Writhing on his bedroom floor, his mind and body wracked with pain from a solvent abuse blackout, Andy Elmes said a quiet, desperate prayer, ‘God, if you’re there, help me.’
Now 52, the man standing on stage in front of hundreds of worshippers at Family Church, is a world away from the young man who feared he would die from the unrelenting daily cocktail of drink and drugs he was taking to escape his unhappiness.
I honestly didn’t know if I was alive or in heaven. ‘After my prayer, there was no lightning bolt or thunderclap, but something changed inside me.
Many will know Andy Elmes as the founder and senior pastor of Family Church.
Each Sunday the father-of -five joins more than 1,500 others at venues across the south where they join together in uplifting worship of the Holy Spirit.
To look at Andy, who lives in Portsmouth with his wife Gina, you would be hard-pushed to imagine the life he had before he returned to God and founded Family Church.
Andy explains: ‘My parents’ marriage fell apart and, in desperation, my father prayed. As a result my mother returned and they went to church together. They had a brilliant marriage from then on, until my mother’s death.
‘Before that, no one in our family had any Christianity.
‘We ran a fruit and veg shop in Cosham High Street. I left school with no qualifications and worked in the shop.
‘But, from the ages of 16-24, I went wild.’
Andy says he turned his back on the church and walked into the pub.
At first, his drinking was sociable. He was considered a lovable rogue.
But, gradually, a dependence kicked in, and he was in the grip of alcoholism.
He says: ‘I lived in the pub and my drinking spun out of control.
‘I was experimenting with drugs and doing crazy things. I’d go on benders for days. I was unstable, I couldn’t hold down a relationship, I wasn’t trustworthy.
‘I got involved in stealing. Once you’ve lost your way morally, you do things you wouldn’t normally do. I was aggressive, I was always in trouble. The only reason I didn’t end up in prison is because I didn’t get caught.
‘I was a lot of fun to be around but I wasn’t a nice person. My life was spiralling downwards, when it should have been spiralling up.’
Andy’s parents saw the huge change in their son’s personality and prayed daily for him.
One night, aged 24, Andy reached breaking point. He’d just come round from a blackout brought on by solvent abuse.
He has no idea how long he was unconscious, only that he was utterly lost.
In desperation he said a prayer, ‘God, if you’re there, help me.’
‘I opened my eyes after having blacked out for hours and saw a stream of light coming through the window. I honestly didn’t know if I was alive or in heaven.
‘After my prayer, there was no lightning bolt or thunderclap, but something changed inside me.
‘The next morning I woke up with an incredible peace that I could not remember feeling in years.’
Andy went to a prayer meeting at a Pentecostal church with his mother, Maureen, and at the end of the meeting the speaker gave the congregation the opportunity to ‘give their life to God.’
He says: ‘I remember praying, “It’s all or nothing, I can’t live two lives any more”.’
From then on the desire to drink lessened, he felt happy in his own company and no longer craved a crowd to entertain. Andy adds: ‘I had begun a relationship with the creator God which was very personal and very real and I felt incredibly loved.’
Aged 27, Andy went to America for a three-month Bible study mission. He ended up staying for four years, having met his wife Gina and worked in drug rehabilitation in the Bronx and with inner-city children.
Andy says of that time, ‘It was quite an eye-opener for a fruit and veg salesman’.
And, just like he’d been called to New York, he felt the call to come home. In 1993 he became an Evangelist, travelling around the UK and Africa and Israel, using England as his base.
But, while driving through Portsmouth, he felt he was again being called upon to make a difference.
He says: ‘It began with 12 of us at Buckland Community Centre . We never planned to have multiple congregations but God said to me, “a church of 1,000”. When you start with only 12 people you need a very good imagination.’
Today Family Church has congregations across the south and 1,500 worshippers.
Looking back on his younger days Andy says: ‘That’s a different person, a different life.
‘I have been through many storms since but there has always been this constant joy and peace that gives me a rest – that’s down to knowing God.’
WHAT IS FAMILY CHURCH?
Portsmouth services for Family Church take place at Portsmouth Academy, Fratton, on Sundays at 10am and 12.15pm.
But there are family churches across the area – Leigh Park, Gosport, Waterside, Guildford and even ones aimed at students.
It is a Pentecostal church and focuses on uplifting worship of the Holy Spirit. As well as worship sessions with live music, the church does a lot of outreach work from the Empower Centre, in Kingston Road, Buckland.
Volunteers deliver food, clothing and bedding to homeless people during the week and offer a food bank from the Empower Centre.
There are summer fun days throughout the community with the biggest, Havant Fun Day, attracting more than 8,000 people last year.
Founder Andy Elmes says: ‘We understand that people find it hard coming when you meet in the school.
‘We don’t want to say they can come and see us on Sunday. We say, “how can we step into your world and make it easier?”.
‘We don’t want to be trapped in buildings.
‘We want people to see the church in the community.
‘There are areas where people have need, spiritually and physically.
‘We can’t do everything but we do our best.’
Go to family.church.