Here's hoping superstar is born

The Hope City Church, operating from a Hilton Hotel, is aiming to change the face of worship in Leeds. Grant Woodward reports. IT is 11.30 on a wet Sunday morning in Leeds and in the third floor function room at the Hilton hotel a rock concert is in full swing.

Singer Dale Adkin, dressed in white open-neck shirt and sporting a trendy haircut and necklace, is belting out an uplifting anthem as his adoring audience sing along.

"All I want in this lifetime is You," they chorus, "all I want in this whole world is You."

As the music reaches a crescendo I steal a glance around the room.

People are leaping around with arms stretched to the heavens. Their eyes are closed but a look of joy fills their faces.

"Tell the world that Jesus lives," they sing, "tell the world that He lives again."

This isn't a rock concert after all. It's Sunday worship Hope City Church-style.

Moments earlier I had been chatting to the group's keyboard player, Dave Adam, a 23-year-old who has been with Hope City for 10 years.

His hair is dyed bright red at the front and he wears a garishly-patterned top. He wouldn't look out of place in a boy band.

"I was at a different church and it wasn't great," he had told me before going on stage. "It wasn't alive or vibrant.

Friendliness

"My mum was a lay reader and took a six-week sabbatical to go round different churches. Hope City was the first one we went to and we were like, 'Wow!'

"The main thing was the friendliness. You weren't just coming in, sitting in a pew and shuffling home again, people were interested in your life. They wanted something better for you."

Bass player Ed Overend, a 19-year-old student living in Headingley, agreed.

"It's such a fun atmosphere with the contemporary music and stuff. It steps away from the norm and looks again at the whole concept of how to do church."

Since being established in Sheffield in 1991 by Australian couple Dave and Jenny Gilpin, Hope City Church has spread to Manchester, Liverpool and, 15 months ago, to Leeds.

It is heavily influenced by the large, evangelical-style churches in Australia, the most successful being the Hillsong Network, to which Hope City belongs.

Hillsong was set up by another husband-and-wife team – Brian and Bobbie Houston – and is now the biggest independent church Down Under.

But while it revels in chart topping CDs and the beaming approval of some politicians, Hillsong tends to divide observers.

Some admire its material and spiritual success; others suspect a political agenda and worry about the church's financial arrangements which see its members encouraged to contribute as much as they can.

Hope City is nowhere near as big, but it has lofty ambitions.

It is seeking to establish Megacentres – large churches funded by their congregations – across the north of England and appears to harbour ambitions of playing a role in the political process.

"We want to get involved in society," Leeds pastor Chris Denham tells me later.

"We want to encourage and bless the government in Leeds and the councils, because we feel we've got some great principles on which we can build a great city.

"In Sheffield right now we have great relationships with the Liberal Democrat leader Paul Scriven, with the mayors, the mayoresses, the sheriffs and all those sort of people.

"It's fantastic because it gives an opportunity for them to be able to get an idea on how to do things based from a biblical standpoint.

"But I can't go up to a council leader and say: 'This is how you should run your city', until in some way we've shown that we love and we care for the city and the people.

"I think people only respond to you when they can see that your heart is 100 per cent behind supporting things."

This morning the first duty facing Denham, a 29-year-old North-Easterner with spiky gelled hair, is to welcome his congregation, which recently doubled in size thanks to a merger with the Chapeltown-based City of Life Church.

It means there are around 100 people at the Hilton today. They cover a broad range of ages and races, though the majority are white and aged between 18 and 30-something.

First on the agenda is Church News, which Denham announces to the accompaniment of TFI Friday-style whoops.

A stylishly-shot film featuring two young, camera-friendly church members appears on the white screen to the left of the stage.

Interspersed with clips of pop songs – including Save Me by rock band Embrace – the whole thing resembles a Saturday morning youth programme.

Trailers for Entrepreneurial School ("Launching tomorrow!"), a student night in Sheffield called Shoutlouder and Relentless Social ("A night of passionate prayer petitioning God on behalf of your church!") flash across the screen.

Also being plugged is Hope City College, which runs a media course teaching presenting skills.

It ends with the boy-girl duo revealing that yesterday marked the birthday of founder Dave Gilpin. The man himself is then shown in a lift, miming along to an easy listening-style song about Jesus.

The skit is greeted with gales of laughter by the Leeds congregation.

When Denham reappears it is to tell us that it is collection time, but unlike other churches there is no plate doing the rounds.

Instead, he encourages the congregation to let out a laugh as they put their donations into special envelopes.

