a tap,” Haskett said. “And the water is flowing in an area that was very dry ground.”
And all the controversy surrounding the event?
“It’s caused us to take a stand,” Haskett said of the Church. “The resolve and unity among the churches—it’s been absolutely inspirational to witness.”
Just like the story of Bartimaeus (found in Mark 10), about a blind man who had basically lost all hope, resorting to begging for his next meal.
“He’s just sitting there, hoping someone would drop in a coin or two,” Franklin said. “He doesn’t know Monday from Tuesday from Wednesday. Bartimaeus is hopeless.
“But he’s heard the news of this man from Nazareth. He’s heard rumors that He’s made the lame walk.”
So when Bartimaeus heard the commotion of Jesus making His way through the city, he called His name. Jesus stopped and gave him vision.
“He’s willing to stop for you,” Franklin said. “God will forgive you tonight. But you have to come through Jesus.”
So many people came forward, wanting to start anew with Christ, that the crowds swelled down the aisles.
Filling the front were men, women and children. Among them was a 53-year-old woman from Manchester who had walked away from God after 11 years as a nun. There was a young woman, invited by her co-worker in Southport, who was pregnant and looking for a new start. One middle-aged man, who drove nine hours roundtrip from Somerset in the south of England, came because his dad was saved at a Billy Graham event in the ’80s.
“He wanted to see what was so special about a Billy Graham event,” Gill Towers said. “Then he came forward and gave his life to Christ.”
Outside of the 9,000 who came to Blackpool’s Winter Gardens complex, nearly 50,000 watched the three-day event online.
“I don’t know the last time this many Christians worked together,” Haskett said. “Probably when Billy Graham came in the ’80s.
“I’m just really, really encouraged about what the Lord has done this weekend. My heart is full.”