"You can pay by cash, credit card, all that kind of stuff," he reminds them with a cheery grin.

His sermon this morning was inspired by a trip to the cinema with some mates to watch Super Size Me, the documentary which sees American Morgan Spurlock dine on nothing but McDonalds for a month.

"Afterwards I was joking around and thinking there must be some good that I can get out of having to sit through this movie," he tells his rapt audience.

"And God speaks to me out of this movie. He says, 'Well Chris, do you want to live a super size life? Or are you just prepared to live the mediocre?'

"Because you see God has a banquet table before you this morning. It's filled with steaks of finance, whole cheese platters of every kind of spiritualness, massive great juicy pavlovas of healing.

"God's abundance is incredible, but our trouble is we come up to the table and take just a little vol au vent of blessing.

"It's time for us to stop living in the back street of just enough," he implores us. "Let's live the Christian life super size!"

After the service, Denham and I chat over orange juice in the Hilton's coffee lounge.

He, his Polish-born wife Gosia and young son Joel have just moved to Leeds from Sheffield and are currently trying to sort through the piles of removal boxes at their new home in Halton.

You might expect a young dad with so much going on to show signs of stress, but Denham is resoundingly upbeat.

"It's exciting," he says, "I'm really loving Leeds, it's just a fantastic city."

I tell him how struck I was by the enthusiasm on show during this morning's service.

"We've got a good reason to be enthusiastic," he replies. "For us Jesus is flippin' brilliant.

"If all you do is stand there and look like nothing has happened in your life and yet what you read in the bible is incredible, if that's true, then I think it should reflect on your face. It should show.

"We build a culture that's enthusiastic because we're trying to draw something out of people, because actually God's better than the 11 men on a football field or the biggest rock band in the world.

"What God has done is incredible, so let's give Him some real good praise and enjoy ourselves."

Denham was first introduced to Hope City while studying at bible college just outside Sheffield.

He loved it and worked as a student pastor in the city with his wife from 1997 right up to October last year, when they became congregational pastors in Leeds.

Services

As from next month, he will be closing his graphic design business and working full time for the church, helping out with designing duties while leading the Sunday services in Leeds.

It will be the first time he has drawn a salary from the church but insists it won't be much. "It's a nice little basic," he smiles. "Nothing extortionate."

Denham is aware that outsiders may view Hope City's pragmatic approach to finance with suspicion but he says it's the only way that the church can play a positive role in society.

Last May, the church launched a fundraising drive which saw its members pledge 1m over the next three years.

They are selling items from their attic on eBay, setting up businesses or, like Denham and his wife, buying properties to rent out.

Some are giving a couple of hundred pounds over the three years, others 50,000.

"But we're not there to pilfer people's pockets and drain their savings," says Denham. "We don't want people remortgaging their houses and getting into debt."

He refers to a passage in the bible, Deuteronomy 18:18, that says God has blessed us with the ability to create wealth.

"As humans we're entrepreneurial, which is how you get your Donald Trumps and Richard Bransons.

"So we're just tapping into that, encouraging people and teaching them to make use of their money. That's why we're putting on an entrepreneurial school, so we can train people to do it properly."

He insists that the church is transparent when it comes to its finances; every penny is accounted for.

"There are no secrets," he says. "We're a charity, so we have to be accountable."

Among the projects funded by these contributions is a seven-bed centre in Sheffield for young women facing problems such as unplanned pregnancies, eating disorders, depression and addictions.

There are plans to create similar shelters across the North, along with a 2,000-seat auditorium in Sheffield and a Christian-based school specialising in the performing arts.

The church also organises community activities including mums and tots groups, litter picks and deliveries of free food to the needy.

What drives Denham on is his conviction that Hope City can make a difference.

"I think people are missing out on something," he tells me. "If you go back to the Christian values this country was built on we've lost a lot of what we had.

"I believe there's a right and wrong in things, a black and white. But at the moment we're all just getting lost in the grey fuzz."

And the message Hope City is trying to get across?

"I think our message is: 'Let's bring it back to reality and let's build our society on what it was originally meant to be built on.'"

Chris Denham smiles.

"There's no deception here," he says, "there's no ulterior motive behind it.

"We're just 100 per cent loving people who want to make other people's lives better."

l Hope City Church meets at the Hilton hotel, Neville Street, Leeds, at 11.30am each Sunday. For more information visit www.hopecity.co.uk.

grant.woodward@ypn.co.uk